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Fostering positive youth development in nature spaces

Rebecca-Meyer.jpgIn his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv used the term "nature-deficit disorder" to describe the alarming lack of connection between American youth and their natural environments. Other researchers have documented the multiple ways this nature-disconnect is contributing to negative outcomes for children. An article in the popular Sports Illustrated describes Americans as becoming "indoor people".

Today, lots of nature program efforts are focused on this "nature-deficit." However, I wonder how we can make the most of these beneficial nature settings for youth. How can we use nature settings or nature spaces to cultivate positive youth development?

A growing body of research links youth exposure to nature settings with a variety of positive personal and environmental impacts. Studies have suggested that natural spaces can contribute to positive outcomes via a variety of factors -- sense of health, sense of well-being, sense of place, sense of community -- related to positive youth development.

youth-nature.jpgThese ideas are well established, by writers such as Chawla, McMillan & Chavis, and Sobel. Indeed, researchers have described nature spaces as part of the very "geography of childhood", the setting where they create "sacred spaces."

My interest in the role of nature spaces for positive youth development was sparked early in my career, and provided focus for my graduate study. My thesis, Effects of Green Space on Urban Children's Sense of Community, explored the relationship of green space with youth interactions. Using an ethnographic approach, I documented elements in local park spaces that encouraged youth to come together, and play freely, even when they did not know each other beforehand.

I observed how these qualities of the nature space enriched youths' sense of community. For example, one park encompassed a stream with two natural waterfalls. One that cascaded through the space and provided a natural waterslide for youth play. I witnessed youth using it as a slide, meeting other children for the first time, developing and teaching 'rules' of the slide, and welcoming others. At the other slide, I saw older youth "hiding" among the higher rocks for close conversation, and welcoming newcomers into swimming and games of fetch and retrieval.

Nature spaces can be a powerful setting in which we can provoke positive youth development, given right mix of nature elements and programming.

In April, I will be presenting a webinar on the role of natural spaces in as a place for positive youth development. As I build my presentation, I am gathering ideas from others. In your experience or in your opinion, how can we best use natural spaces as a setting to catalyze positive youth development? What are some methods you use to make the most of nature space for positive youth development?

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  1. I believe that every neighborhood, school and park should have a nature play area or an area of natural landscape for exploration; not mowed, not groomed and with water and soil for children to scoop and smell. Children are instinctively drawn like magnets to such areas and interact with one another more positively than on traditional playgrounds. I belive that every after school program and child care center should incorporate nature exploration into their daily programs. With increased access to natural landscapes within neighborhoods and communities, youth programs, schools child care centers and families would all have more opportunities to experience nature on some scale and children can only benefit from that.
    The challenge lies in getting children and adults to turn off the technology for awhile and open the door to the outside world. Sadly, there are many families that do not have the willpower or wisdom to make this happen. So for many children, it is up to the schools, child care centers, and after-school program providers to help them experience nature.
    So how can we encourage these organizations to do this? Experience shows us that curriculum will only sit on shelves collecting dust. Activity trunks become too much of a burden to reserve and return. I envision more naturalist programs that are sponsored and developed by outside organizations, that come to the schools, child care centers and after-school programs to implement nature activities and exploration. It must be easy and affordable, preferably free, for the sites and fun and empowering for the children involved.

  2. I highly recommend the article, Nature and the life course: Pathways from childhood nature experiences to adult environmentalism (Wells & Lekies, 2006). This article contributes to the significant life experience and environmental connectedness literature with a large sample of the general population (2000 adults living in urban areas throughout the US). One of the key outcomes of the study was specific empirical support for early experience with nature as part of a trajectory toward environmentalism.
    I really appreciate Ms. Grover's comments above which point to the importance of access--proximate access to unstructured green space to provide free play access. This topic of access is an important one, we need to address the 'disconnect' problem by not simply insisting that kids need to be outside more...we need to look at what kind of access they have to safe and engaging spaces. A great resource to consider urban youth access to greenspace in the US is the work of the Trust for Public Land.
    I look forward to the webinar!

  3. When I think of how I experienced nature as a young person, I recall enjoying both "alone time" and time connecting with other youth and family members - and that both were really important to how I developed as a person. Also, it seems that while our youth organizations tend to create structured interaction with nature, we all know how important unstructured play in nature is as well. So I believe that we need to have lots of opportunities that vary in these characteristics. A really interesting research project (or maybe it's been done already!) would be to discover how youth benefit from variations in these (just alone, unstructured time; combination of unstructured alone and connected, structured time; etc.
    I look forward to everyone's comments!

  4. This continues to be such an important facet of how American children and their upbringing has changed. It is absolutely crucial to assure our future generations have strong, heart-felt connections to the outdoors and nature. When quizzing people identified as having a strong environmental or outdoor ethic, they often cite a mentor, e.g. a parent, aunt, grandparent who greatly influenced them as a youth. If our future mentors (our current young people) don't have that connection, we just created a critical break in the chain.
    At Wolf Ridge we've learned from researchers and have seen it repeatedly reinforced that people often learn in two ways: semantic and episodic. Semantic is the knowledge they discover or are taught by our teachers. Episodic is episodes of experience with which they simply experience something that is emotional and strongly connected to them. Episodic learning leaves a story behind. They can link semantic learning more effectively with their life when they combine it with episodic. This is the powerful learning that takes place at places like WR but also takes place in a city park, at the grandparent's cabin, on a school field trip, etc.
    It is crucial that we provide direct and authentic experiences in the outdoors where children can create an experience, preferably directed by them, that leaves them a memory and a story to tell. It can be of adventure, misfortune, amazement, yet out in a wild natural area provides value development that is critical to the future ethics of that child, which becomes the future ethics of our society.

  5. Andrea Lorek StraussJanuary 12, 2012 at 7:46 AM

    Youth development programs can really lead the way in changing the culture around unstructured play and play in natural spaces. So many adults assume that unstructured play is a waste of time, but when youth programs role model the many good outcomes that come from it, parents will start getting on board. I just read about the Cincinnati Nature Center's new nature "playscape," a 1.6 acre play environment intentionally designed to engage children in nature. It looks like so much fun...*I* want to play there! ( Maybe youth programs could use these types of spaces as a figurative (and literal!) stepping stone to re-teaching how to play in nature. I would be very interested to see the results of the research Heidi Haugen suggests above.
    I want to highlight the essential role youth development programs play in helping children develop an affinity for nature, regardless of the nature-based experiences children may be getting at home. In my own experience, my family afforded me the opportunity to play at length in the wooded park areas near our home, but it wasn't until I experienced nature through scouting and had great role models with whom I could identify that nature really got "under my skin." It was there I developed an identity, separate from but supported (mostly) by my family, of being someone who likes being outdoors and cares about the environment.
    Youth programs recognize the power they have to influence value systems and healthy choices for youth and families. The benefits of unstructured play in nature can be one more of those valuable healthy choices they can role model.

  6. As a counselor and nature center director at a YMCA camp in the early '80's I had a boy who today would be diagnosed as being ADHD. He struggled in so many ways. The afternoon I met him in the woods we spent an incredible hour looking under leaf litter, wading in the creek and sipping water from a seep (nobody died!). In that environment he was focused, aware and conversational. He was with us at camp for a week and I still wonder if he had nature opportunities in his day-to-day life away from camp where he could shed the labels put on him the from the rest of the world.

  7. There seems to be agreement that access to nature spaces and experiences in nature are beneficial for people. As Chawla and others have reported, access is particularly important in the early years of development. I don't recall if research has compared the impacts of free play in nature versus organized experiences. My sense is that free play in nature and experiences initiated by the individual lead to the most significant nature experiences.
    Can others comment from a research and/or personal perspective?

  8. II find this post provocative because Becky is so situated at the nexus of multiple, interrelated fields - youth development, recreation/outdoor education, and environmental education. In many ways, these fields each pursue separate critical outcomes (e.g., developing environmental literacy and responsibility in my home field of environmental education), but nature spaces are literally a common ground. It therefore seems like collective efforts to increase access and effective design of these spaces could amplify outcomes across the fields. Moreover, I think it may be beneficial to explore how we can operationalize our intersections (e.g., how do youth development principles/outcomes/models relate to those in environmental education and outdoor recreation).
    Regarding Becky's call for methods: I agree with Tom and others that we need to give attention to proximity and access to these spaces. Within the spaces, I suggest a look at Larson's UMD Thesis on complex play in nature settings for young children. It seems like the elements that engender this kind of play may catalyze the kinds of interactions that Becky observed during her thesis study. Robin Moore's work on the design of nature play spaces may also describe some of these elements. Regarding programming, I am interested in the potential for using approaches that trend higher on Hart's Ladder of Participation. For example, nature spaces are particularly ripe for youth-driven service-learning - an approach well-suited to positive youth development.
    Finally, I think it would be interesting to try mapping the viability of nature spaces given many of the different constructs that commentators have surfaced - potential to enter alone and in groups, free choice and structured play/programming, early childhood and youth engagement.... Wonder if anyone is aware of this line of research?
    I too look forward to the webinar, and the ongoing commentary. It would be great to find more forums to continue this trans-disciplinary conversation.

  9. Hi Becky, Lot's of great comment and insight started from this blog entry, I especially like the comment by Peter relating to design of learning so that the participants can create and direct their learning experiences.
    The literature shows that nature-based learning, both formal and non-formal, aids in critical brain development, impacts science test scores and develops the next generation of conservation minded citizens and leaders.
    Your point at getting to the "how" of using the spaces and designing relevant strategies deserves careful thought as we look at the tried and true methods of outdoor connections and 21st century avenues that unplugged kids from their indoor technology, while at the same time integrating some of their technology into nature based learning experiences.
    The Horizon report highlights annually the state of technology advancement and it's potential impact on education. It is a good snapshot into the real world view of the technology influences on today's youth.
    Some of our work with native youth is proving out that when we intentionally infuse appropriate technology tools into the outdoor learning process, time on task, depth of learning and interest in ongoing nature based learning experiences are of high interest to participants.

  10. Extreme SEO Internet SolutionsDecember 29, 2013 at 7:50 AM

    Fabulous post Rebecca, keep it up :)

  11. Houston Safe and LockJanuary 3, 2014 at 9:18 AM

    Thanks for giving me some help with this article. My daughter has Nature Deficit Disorder. She would rather stay home with her little electronic devices than go take a walk with me in the woods. All of her friends are like that too. They are all about 14 years old. It's a tough situation for me.

  12. coin buyers los angelesJanuary 6, 2014 at 7:25 AM

    For those of us who like camping, this is an excellent way to get children involved in nature. My son is 10 and I have been taking him camping (and hiking) since he was 2 years old. It's a bit of time and work to load up the truck, set up camp, re-load the truck, go home and unload the truck but we have had many awesome camping experiences over the years.


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