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Some children find spending time in nature ‘distressing’ over climate change triggers

While most children benefit from having time outdoors, for some youngsters it is triggering feelings of anxiety and despair due to fears over climate change. 

These ‘troubling emotions’ and their link to climate change have been studied by University of Colombia researchers for the British Ecological Society.

In the first of its kind study to focus on children and teenagers connecting with nature, the team conducted a full review of other studies, articles and books.

Children and teenagers were triggered by the natural world and their inability to control what was happening to the ‘unravelling biosphere’, the team said. 

The authors found that measures currently used to connect children to the natural world can help others cope with feelings of fear linked to climate change. 

Within the past generation children’s lives have largely moved indoors with the loss of free-ranging exploration of the natural world, the team said.

‘In response, many conservation organisations advocate connecting children with nature, and there has been rising interest in measuring young people’s connectedness with nature,’ authors wrote. 

The review found that connecting with nature has many positive benefits for the wellbeing of a young person including improving health and happiness.

However, it wasn’t universally positive, according to study author Dr Louise Chawla, who said connecting with nature was a ‘complex experience’ for many teenagers. 

Many children know they are inheriting a changing world that is likely to get worse and this leads them to feelings of anxiety and despair, said Chawla.

That doesn’t mean it was all bad news, the team say that despite the strong emotions, there are significant benefits from being outdoors more often. 

‘There is strong evidence that children are happier, healthier, function better, know more about the environment, and are more likely to take action to protect the natural world when they spend time in nature,’ Chawla said.

Several studies found that children’s connection with nature increased with time spent in natural environments.

This new study, which involved multiple pieces of literature, found time spent in the great outdoors was a ‘predictor’ for active care for nature in adulthood.

The findings support strategies and policies that ensure that young people have access to wild areas, parks, gardens, green neighbourhoods, and naturalised grounds at schools, the team said. 

For those who are triggered when out in nature by the feeling of despair they ‘can’t fix climate change’ that despair reduces the chance they’ll take any action.

The review found an ‘overlap’ in the strategies used to increase children’s feelings of connection with nature and supporting them with the feelings of despair. 

Professor Chawla said that these strategies include helping young people learn what they can do to protect the natural world.

This is working both as individuals and working collectively with others, she said. 

The Research covered in the review found that young people are more likely to believe a better world is possible when friends, family and teachers listen sympathetically to their fears and give them a safe space to share their emotions.

Chawla said that one of the most surprising findings from the review was the ‘complete disconnect’ between researchers studying the benefits of childhood connection to nature and those studying responses to environmental threats.

She added: ‘People who study children’s connection with nature and those who study their coping with environmental risk and loss have been pursuing separate directions without referencing or engaging with each other.

‘I am arguing that researchers on both sides need to be paying attention to each other’s work and learning from each other’.

The findings have been published in the journal People and Nature. 

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