During childhood, getting little ones outside and into nature rarely needs much persuasion. Younger kids are happy exploring outside and absorbing all of the sights, textures, sounds and beauty of the natural world. Coming along on camping trips, beach visits or woodland walks. But as they advance to their pre-teen years, and get ever closer to becoming young adults, they tend to drift away from nature, losing that sense of wonder and curiosity.
An eye-opening study by the Nature Connectedness group at the University of Derby found that from the age of 11 there’s a sharp decline in young people’s connection to the natural world.
They found that this relationship often isn’t repaired until age 30! So from age 11 to 30, young people are missing out on the benefits that nature can bring.
Things seem to change as young people move from primary to secondary school. So what’s happening?
Why do young people fall out of love with nature?
There can be many different reasons at play. But generally, as kids move up into secondary school, they’re more likely to become focused on self-identity. Who they are, and how they fit into the world.
An awareness of peer pressure, screen time, and the change in social relationships is thought to be responsible for the drastically sharp decline in how connected they feel to nature.
Through peer pressure, nature is often no longer seen as ‘cool’
Increased screen time decreases time spent outdoors
Development of self-identity (greater interest in the self) means interest in nature may lose priority and relevance
Family time and general time outdoors may lessen in favour of wifi and screen time, alongside building new social relationships.
This loss can have an impact, not only on their life, but the wider world too. Studies have shown that a strong nature connection leads to improved mental health. But it also determines how pro-environmental they’re likely to be too.
How to keep older kids connected to nature
With a steep rise in young people needing mental health support over the last decade, and a changing climate, it’s crucial for young people to maintain a close connection to nature. Especially as they enter their teenage years and adulthood.
Here are 6 ways you can help the younger people in your life maintain their connection with nature!
1. Nurture outdoor interests and skills
Encouraging and supporting early interests and hobbies can help to maintain older kid’s interest in nature. Whether it’s gardening, geocaching, photography, butterfly id’ing, or birding, nurture their interest in any activities or sports that they love.
Help them find resources, guides or books to further their skills. Citizen science projects like the RSPB Garden Bird Watch or Big Butterfly Count can be a great option too. Recording their own data and contributing to national projects gives them responsibility and a feeling of contributing to something important.
Is the outdoors cool?
Without a doubt! But one issue that often creeps up for older kids is a view that their interests or the outdoors is no longer seen as relevant or ‘cool’. An early interest in butterflies or insects may fade away if they find that their peers don’t share the same enthusiasm.
It’s important to remind them that their interests are valid and important, no matter what their peers may think.
Another option is to look to more technical outdoor sports or hobbies that require more responsibility. Activities like rock climbing, mountain biking or surfing may appeal more to older kids as there’s a layer of risk (daring and risk unfortunately often equals ‘cool’!).
2. Help them find meaning in nature
One of the pathways to nature connection (created by the Nature Connectedness Group) is to find meaning in nature.
This can happen in many ways, but some ideas include:
Talking about nature and sharing stories about what it means to you and to them. Ask them deeper questions about how nature makes them feel when outside. Talk about your favourite flowers, trees or bird calls. Noticing nature and bringing it into conversations and daily life can increase their connection to nature.
Celebrating nature-themed events at home can help them tune into the changing seasons of the natural world. Natural events like the summer solstice could be celebrated with a special family meal. Annual traditions cement their connection to nature and can influence them as they move through life, into university and their own home.
3. Encourage them to join a camp, class or course
Outdoor courses are a great way for older kids to engage with more extreme or challenging activities in a guided environment.
This year we've partnered with Outward Bound UK who offer summer trips and expeditions for young people (aged 10-22) for older kids to immerse themselves in the outdoors while building essential life skills.
Staying away from home, completing tasks as a team, and learning new skills are all great ways to help young people develop their confidence. Plus, they’ll meet new like-minded friends outside of school!
Getting outside into nature and exploring and experiencing different scenery provides them with their own link to the natural world.
4. Join a weekly club!
If they enjoyed the experience and opportunities of an outdoors course, they may also be interested in signing up to weekly sessions at a club! See if there are local clubs, talks, shows they could attend in relation to their outdoors interest.
From boating and kayaking to tennis and mountaineering. With weekly meet-ups, they’ll regularly engage in activities throughout the seasons, and bond with other young people who share their interests. The Scouts or Guides is another great option!
5. Try not to nag
Allow them to find their own path. As they begin to take on responsibility for their own interests and life, there’s only so much nudging and guidance you can provide.
Instead of insisting that they have to do certain activities, give them options, let them decide, and…
6. Lead by example
While older kids are more likely to go off on their own and find their own path, adding more nature filled activities into your own life or family time can inspire them to do the same.
Maybe you could minimise your own screen time, and rekindle the passion for an outdoor hobby that may have faded into the background!
As a society, actively engaging with nature on a more regular basis paves the way for young people to follow in our footsteps.