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'Disconnected children' mean nature is at risk

17 October 2012

Wendy Johnson
Media Officer

We've developed a brand new approach to measure how connected children are to nature, working with leading academics at the University of Essex.

It comes as a result of growing concerns over generations of children with little or no contact with the natural world and wildlife, which is one of the biggest threats to UK nature. 

This new approach will be used with eight to 12-year olds across the UK to create the first ever baseline of children’s connection to nature, to be announced next spring and measured again in two years time.

Mike Clarke, RSPB Chief Executive, says; 'This is ground-breaking stuff. It's widely accepted that today's children have less contact with nature than ever before, but until now there has been no robust scientific attempt to measure and track connection to nature among children in the UK, which means the problem hasn’t been given the attention it deserves.

'Without the opportunity and encouragement to get outdoors and connect with nature, children are missing out on so many benefits that previous generations have enjoyed, and it's putting the future of our wildlife and natural environment at risk.'

The new approach explores children's empathy for creatures, responsibility for nature, enjoyment of nature experiences and sense of 'oneness' with nature. We are calling for the Coalition Government to adopt this as their official indicator for whether their efforts to improve connection to nature are having an impact.

Evidence shows that the proportion of children playing out in natural spaces has dropped by as much as 75 per cent over the last thirty to forty years. This is despite the proven positive effects that contact with the natural World has on children’s physical and mental health, personal and social development, and even academic achievements and life chances. If the decline in connection continues the consequences for wildlife and people could be catastrophic, as children who don’t value and respect nature when they’re young are less likely to see the importance of protecting the natural environment when they're older.

Rachel Bragg has been leading the work at the University of Essex. She says; 'It's vital that we understand how a child’s experience of nature influences their feelings of connection to the natural world as this will affect future behaviour towards the environment. The study we’ve developed with the RSPB will help us measure this connection and will give us the first baseline data for children in the UK.'

Mike Clarke continues; 'Children's lack of contact with nature is a serious problem, but it isn't an unsolvable one. If the Government, parents, schools, the RSPB, and other like-minded people and organisations all work together we can make real changes in the relationship between young people and nature, for the benefit of both.'


High-res images to support this story are available.  To access images of children connecting with nature, please click on the hyperlink below and then enter the user name and password when prompted.

User Name: RSPB

Password: getoutdoors


1.       In September 2012, a global meeting of conservation leaders worldwide adopted a resolution recognising the importance of the “Child’s Right to Connect with Nature and to a Healthy Environment.” The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) resolution calls on government members and non-government organisations to promote and actively contribute to the international acknowledgement and codification of this right within the framework of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

2.      The approach is based on the Children’s Affective Attitude to Nature Scale developed by Judith Cheng and Martha Monroe and published in the journal Environment and Behavior in January 2012.  It measures children’s connection to nature: their empathy for creatures, responsibility for nature, enjoyment of nature experiences and sense of ‘oneness’ with nature. 

3.      In June 2011, the Coalition Government launched the Natural Environment White Paper, which included contains an ambition and recommendations “to strengthen the connections between people and nature.”[page 44] In July 2012, the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee recommended “that Defra set a firm target for increasing public engagement with nature, such as the percentage of children of primary school age regularly engaging in nature activities.”

4.      Natural England. 2009. Childhood and Nature: a survey with changing relationships across generations.

The RSPB is part of the Natural Childhood Partnership - an exciting movement to bring about real change in the relationship between young people and nature.  Other partners include the National Trust, Play England, the National Health Service Sustainability Unit, Arla Foods and Green Lions Films.

The RSPB is grateful for the support of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in enabling this work to be undertaken, and informing developments in this important area. The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation is supporting the RSPB research into measuring children’s connection to nature under its Environment theme, which aims to help in the development of a society which benefits from a more sustainable relationship with the natural world and understands the value of its resources. As an international charitable foundation with cultural, educational, social and scientific interests, based in Lisbon with branches in London and Paris, the Foundation is in a privileged position of being able to address national and transnational issues and to act as an ‘exchange’ for ideas. The purpose of the UK Branch, based in London, is to help enrich and connect the experiences of people in the UK and Ireland and secure lasting, beneficial change.

The RSPB has been providing opportunities for children to engage with, learn about and help save nature for over 100 years.  Every year, thousands of children engage with nature with the RSPB, including 50,000 schoolchildren who visit our outdoor learning centres across the UK. 100,000 children take part in our Big and Little Schools’ Birdwatches in their school grounds. We also have over 200,000 junior members, including more than 40,000 teenagers and In 2010, the RSPB’s Every Child Outdoors report brought together research about the wide benefits to children of being connected to nature

Founded nearly fifty years ago, the University of Essex is ranked in the top ten universities in the UK for the quality of our research and in the top twenty mainstream English universities for student satisfaction. It is one of the most internationally diverse campus-based universities in Britain, with more than one third of its 11,000 students coming from outside the UK.




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