Interest–action gap

Americans face a significant gap between their interests in nature and their efforts, abilities, and opportunities to pursue those interests in their lives.

Image of woman looking out window at sunset

Five major forces disconnect adults and children from nature in daily life.

  1. Places where people live, work, and go to school generally discourage contact with the natural world.
  2. Competing priorities for time, attention, and money prevent contact with nature from becoming routine.
  3. Declining direct dependence on the natural world for livelihoods and subsistence allows Americans to orient their lives towards other things.
  4. New technologies, especially electronic media, distract and captivate.
  5. Shifting expectations about what “good” contact to nature ought to be mean adults are generally satisfied with the relatively little time they spend outdoors in nature.

Some groups — especially minorities, younger adults, and urban and suburban residents — encounter additional barriers, including discomfort being outdoors alone, a lack of financial resources, and a lack of social support, such as adults to accompany children outside or friends to encourage other adults to make time for nature.

Pay close attention to—and respond to—adult Americans’ existing concerns about younger generations’ disconnection from nature

The gap between a general interest in nature and a connection to nature is not something foreign to adults. In each of the focus groups we conducted, by far the most poignant moments occurred when we asked how interest in nature today compared with interest in the past. Middle- and older-aged adults expressed deep concern that American society in general and younger generations in particular are disconnected from nature. In particular, older adults were concerned that younger generations are overly reliant on electronic media, unaware of how the natural world works, and unacquainted with the simple enjoyment of being outdoors.

Adults in our study were not calling for merely another recreational or educational program. Alleviating their concerns and fulfilling their desires to give younger generations the same opportunities they had requires a profound restructuring of how we as a society live our lives. We urge members of various sectors to listen closely to how particular communities and groups experience disconnection from nature—and how they seek to adjust their lifestyles in response.

Emphasize regular, recurrent, and routine engagement with nature, the outdoors, and wildlife

Our research indicates that occasional contact with the natural world is insufficient to instill in children and adults the curiosity, wonder, and connection needed for nature to become a meaningful part of their lives. Securing the benefits of nature requires that contact with it to become a repeated and recurrent part of lives at home, school, work, and at play. We see an opening to promote making contact with nature habitual—a more routine part of daily and weekly life, rather than a once-a-month, once-a-year, or even a once-a-lifetime activity.

For adults and children, promote nature not only as a place for experiences, but also as a place for involvement and care

Experiences in nature are the actual activities people do in the natural world—the time they spend outside or the trips or activities they undertake. Connections to nature are different: They involve a sense of being connected to a place, to an unforgettable memory outdoors, or to a particular species. This connection often instills a sense of responsibility and commitment toward the natural world. For adults and children in our study, connection seemed to emerge when nature was not passively enjoyed but, rather, was something to be involved in via exploration, care and responsibility, observation, learning, and familiarity with a particular landscape.

We therefore encourage the conservation and environmental communities to continue their efforts to promote a deep connection with nature via highly engaging activities like hunting and fishing. But we also encourage these communities to find additional ways, including enhancing activities at more curated places like parks, zoos, and aquariums. We recommend providing opportunities for adults and children to take responsibility for the natural world in places and ways that are appropriate to the contexts and settings where they live, work, and play (such as classrooms, play areas, yards, offices, living rooms, parks, gardens, and more). This could involve planting and caring for native plants not only during early childhood, but also during adolescence and into adulthood and older age. This could also involve efforts to create habitats for birds in suburban environments, community gardens in both urban and rural areas, and a multitude of other possibilities.