Where nature is located

Adults and children differ in where they locate unforgettable, authentic nature

Boy climbing tree

For children, nature is located quite literally right out the door. Special places outdoors and unforgettable memories often consist of back yards or nearby woods, creeks, and gardens. Adults also describe nature as consisting of the trees, beaches, animals, flowers, and lakes near where they live. But in contrast to children, adults tend to set a high and even impossible standard for what they perceive to be “authentic” and “pure” nature, believing that it requires solitude and travel to faraway places, which reinforces their perceptions of the inaccessibility of nature.

Carefully consider how different sectors promote what “good” connection with nature is or ought to be

Many of the experiences portrayed in television programming, marketing campaigns, magazines, and billboards are those that few Americans will be able to do even once in their lifetimes. Even visiting national parks or national wildlife refuges are rare events for most people. Different sectors (especially the conservation and environmental communities) ought to assure Americans that the natural world does not need to be completely untouched or remote to be “authentic”—nor does exposure to nature require vast amounts of time and income. It is important to note that promoting connections need not be mutually exclusive with conserving more distant places or wildlife: our research provides no evidence that Americans base their perceptions of what should be conserved by evaluating whether they will have the opportunity to visit that place. The public values iconic sites, and they value experiences there, but Americans also believe they ought to be able to incorporate nature into their daily lives in ways that do not require large amounts of travel, time, and money.

Deepen local experiences in nature near home

Most children’s contact with nature, including unforgettable times outdoors and the experience of special places in the natural world, occurs close to home. Given that children do spend most of their time near their home and school, experiences there should provide opportunity for doing the things in which children already express interest — for example, climbing trees, exploring woods, and learning about the natural world through firsthand observation. Open spaces, parks, playgrounds, backyards, and schoolyards should provide more opportunities for unstructured play and exploration. Given that adults tend to think of “pure” or “authentic” nature as geographically distant, more engaging experiences close to home could help to bring out the beauty, wonder, and complexity of the natural world around them.

For children and adults, use geographically local or familiar activities as a bridge to geographically distant or unfamiliar activities

People tend to want to do what they already know how to do. Expanding interest and participation, then, requires using existing interests in familiar activities as bridges into new activities. Both children and adults expressed high interest in visiting places like zoos and aquariums that teach, allow for exploration, and promote social interactions. These nature-education centers can serve as gateways and entry points to activities outside of those places. This further suggests the importance of training and providing teachers, docents, and interpretive guides who can interact successfully with a diverse range of audiences to spark interest and participation and who can provide suggestions to parents of ways to encourage involvement at home through, for example, the care of special plants or animals. Furthermore, we suggest that programs use overlapping interests between children and adults to promote inter-generational participation, leveraging our finding that children learn about and experience nature most often with a family member.