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  • What part does nature connection play in growing conservation-focused New Zealanders? In this story, we meet Julie Whitburn who is exploring the connection between nature engagement and environmental attitude in children.

    This is part of the series In Her Nature: New Zealand women changing the way we connect with the world around us, meeting New Zealand women working at the intersection of people and nature. These stories are a feature for the International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2020.

    Rights: Julie Whitburn

    Julie Whitburn

    PhD candidate Julie Whitburn is investigating links between connection to nature and pro-environmental behaviours, particularly among children.

    Nature connections form early

    Wellington’s Julie Whitburn is discovering that a strong connection to nature, formed young, plays a key part in pro-environmental behaviour. Trained in both zoology and counselling, she has always been fascinated by how people and natural systems interact, particularly in the area of conservation. For her PhD, Julie’s been exploring what makes some people more likely to engage in conservation behaviours, investigating links between connection to nature and pro-environmental behaviours, particularly amongst children.

    “I was looking at whether environmental education could evoke emotions that translate into a stronger connection to nature, which includes enjoying nature, feeling empathy toward aspects of nature and feeling a part of nature.”

    She found that children with a strong connection to nature were more likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviour and that these connections formed through childhood experiences and activities in nature. Family and community experiences are also critical. International research has shown the importance of nature experiences shared with people children respect and who can help instil in them a love of nature and care for the environment.

    Nature play creates happier, healthier children

    Julie is passionate about giving children the opportunity to play freely in nature, no matter where they live.

    Rights: Private collection

    Getting into nature

    Kids can enjoy nature in their garden, at school, at a park or anywhere. The key thing is to help encourage a strong connection to nature.

    “Nature near where children live doesn’t have to be pristine. They need places in the neighbourhood where they can go and just play and explore, where they can find things such as birds’ nests and follow ant trails. They like little things and wild little sections, and they don’t need to have a huge national park to play in.”

    Research has shown that not only do outdoor experiences help children connect with nature, they help improve their physical and psychological wellbeing. Julie has also found that some aspects of children’s psychological wellbeing can be affected by their connection with nature.

    “I really got into this research because of my own love of nature and how much I find it restorative. My research provides some evidence that we need to provide natural areas near where children live that are accessible and to motivate children to use them. It can help improve their quality of life, psychological wellbeing and connection to nature and also produce children who care about the natural environment and want to protect it.”

    Related content

    Use a citizen science project to get kids outside and interact with and support their natural environment. One of these could be a great place to start: iNaturalist NZ, Litterati, Litter Intelligence, eBird or New Zealand Garden Bird Survey.

    The article Working as a scientist provides a brief overview of some of the many scientists featured on the Hub. Use it to discover some of the reasons people choose a science-related career and some of the things you can do if you are curious to begin a career in science.

    Useful links

    Use these Pinterest boards for more profiles of people working in science.

    The Practitioner Guide to Assessing Connection to Nature from the North American Association for Environmental Education is aimed at environmental education practitioners who are keen to measure connection to nature in their programmes.

    Watch this video 5 pathways to nature connection by the University of Derby Online Learning.


    This article was written by Anastasia Turnbull.

      Published 8 February 2020 Referencing Hub articles
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