In April this year I presented my thesis ‘Being for nature: Exploring the design of pedagogical greenspaces to support children’s connection to nature in the urban context’, marking the end of my three years of study at Aalto University. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at Aalto and the process of writing the thesis, in particular the month I spent outdoors, observing children learning and playing in nature. It wasn’t always an easy path with several twists and turns but overall it was incredibly inspiring and filled me with hope for the future of urban greenspaces. In the following paragraphs I have attempted to summarise my research process and key findings. If you are interested to know more, I have attached a full copy of the thesis below.
The core of the thesis is rooted in a growing body of research on human-nature connection or ‘HNC’ which understands humans connection with nature as a lived experience made up of interactions between the mind, body, culture and environment. It recognises that the development nature connection, particularly in childhood, can lead to more environmentally conscious behaviour as well as improved mental and physical health.
While the importance of nature connection may seem obvious, children’s experience of nature is in decline. This is largely due to three interrelated factors. First, in Western countries like Sweden and the UK, dense urban living is increasing leading to a decrease in access and opportunity to experience nature. Second, children today are increasingly engaging with indoor, technology past-times like watching tv or playing computer games. Finally, children’s behaviour has become increasingly centred on adult organised programmes as opposed to outdoor free play.
However, even when barriers to children’s regular access to greenspaces is removed, the quality of these spaces do not always allow for a more nuanced connection to nature to develop. Traditional playgrounds with swings, slides and a nicely cut green lawns are great for physical types of play. However, since they tend to lack natural features like trees, bushes, wildlife and loose parts like, sticks, leaves and berries. They are not particularly inspiring for constructive or imaginative forms of play like den making which are important for getting to know nature on a deeper level.
In order to understand how we can better design urban greenspaces (in particular school yards) to support children’s connection to nature, I asked the following two research questions:
What are the physical attributes of outdoor spaces that nurture children’s connection to nature?
What are the implications of well-designed pedagogical greenspaces for children and ecosystem health?
I explored these questions through a four-week study of three ‘I Ur och Skur’ (meaning: In rain or shine) outdoor schools in Stockholm. I Ur och Skur outdoor schools follow the national curriculum and are available to all primary-school aged children as part of the free education system in Sweden. The pedagogy is characterised by experiential outdoor learning and the children I observed spent the majority of the school day learning, playing and eating outdoors. During my observations of these schools I recorded the physical features of the outdoor spaces used during different types of activities. This enabled me to analyse how the importance of different physical features related to different types of activities.
The study resulted in several in-depth findings related to different research directions, here I outline three of the most interesting.
The first finding is that the most commonly recorded organic feature for all activity groups was trees. The reason for this is relates to the beautiful complexity of trees which are not only made up of a trunk and branches but also loose parts like leaves, needles, twigs, berries, nuts and more which offer possibilities for physical, sensory, creative and constructive forms of play. During my study I observed children climbing trees, resting in branches, den making, observing insects and birds, making nature art and (in some cases) eating fruit from trees. Additionally, I observed that decaying trees and leaf matter also offer important sites for sensory play and learning possibilities. This is important since there is tendency for park maintenance to favour greenspaces that look ‘clean’ to human eyes. For example, natural debris like fallen branches or leaves are often swept up rather than left for children and other animals to enjoy.
The second finding relates to the types of activities observed. According to my observations, different physical features were recorded as being important for different types of activity. For instance, edible plants were most commonly recorded in relation to sensory play but were seldom recorded in relation to physical play. By contrast, rocky slopes were commonly recorded in relation to physical play but not sensory play. Distinctions and similarities between physical features used in relation to different activities offers great potential for the design of school yards and parks since it allows areas to be identified and designed for different types of activities. It allows educators to identify areas suitable for different types of activity outside of the school yard itself. This could help to ensure children are able to access and experience different environments and play types.
The third finding related to the regenerative capacity of the urban greenspaces observed. The ability of the different greenspaces to provide meaningful nature experiences depended on the level of biodiversity and the general health of the ecosystems present. This was evident in certain forest areas which had become degraded due to daily use. In these areas the bare ground was hard and compact and was absent of grass or shrubbery. The absence of these types of sensorial elements limited the types of activities the children could engage with. It is important for the users of such spaces to consider how they can minimise their negative impact and where possible contribute positively to the biodiversity of the area.
This could be achieved in a number of ways, for instance, by increasing the size of the greenspaces used and/or by visiting different areas on a rotation basis to allow the land to rest and recuperate. A positive impact could be achieved by replanting native flora or by encouraging insect life through bug hotels etc.
While urban design can be seen to be a major contributor to the problem of children’s disconnection from nature, it also has the potential to reform this relationship through the prioritisation of diverse urban greenspaces. When faced with complex and interconnected problems such as biodiversity loss and the nature deficit, each design decision we make reveals something about what we believe to be sustainable based on our worldview. From a mechanistic perspective, the reduction of emissions through efficiency savings from urban densification may appear to be sustainable. However, the long-term impact of reduced daily connection with natural environments may have more far-reaching implications on our health, wellbeing and ability to relate to the world around us.
Heartfelt thanks go to my supervisor Eeva Berglund and my advisor Matteo Giusti, for your clear and insightful guidance every step of the way. Thank you also to the principals, staff and children at the schools I visited for letting me join in with your activities and for the thoughtful interactions I enjoyed with so many of you. It was an honour to be a part of your world for a few weeks and I hope this thesis captures some of the beauty you have created.