The relationship between forest, nature and childhood

Last changed: 02 February 2023
Children in snow landscape

Early nature-based experiences are important

An early introduction to nature and outdoor activities is something we remember and carry with us (Lovelock et al 2016). It is important that children should be allowed to play freely in wild nature, on their own without their parents. This is how you learn that nature is not dangerous.

There are, however, critical stages during our upbringing when the outdoor life is difficult to sustain (Lovelock et al 2016). The first is when you move from being a child to becoming a teenager. There is the obvious risk that the outdoor life is not considered cool. The next important stage is when studies begin to take more and more of our time, and it becomes difficult to combine both outdoor activities and studies. The third is when we have to move to attend university or to find work. These stages are when we can easily ‘lose’ our interest in nature and have difficulty finding the time to make contact with our new nature and enjoy outdoor activities there.

The frequency of visits matters

There is a strong connection between the number of visits we make to the forest and land as children, and our willingness to visit them as adults (Thompson et al 2018). The probability of adult visits is very low if, as a child, we have rarely stayed in nature. In the same way, it is suggested that the more we played in green spaces as children, the more time we are willing to devote to nature-based activities, such as gardening and nature tourism, as adults (Hosaka et al 2018). A further study reveals that children who have spent a lot of time in the forest, stay in the forest even as adults (Taye et al 2019). In addition, the link between forest visits as children and as adults is stronger than the link between forest visits and income, education or housing conditions. However, the significance of the type of residential building and the accessibility of, and distance to, the nearest forest, is decisive for the frequency of visits.

Brazilian children who have a lot of contact with nature during childhood have more contact with nature as an adult (Rose et al 2018). Those who have spent a lot of time in nature as children also have a better emotional connection to nature and exhibit more environmentally friendly behaviour as adults. It is evident that, of the adult visitors to Minnesota State Parks, those who exposed to nature-based activities in childhood want to continue doing similar things later in life and look for ways to overcome obstacles to getting out into nature (Asah et al 2012).

New Zealanders who practise a lot of outdoor activities as adults, also spent a lot of time in nature as children, with and without the family (Lovelock et al 2016).

The research is therefore quite consistent when it connects the importance of childhood visits to nature to interest in nature as adults, but there are exceptions. One study showed that there is no connection between childhood nature visits and the adult relationship to nature (Heezik et al 2021).

The relationship to nature

Swedish young people who since childhood have had a relationship with the forest and forestry through their parents being forest owners, perceive their childhood experiences in the forest primarily as leisure activities taken together with the family (Kronholm & Staal Westerlund 2017). The proximity and accessibility of the forest contribute greatly to the young people's opportunities to establish a forest relationship at an early age. The relationship is then reflected in their leisure activities, although they are less familiar with forestry itself. According to the researchers, they have a positive attitude to the forest and value the forest in itself, but their attitude to forestry is quite varied and includes both positive and negative associations.

British children who were able to engage in free and unsupervised play as children are more likely to see forest areas as a positive resource as young adults (Milligan & Bingley 2007). Those who did not have the opportunity to play in the forest when they were small do not like dark and densely planted forest areas.

If we examine the connection between exposure to nature and green outdoor activity in childhood in relation to human health as adults, there is a significant positive connection between childhood and adult life (Wood & Smyth 2020). A lot of nature in childhood means a lot of nature in adulthood. If we look at the relationship/connection to nature in adults, there is a negative connection with stress (i.e., a better relationship with nature results in less stress) and a positive connection with heart variability and sleep (good relationship with nature increases HRV and improves sleep). The conclusion is that a relationship/connection to nature is important for the health of adults and that childhood exposure to nature and green outdoor activity is crucial in developing this connection.

Environmental awareness

Nature stays in childhood may make one person more environmentally aware as an adult (Wells & Lekies 2006). In particular, the wild nature of childhood, hiking or playing in the forest, camping, hunting and fishing have a positive influence on adults' environmental attitude. Finnish students' environmental attitudes are not always based on their experiences of nature in childhood – their connection to the environment can also be constructed in urban environments (Tani 2017). The type of everyday environment and the relationships with other people (and their view of nature) during childhood years are considered essential elements for establishing close links with nature in later life.

Do we want to return to our childhood?

Surprisingly little research has been carried out on the importance of nature in childhood to the nature environments we prefer as adults. However, there are a few studies related to this area. For example, we feel more at home in the type of landscape in which we grew up, and more often choose to settle in the same type of environment, even if this is in a different location to the one we grew up in (Adevi & Grahn 2012). Malaysian women are happy to spend their free time in the park relaxing with family members (Khairrussalleh et al 2018). They do so because they associate the green park with their childhood and the relaxing and peaceful time they spent there with their family. Students prefer natural places that they recognise and that contain various natural elements, such as large trees and water (Widhorst & Williams 2015). Childhood experiences play a role in adults’ experiences of the forest, where place identity and a feeling of belonging contribute to how we, as humans, define ourselves (Häggström 2019).

/Text: Ann Dolling


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