Community News

Socializing with nature
5/11/2017 Volume XLVII, No. 19

Americans appear to have a mixed relationship with the outdoors. On one hand, most people say that nature is one of their most enjoyable interests. But on the other, they don’t spend much time outdoors.

The gap between interest in nature and the amount of time actually spent in natural settings is explored in a fascinating new study, “The Nature of Americans.”

The study’s authors surveyed nearly 12,000 adults and children to identify barriers that keep people from going outside, and find ways to overcome them.

According to the study, Americans of all ages understand the tremendous benefits nature provides.

“The vast majority of adult Americans surveyed reported that nature is highly important for their physical health and emotional outlook,” the report said. “Most noted that certain smells and sounds of nature bring to mind some of their happiest memories, that being in nature provides a sense of peace, and that being in nature helps to give meaning and purpose to their lives.”

The same applies to children. Youngsters in the age 8-12 range said contact with nature “made them happier and healthier and deepened their relationships — in short, that exposure to nature promoted their physical, psychological, and social well-being.” Their parents agreed.

But the majority of adults spend only five or fewer hours a week outside. The number was slightly higher for kids ages 8-12, who spent an average of 6.5 hours a week outdoors. But the same youngsters spent more than double that amount of time indoors on computers, televisions and electronic devices.

So why doesn’t a love of nature translate into more time outdoors? Here’s what the study found:

  • The places where many people live, work, and go to school make it difficult for them to have contact with the natural world;
  • Most people have competing priorities for  time, attention and money;
  • Most Americans no longer directly depend on the natural world for their livelihoods and subsistence, and thus don’t spend work hours outdoors;
  • New technologies, especially electronic media, keep people indoors;
  • Many people are uncomfortable being outdoors alone and lack social support, such as friends to accompany and encourage them. Many children are kept indoors by a lack of available adult supervision.

One interesting recommendation is to encourage outdoor groups to work on changing perceptions about nature. As it turns out, many adults perceive nature as something remote and inaccessible – like a national park or wilderness far from home.

People might go outside more often, the study theorized, if they saw that smaller parks in their neighborhoods can provide high-quality nature experiences. Making nature experiences more social, through group activities like guided hikes, can also draw more people outside.

Connecting children to nature is often a matter of gathering friends and family to play outside. Unlike adults, the study noted, children perceive nearly every outdoor place as being part of nature.

“It was promising to hear that most of the children interviewed had special times … in the natural world,” according to the study. “Some examples of these memories included encountering a particular insect in the backyard, catching fish with a grandparent, swinging in a school yard, climbing trees with a brother or sister, watching animals, and wading in a creek with friends and relatives.”

Although the study is detailed, the takeaway is simple: People don’t need to be sold on the value of nature. They already like it. But making nature experiences less solitary and more social can be key to enticing more people outside.

So take action now! Find a neighborhood park and invite your family and friends along to explore. To find parks in your community, go to www.jerseyfamilyfun.com/new-jersey-parks-playgrounds/. For a list of state parks and forests, go to www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/parkindex.html.

 “The Nature of Americans” was prepared by a public-private collaborative, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, Wildlife Management Institute, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Texas Parks & Wildlife, Disney Conservation Fund, DJ Case & Associates, Morrison Family Foundation and Fish & Wildlife Conservation Foundation of Florida.

To read the study, go to https://natureofamericans.org.

And for more information on New Jersey’s preserved lands – including events to get people outdoors and into nature – visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

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