This second post by Hannah Chalk, Learning Manager and Katherine Majewski, Curatorial Assistant (Vivarium) provides some more detail on a number of topics and questions that were raised during the ‘Nature Connections’ conference, that we felt were particularly relevant to the Museum’s work.
As mentioned in the previous blog post, what makes nature connectedness particularly important and relevant to our own work in the Museum, is the positive impacts that it has on both wellbeing and pro-environmental behaviour. In this post, we consider these two aspects in more detail, and while we do not intend to detract from the positive impacts and benefits that were shared during the conference (on which the Finding Nature blog is a fantastic resource), this post will focus on some of the questions and challenges that were raised by particular speakers, and that we found particularly interesting for our work in the Museum.
Nature connections and learning? On one hand, the pathways to nature connectedness offer a really simple framework for supporting people to connect with nature. Since emotional connections do not require any prior knowledge, understanding or skills, the framework is particularly relevant to the Museum’s work since it offers an inclusive approach that enables individuals to shape their own experiences on their own terms. As a museum that aims to use its collections to engage with some of the pressing issues of our time, nature connectedness clearly opens up opportunities for us to support and develop pro-environmental behaviours in our visitors. Indeed, back in 2014, our Nature Discovery Gallery was designed and developed in order to support under 5’s and their parents to develop a closer connection with nature through emotional and affective experiences (see this paper by Elaine Bates, our Early Years Coordinator, for more on this piece of work).
On the other hand, we both felt uneasy about drawing a line between nature connectedness and environmental learning and education, and were not entirely convinced that connecting with nature and feeling curious enough to want to learn about it are entirely unrelated. This dividing line is related to the distinction between contact and connection; activities that support people to engage with nature by identifying or searching for particular creatures or plants are more about contact than connection. According to Richardson, “the brain feels before it thinks” and as he continues:
“There is a need to move beyond superficial contact with nature or focussing on knowledge and identification when fostering a relationship with nature – just because citizen science and bioblitz are great for engaging people in conservation, doesn’t mean they foster a closer connection with nature” (from: Finding Nature blog)
Yet, this type of ‘superficial’ contact with nature is not the only way that people may learn about nature. From our own experiences, being in and with nature – feeling, smelling, hearing, touching, seeing and noticing; feeling small, overwhelmed or joyful; poking around, soaking it up, forming an emotional connection – has been an inseparable part of how we have learned about and understood it, and this is all tangled up in our own pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours. While we do not question that certain approaches to learning and engagement may indeed prevent individuals from connecting emotionally by creating a barrier or distraction from the experience of being in nature, we feel that there are many other approaches to learning beyond the ‘superficial’ contact described above, that are more closely aligned with nature connection.
Connecting and curiosity: Our uneasiness about the suggestion that there is no relationship between connecting with nature and learning about it was supported by some of the work that was shared during the conference. In her paper about the Feral Spaces project, Jenny Hallam described how learning emerged whilst working to support a group of young people from a disadvantaged area to connect with a local semi-wild disused urban space.
The project took the form of a summer programme that supported the young people to experience and develop a sense of connectedness to the urban environment on their doorstep. During the programme, the young people spent time exploring the space, as well as making benches, swings and dens in order to transform it into a community space.
By supporting the participants to develop a connection to the space, the project also found that the young people became curious about the plants, creatures and habitats that they were connecting with; they wanted to know more. The young people’s interest and subsequent knowledge about the space both grew from and fed back into their sense of connectedness with it, and furthermore, led to a desire to look after and protect that space for the enjoyment of others.
For us, the idea of connectedness as a foundation for meaningful learning felt particularly relevant to our work at the Museum. We already do this, but have perhaps not realised quite how important it is provide the time and space for these connections to be made. As far as our learning programmes are concerned, this is about ensuring that we provide our visitors with enough time and space to wonder, explore and develop personal connections with the Museum’s nature, and that we protect and value this time as an essential component of our work.
Technology and nature in the urban environment: Take a moment to look at the screen-saver on your computer or the wallpaper on your phone. What image have you chosen? For many of us, it is an image of nature (scenery, landscapes, animals, plants, rocks, ourselves / friends / family in nature) that is used as a backdrop for the devices that we increasingly use for communicating, entertainment and work. This was the starting point for a paper by Tadgh MacIntyre, from the University of Limerick, who spoke about the GoGreen project and some of the opportunities and challenges that arise from using technology to connect with nature, particularly in the context of the urban environment
The idea of technology being a tool for nature connectedness may initially seem counter-intuitive, but in the first instance, and as the above exercise may have demonstrated, our phones may offer us a simple and easily accessible means of connecting (indirectly) with nature.
Phones are also a simple way of augmenting our direct connections with nature – we may not even realise we are doing this, but when we take photos of nature or our experiences of being in nature, we are creating opportunities to savour that experience, allowing us to easily revisit and return to that feeling at a later date. For those living in urban environments where nature may feel less accessible, this type of indirect access can be very valuable.
The use of technology is not, however, without its challenges or risks, and as Tadgh MacIntyre explained, there is a fine line between using technology to enhance an experience of being in nature, and the technology becoming a distraction from that experience. Indeed, this was precisely the challenge that we experienced when we first started using Ipads to support our learning programmes in the Museum; their novelty was initially more exciting than the objects for many children, and it took time for this distracting excitement to wear off!
The use of technology to enhance nature connectedness has been explored by the Derby research team, who have developed a ‘Good Things in Nature’ app as a tool for supporting nature connections in the urban environment. For more on smartphones and nature connectedness, it is also worth checking out Miles Richardson’s blog post on ‘The Nature of Smartphone Users‘.
As well as a whole suite of mindfulness apps that can be used to support, track and monitor nature connectedness, there is also work to explore nature connectedness through immersive virtual reality experiences of nature. This fascinating area of work is starting to address some important questions around whether virtual access to nature produces the same type of connectedness and has the same benefits on health, wellbeing and pro-environmental behaviour, as direct access to nature. Such questions are really relevant to our own work: on one hand, the connections that people make with nature in the Museum are indirect, since the Museum brings together natural things that have been removed from the natural world, and presents them in an artificial context. It is also interesting as we consider the ways in which virtual or augmented reality can support visitors to engage with our collections.
Can nature connectedness save the planet? Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a Special Report on the Impacts of Global Warming of 1.5°C, reported by the BBC as being the final call to save the world from ‘climate catastrophe’. Soon after, another wake-up call came in the form of the Living Planet Report, in which the current rate of biodiversity loss was likened to the scale of a mass extinction. This year, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published their global assessment of biodiversity and ecosystems, revealing that 1,000,000 species are currently threatened with extinction and calling for urgent ‘transformative change’ at the global level in response. That same month, the UK government declared a climate emergency, and then just 2 weeks ago, Manchester City Council followed suit.
We are living in dark times, but can nature connectedness save the planet? Maybe, according to Helen Meech and Alice Reese of the Oak Project, who spoke about their work to explore how the arts, culture and creativity can be used to build a connection to nature on a national scale. Inspired by the impacts and positive reception of the 1418 NOW arts programme that was delivered last year for the centenary of the First World War, the Oak Project seeks to bring together diverse groups, people and places for a cultural and social celebration of nature across the UK.
Particularly interesting is that the programme acknowledges the need for time to grieve what has already been lost – spaces, species, and indeed, hope – as well as an opportunity to celebrate and connect with nature. This ambitious project draws from the positive impacts of nature connectedness, and proposes that emotional connections with nature can produce the types of behavioural and attitudinal shifts that will allow a new social norm to emerge around respecting, caring for and loving nature.
The Dark Side of Nature Connection: Importantly, and less prominent in the conference, is the question of what happens when other people’s lack of care for the natural environment becomes stressful and upsetting for those who have developed a close connection with a place? While the personal connection with nature may indeed drive individuals to positive action or pro-environmental behaviours and mind-sets, this is not always the case. This is what Lymarie Rodrigues described as ‘environmental burden’. In her paper about ‘Nature-based Health Services’ (a new NHS!) in West Wales, she raised the need to acknowledge and address the emotional burden that goes hand in hand with feeling closely connected to nature, stressing the importance of this in particular, when nature connectedness is being used to support mental health and wellbeing.
Lymarie Rodrigues spoke about some of the fantastic work that is taking place with TONIC surf therapy, Reconnect In Nature and Clynfyw Care Farm, to understand how nature connectedness can be used to support groups working with people who are experiencing a variety of physical and mental health problems. On one hand, the positive impacts of developing nature connectedness as part of these programmes was really impressive and well evidenced. However, there was also a concern that, having developed a sense of connection with nature, and especially when connecting with a particular place, when other people did not show the same level of respect or care for that place (such as leaving litter), nature connectedness can become a cause of stress, frustration and even depression.
This ‘dark side’ is also something that should be acknowledged when working with young people: caring about something, loving it and wanting to protect it can easily become a burden. For those who feel powerless and who feel that their voices are not being heard, caring for nature can start to feel stressful and overwhelming and may leave people with feelings of despair and grief. It is therefore vital that nature connectedness is practiced with care: while nature connectedness may lead to pro-environmental behaviour and have positive impacts on people’s physical and mental health and wellbeing, we must not forget that when connecting and caring become a burden, nature connectedness may have the opposite effects.
Nature connections – some final thoughts: There is so much more to say about the fascinating work, projects and research that we found out about during the conference, but for those who are interested in finding out more, the Finding Nature blog is a great starting place. In many ways, we have been ‘doing’ nature connectedness in the Museum for years, and it is a fundamental part of our work. However, through tools such as the pathways, we can be increasingly alert to the different ways in which we can look to support connections to be made on an emotional level, with all of the benefits that go hand in hand with this in terms of both the wellbeing of our visitors and their pro-environmental behaviour.