Hong Kong Scientist Develops Tool to Measure Kids' Connectedness to Nature

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©. Play and Grow

It reveals what we already know but needs repeating – that more time in nature equals greater happiness in kids.

Cities can be a wonderful place in which to raise kids, but when it comes to connecting kids to nature, they pose challenges. Even when a city has plenty of parks and green space, these can be difficult for families to access, with signs saying "Keep off the grass," or parents assuming that the area is dirty or dangerous and therefore not safe for a child to play freely.

This has lasting consequences for children, who can develop 'nature-deficit disorder' or 'child-nature disconnectedness' if a child-nature relationship is not fostered from a young age. Mental and physical health deteriorates with lack of access to the natural world.

In an effort to measure how children in Hong Kong, one of the densest urban settings in the world, are faring in relation to nature – and to develop a tool to be able to measure this consistently – Dr. Tanja Sobko of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Hong Kong and Prof. Gavin Brown of the University of Auckland created a 16-part questionnaire for parents. Called the CNI-PPC (which stands for "Connected to Nature Index – Parents of Preschool Children"), it identifies the four ways in which children typically develop a relationship with nature:

(1) They become aware of it.
(2) They enjoy it.
(3) They feel empathy for it.
(4) They feel responsibility toward it.

Four hundred ninety-three families participated in the study, all with children between the ages of 2 and 5. They responded to the 16 questions, and then their answers were measured against the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire, which is an established measurement of children's psychological wellbeing. The results were interesting. From a press release:

"Parents who saw their child had a closer connection with nature had less distress, less hyperactivity, fewer behavioural and emotional difficulties, and improved pro-social behaviour. Interestingly, children who took greater responsibility towards nature had fewer peer difficulties."

The CNI-PPC is said to be "the first tool to measure nature-related attitudes and awareness for such a young population in the highly urbanized context of a major Asian city," and it has been picked up by other universities for further application. Such a tool can be useful for evaluating policy changes and interventions designed to promote interactions between children and nature. The full details can be read in the open-access article available on PLOS One.

Dr. Sobko's own work goes beyond the theoretical. She runs an organization called Play & Grow that teaches Hong Kong-based families how to let their children play outdoors, develop an appreciation for nature, and eat more natural foods.