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Young children, the outdoors and nature
Young children, the outdoors and nature

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3.1 What is a natural environment?

Different scenarios may come to mind when you think about a natural environment. For example, you may think it needs to simply have a few plants and trees. Some may consider their garden or the local park to be a natural environment whereas others may disagree and consider a natural environment should not contain too many elements of human interference.

It is important to think about different meanings and understandings of what a natural environment is. What comes to your mind when you are asked to picture one? Josephidou and Kemp (2022) decided to use the following definition by Hartig et al. (2014) to help them think about their work. These researchers suggest a natural environment involves:

the physical features and processes of nonhuman origin that people ordinarily can perceive, including the ‘living nature’ of flora and fauna, together with still and running water, qualities of air and weather, and the landscapes that comprise these and show the influence of geological processes.

(Hartig et al., 2014, p. 208)

This might make you think about protected natural environments such as National Parks rather than local outdoor spaces. However, spaces which include natural features but have been constructed for a particular (human) use such as parks, canals and gardens are also considered as natural environments. Such environments are often called green (land-based) and blue (water-based) spaces.

Nadiya is a parent of two young twins, and she wanted to spend more time in natural environments with them because her instinct told her it was important. She felt they were calmer and slept better when they had opportunities to do this. She also recognised all the vocabulary they were picking up because they were interested in everything they saw. Furthermore, she noticed how it helped her to feel more relaxed with a greater sense of wellbeing. She decided to make a list of all the places she could visit to spend time outdoors in nature.

Places in nature I could visit with the twins

  1. Our own garden – it’s only small but there is a grassy area, a hedge, lots of weeds (!) and they can see surrounding trees.
  2. College campus – only 10 minutes’ walk away and there are lots of green spaces, a view of the hills and the coast – even a duck pond!
  3. Walk to campus – we pass lots of hedgerow on the way, the plants there seem to change every day and there are lots of insects too.
  4. Park in town – has some ‘wild’ areas and a large pond but I would need to get the bus.
  5. Canal in town – I would also need to get the bus but there is lots to see including birds.

If Nadiya’s list was viewed through the lens of Hartig et al.’s (2014) definition of nature, it is interesting to see how the places she has chosen meet this criteria. Nadiya was realistic that she would visit some places more than others; for example, it was much easier to go into her own garden – however small. But she realised, that, however occasionally, it would be good to visit the other environments to give her children different experiences of nature.