Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Children’s environmental psychology, behaviour and education and wellbeing: The role of connection to nature

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posted on 2021-12-08, 17:03 authored by Julie-Anne Whitburn

A personal relationship with nature, which develops in childhood, is associated with wellbeing benefits and greater engagement in pro-environmental behaviour (PEB) in adulthood. This thesis investigates the relationships between children’s connection to nature and their psychological wellbeing and engagement in PEB. It also tests whether nature-based environmental education can promote children’s connection to nature and engagement in PEB.  The first study is a meta-analysis of the relationship between connection to nature and PEB. This meta-analysis demonstrated a significant positive, moderately-sized association between connection to nature and PEB. Standard tests indicated little effect of publication bias. Univariate categorical analyses showed that the scales used to measure connection to nature and PEB were significant moderators of the relationship and explained the majority of the between-study variance. The geographic location of a study, age of participants and the percentage of females in a study were not moderators.  I then conducted a longitudinal quasi-experiment (with control groups) with children aged 7-13 years from schools who attended environmental education programmes in Wellington City, New Zealand (N = 324). Data was collected via a self-administered questionnaire and a gifting experiment immediately before and four weeks after environmental education interventions. Structural equation modelling, followed by Information Theoretic model selection and inference was used to test theoretical models that explained how children’s connection to nature, and other variables of interest, were associated with their wellbeing (vitality and life satisfaction) or their engagement in PEB. Mixed-design ANOVAs tested whether environmental education influenced children’s connection to nature, PEB and wellbeing.  Structural equation models revealed that children’s connection to nature had a direct, positive association with their vitality, but not their life satisfaction. The children’s use of nature for psychological restoration had a direct, positive association with their vitality and their life satisfaction. The model explained 28% of the variance in vitality and 5% of the variance in life satisfaction. Models that contained socio-demographic variables were not well supported.  Connection to nature had a direct, positive relationship with PEB. Connection to nature mediated the relationship of environmental attitude and the use of nature for psychological restoration with engagement in PEB. Knowledge was not significantly related to PEB. This model explained 71% of the variance of children’s PEB. Models that contained socio-demographic variables were not well supported. Connection to nature had the strongest association with PEB of the variables tested.  Environmental education had no overall significant effect on children’s connection to nature, environmental attitudes, use of nature for psychological restoration, vitality or life satisfaction. However, the effect of environmental education on children’s connection to nature depended on their baseline level of connection to nature. Connection to nature increased after environmental education field-trips only in children with a relatively high baseline connection to nature. There was an increase in children’s PEB, species’ knowledge and financial support for conservation compared with children in the control group.  There are some limitations in this research. While the structural equation models imply directionality, they demonstrate correlational relationships between the variables. In addition, the survey data is collected by self-reports which can over-estimate associations between variables. A social desirability response bias, may also limit this research.  This research demonstrates the central importance of connection to nature for children’s psychological wellbeing and PEB. This thesis advances previous work by (i) providing a quantitative summary of the existing research to show there is a moderately-sized, positive association between individuals’ connection to nature and their engagement in PEB, (ii) advancing theory by demonstrating that children’s affective connection to nature is positively associated with greater psychological wellbeing and greater engagement in PEB and (iii) demonstrating empirically that while environmental education did not promote affective connection to nature in most children, it did increase their support for conservation and engagement in daily PEBs and their species’ knowledge. Promoting connection to nature has implications for motivating PEB and increasing wellbeing. Environmental education can influence knowledge and beliefs, but may not consistently promote affective connection to nature. Environmental education could incorporate experiences that stimulate children’s affective faculties to promote connection to nature.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Unit

Centre for Biodiversity & Restoration of Ecology

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Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Biological Sciences


Linklater, Wayne; Abrahamse, Wokje