As we celebrate World Environment Day this Saturday 5th June, it’s important to consider that access to nature and time spent outdoors is not equally enjoyed by all. This is especially the case among children and young people, for whom time spent in the outdoors without adults has been in decline in recent decades.
According to the Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment, children from minority ethnic backgrounds and those who live in the most deprived areas are the least able to benefit from engagement with the natural environment. In 2018/19, 70% of children in England from a white background spent time outside once a week, compared to 56% of children from minority ethnic backgrounds. Children living in the most deprived areas were also less likely to spend time outside once a week (61%) than those living in the most affluent areas (81%).
Against this backdrop, the government has outlined its commitment to improving the connection between children from different backgrounds and the environment as part of its ‘Children and Nature’ programme. Our research was commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to look into the challenges children face in accessing the natural environment. Here we touch on a few of these and share some ways that organisations are trying to overcome them.
Access to green space
If the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the importance of having access to green spaces for our mental and physical health, it has also made it clear that these spaces are unequally distributed across different places and communities. The Fields in Trust measure of access to green space – the ‘Green Space Index’ – tells us that 2.69 million people in the UK do not live within a 10-minute walk of a green space. Unequal access to green space was a key barrier in our research for children living in urban areas and those with high levels of deprivation.
One strategy used by organisations we interviewed was to take children and young people to the natural environment, to introduce them to places that are nearby but often unfamiliar. Organisations that operated from a fixed location, for example a community centre, took children from deprived areas on trips to environments they may not normally visit, such as the beach.
Another strategy saw providers running activities in spaces that children can easily access, whether this is a small piece of grass on a residential estate or a field behind a community centre. The aim of this ‘satellite’ approach was to change children’s perceptions of what counts as ‘nature’ and to inspire engagement that can continue without the physical presence of providers.
Costs of taking part
The cost of participating in natural environment programmes (both financial and time) should not be underestimated as a barrier to engagement. As well as costs of entry and membership or activity fees, additional costs which may be unaffordable for some families include equipment and travel costs.
In our research, providers reported higher take up from children from lower income families where costs were reduced or activities were free.
Fear of the unknown
Our research also found that children’s previous experiences of the outdoors can affect how likely they are to engage with it. Feeling apprehensive about trying something new, or simply not knowing what to do, were feelings reported by children who have not grown up visiting the countryside or going camping. As one young person put it:
“Sometimes people's fears take over and they're like, 'no, I can't do it.'”
The organisations we interviewed told us that children from families on low incomes and those from urban areas were more likely to be unfamiliar with the environment, often due to the costs of taking part, which means that parents have not had these types of experiences themselves. To tackle lack of familiarity and fear of the unknown, organisations spoke of the importance of addressing the bigger picture by engaging the whole family.
Diversity and feeling out of place
Findings from our study echo existing research and evidence on the lack of diversity in the environmental sector. Organisations we spoke to in the environmental sector acknowledged that in many cases they do not adequately represent children and young people from different backgrounds, whether through their membership, staff and messaging. This lack of diversity means that children from minority ethnic backgrounds, for example, may feel that activities in the natural environment are not relevant for them. As one young participant in our research said:
“If you don't see someone like you doing something, then it feels less like something you can do.”
The government’s Landscapes Review outlines aims to ensure landscapes are for everyone. Based on our research, ensuring that activities and providers reflect the communities they serve and involve appropriate ‘role models’ is vitally important in this context.
Access to funding and local partnerships were also highlighted as key facilitators in our research. Organisations we spoke with who deliver specific programmes for underrepresented groups highlighted funding from larger charitable sources and local partnerships such as community centres and environmental groups as key to success.
These are just some of the barriers and strategies that came out of our research. You can read our report to find out more about the barriers to engagement and suggestions for key actions to connect more children and young people with the natural environment.