Nature contact has been acknowledged as beneficial for children’s development and wellbeing, as it is for all humans. At the same time, children’s free play in nature and independent mobility, ‘free-ranging,’ has been declining in Western societies in recent decades. One solution to this dilemma, nature clubs and camps with the aim of introducing and promoting children’s nature contact, are becoming increasingly common. Nature programmes aim to (re-)connect children and nature through educational goals. One example of such a place, the children's garden, is becoming increasingly recognized as a place where adults hope that children will learn various skills and subjects, while simultaneously hoping the children will improve their relationship with nature. Despite the known educational and health benefits of gardening, children's interactions with the actual physical elements of a place are less understood and examined. By recognizing more factors that affect children's process in forming a close, durable and meaningful relationship with natural places like the garden, adults become more capable of appropriately supporting children. The aim of this research was to unravel how children connect with such a natural space, the garden by looking at the place-specific affordances. The concept of affordances is the key to this study; it refers to the physical elements of the environment that reveal opportunities for interaction once they have been perceived.
The research comprises two parts. The first phase of the study evaluated Finnish primary school children’s relationship with plants and nature, by comparing rural/suburban and boys’/girls’ attitudes and knowledge about plants and favourite places. The comparison was conducted through a survey of 76 children. Using mixed methods, the statistical analysis included paired cross tabulation, and chi-square-tests (χ2) to measure the significance of differences among the groups rural/suburban, and boys/girls. The second part of the study consisted of qualitative fieldwork with ethnographic participant and non-participant observations throughout summers 2008-2010 in the Kumpula School Garden in Helsinki. In order to study the phenomenon of how children make their connection to nature through place-based affordances, the study leans on an interpretivist ontology that views reality as understandable by observing actors within their social context. To assess the child-centred potential of a garden environment for building connection to nature, I examined the affordances in a garden camp context, focusing on 6- to 11-year-old, inexperienced children (~40 participants for each year of the study). The long-term fieldwork generated outstanding data: field reports and notes, videos, photographs and children’s drawings and interviews.
Grounded theory method (GT) was applied in studies II and III. Analysis followed the GT analytical procedure of open coding, selective coding and theoretical coding. In GT, the initial basis for the study is to understand a particular social phenomenon in order to build a theory upon it. Inductive and repeated analysis focused on the children’s actions in combination with the actual natural affordances. In formulating the theory, the findings of garden affordances for children were evaluated relatively with these theoretical concepts: environmental child-friendliness (ECF), the zone of proximal development (ZPD), behavioural insideness, and connectedness to nature/place.
Firstly, the results in study I showed that the relationship between nature and greenery differs according to residence and gender. The children living in a rural area (N= 34 in Paltamo, Kainuu) were more likely to mention natural places as their favourites than did their suburban counterparts (N=42 in Helsinki). Illustratively, rural children claimed to know the forest trees by name more often than the suburban children. In addition, the rural children understood mankind as part of nature, whereas suburban children were more likely to disagree with this claim. The group differences reported were statistically significant. The girls were, in general, more interested in plants than the boys. Alarmingly, 36% of the boys did not understand that plants are essential for human life. The girls understood better that plants are vital for human life.
Second, results in the following studies II and III in the garden camp context showed that the versatility of affordances offered plenty of opportunities for building the nature-child relationship. The garden fostered social interactions by offering plentiful materials in a varied space. The variability and abundance of affordances boosted ZPD through scaffolding – learning together and from more experienced peers while using the affordances proved noteworthy in learning and passing on new skills. The essential factors that had a contributory role in the process of becoming empowered players within the setting were: sufficient time, the possibility of child-directed play and a space with a versatility of affordances available for use. With these factors, the garden affordances brought about 14 various play types.
Trees were the most significant elements of the research site in fostering a relationship with nature. They answered children’s situational and individual needs by offering ideas, challenge, materials, and space for play. Wooden material affordances offered props and loose parts for different play needs. The trees possessed qualities equivalent to children’s needs for building self-confidence and emotion regulation, competence and belonging, creativity, excitement and affection. Climbing trees offered the children the challenge of handling risks autonomously. Consequently, trees serve well as indicator plants in assessing the children's connectedness to place.
The children’s whole process of connecting with the place was captured, and the actual phases of this evolving connectedness are presented. Along with the concept of behavioural insideness that represents the behaviour of a child when she/he feels connected with a place, this study identifies the preceding phases: the initial phase as outsiders, then searchers, and finally the proactive insiders. In the first phase, as an outsider, the still insecure children looked for comfort around the vegetation. Tall trees were visibly inviting, offering an asylum or a shield before the children gained the confidence to start the searcher phase. The searchers, as the name implies, were constantly exploring their surroundings and the phase also involved showing off one's skills to make friends. For the searchers, the garden affordances offered versatility for choosing suitable materials and space. The biodiversity of the place was key to satisfying children’s needs by offering suitable affordances; it successfully fostered the development of behavioural insideness within two weeks, and this ultimately led to a strong connectedness to place. In the last phase as insiders, long-term play utilizing a wide variety of natural materials was typical, and the children behaved both spontaneously and imaginatively.
The adults and peers had an effect on the children's connection process and to the actualization of garden's affordances, affecting the ECF. Impetus, which triggered the use of affordances, was either personal or situational. Some of the obstacles came from personal shortcomings, such as lack of interest or experience, or from fears and/or dislikes. Common obstacles from adults included a desire to move forward with the planned programme or an appeal to safety and rules.
The development of a grounded theory, the IAO theory, outlines possible combinations of place-based impetuses, obstacles and affordances, all of which have an effect on the children’s process of connecting to place. The theory is an equation, which makes it user-friendly in assessing and planning children’s nature-based activities and environments. In addition, the theoretical framework of ‘Affordances channel connectedness to place’ opens up the external and internal preconditions necessary for children before they start utilizing the existing affordances, their three-phased process towards connectedness to place, and the manifestations of the final stage, behavioural insideness. Finally, a child-centred implication, PIT (Place-based, Intention and Time), provides guidelines to help adults to plan and conduct place-based, situational-sensitive nature activities for children. With these three GT outcomes, children’s connection to nature can be well supported.