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Numerous studies have demonstrated that natural environments have a profound effect on a range of human behaviours and states, but most of those studies have examined how natural environments affect individuals rather than interactions. We examined whether natural environments affect communication between parents and their 3- to 4-year-old children. Using a novel experimental design, we show that parent-child communication is more responsive and connected in a natural environment compared to an indoor environment. This study is the first to demonstrate that human communication is influenced by natural environments. Natural settings may constitute optimal environments for communication.
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Responding to Nature: Natural Environments Improve Parent-Child
Communication
Thea Cameron-Faulkner (corresponding author)
University of Manchester
Joanna Melville
University of Oxford
Merideth Gattis
Cardiff University
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Abstract
Numerous studies have demonstrated that natural environments have a
profound effect on a range of human behaviours and states, but most of those
studies have examined how natural environments affect individuals rather than
interactions. We examined whether natural environments affect communication
between parents and their 3- to 4-year-old children. Using a novel experimental
design, we show that parent-child communication is more responsive and
connected in a natural environment compared to an indoor environment. This
study is the first to demonstrate that human communication is influenced by
natural environments. Natural settings may constitute optimal environments for
communication.
Keywords
: children; communication; green space; language; natural
environments; outdoors; parents; social interaction
NATURAL ENVIRONMENTS IMPROVE COMMUNICATION
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Responding to Nature: Natural Environments Improve Parent-Child
Communication
Natural environments such as gardens, parks, and woodlands positively
influence a range of psychological processes and states (Bowler, Buyung-Ali,
Knight, & Pullin, 2010; Bratman, Hamilton, & Daily, 2012; Hartig, Mitchell, de
Vries, & Frumkin, 2014; Kaplan, 1995). For example, Ryan and colleagues (2010)
asked university students to evaluate their energy levels before and after taking
a 15-minute walk. A researcher led individual students on a silent walk, either
indoors through hallways and tunnels, or outdoors along a tree-lined path.
Students who walked outdoors reported higher energy levels after the walk
compared to before the walk, whereas students who walked indoors reported
similar energy levels before and after the walk. Similarly, Berman, Jonides, and
Kaplan (2008) compared university students’ performance on an attention-
demanding cognitive task, the backwards digit span, before and after a 50-
minute walk in an arboretum, and one week later, along city streets (or the
opposite order). Students’ performance on the digit span task improved after
walking in the arboretum compared to before the walk, but did not improve after
walking along city streets, thus demonstrating a positive effect of natural
environments on attention. In another study, adults who took a 50-minute walk
through grasslands and trees reported greater decreases in anxiety, negative
affect, and rumination and greater increases in positive affect compared to those
who took a 50-minute walk on an urban street (Bratman, Daily, Levy, & Gross,
2015). The results of numerous correlational studies are also consistent with the
hypothesis that natural environments, including both green spaces such as
gardens and parks and blue spaces such as coasts and rivers, benefit human
NATURAL ENVIRONMENTS IMPROVE COMMUNICATION
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health and behaviour (e.g., Bai, Stanis, Kaczynski, & Besenyi, 2013; Biedenweg,
Scott, & Scott, 2017; Groenewegen, van den Berg, de Vries, & Verheij, 2006;
White, Alcock, Wheeler, & Depledge, 2013; White, Pahl, Ashbullby, Herbert, &
Depledge, 2013).
Natural environments are also associated with positive developmental
outcomes for children (Chawla, 2015; Gill, 2014; Evans, 2006). In a large-scale
epidemiological study, Dadvand and colleagues (2015) used satellite data to
quantify 7- to 10-year-old children’s exposure to green spaces at home, at school,
and along the route between home and school. Exposure to green space (school
greenness and a greenness index which combined greenness across residential,
commuting, and school areas) was positively related to cognitive development,
defined as increases in working memory and attention abilities over a 12-month
period. Other observational studies have reported positive associations between
natural environments and children’s attention, behaviour, learning,
psychological well-being, and self –regulation, as well as a reduction in the
symptoms of attention deficit disorder (Coley, 2012; Faber Taylor, Kuo, &
Sullivan, 2001, 2002; Flouri, Midouhas, & Joshi, 2014; Ulset, Vitaro, Brendgen,
Bekkhus, & Borge, 2017; Wells, 2000; Wells & Evans, 2003). A small number of
experimental studies have compared the influence of walking in a natural versus
urban environment on children’s attention and cognition in designs similar to
those used by Berman, Jonides, and Kaplan (2008) and Bratman, Daily, Levy, and
Gross (2015). Walking in natural environments has generally led to better
performance amongst children, though not on all measures (Faber Taylor & Kuo,
2009; Schutte, Torquati, & Beattie, 2017). Some evidence from outdoor learning
programmes also suggests that natural environments can improve attainment in
NATURAL ENVIRONMENTS IMPROVE COMMUNICATION
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the primary school years (Quibell, Charlton, & Law, 2017). The existing evidence
thus suggests several potential benefits of natural environments for child
development, but is still preliminary, in particular due to limited experimental
evidence demonstrating causal relations between natural environments and
children’s behaviour and skills.
The vast majority of studies investigating the potential benefits of natural
environments have examined how environments affect individuals, rather than
interactions between people. Some evidence indicates that attractive and safe
natural environments can increase levels of social interaction, as well as a sense
of community (Hartig, Mitchell, de Vries, & Frumkin, 2014). Coley, Kuo, and
Sullivan (1997) observed more people outdoors in public spaces with trees
compared to spaces without trees in two urban housing authority sites, and
argued that trees and other vegetation in public spaces increase opportunities
for social interactions amongst people living in urban settings. In another study,
greenness of public spaces in an urban housing authority site was positively
associated with neighbourhood social ties and self-reported use of public spaces,
and negatively related to stress (Kuo, Sullivan, Coley, & Brunson, 1998).
Neighbourhood quality, measured objectively and including features such as
birdlife, lawns, and water, is positively related to people’s subjective sense of
community (Francis, Giles-Corti, Wood, & Knuiman, 2012). Other evidence
indicates that social cohesion and stress together mediate the positive relations
between natural environments and human health (de Vries, van Dillen,
Groenewegen, & Spreeuwenberg, 2013; Sugiyama, Giles-Corti, & Owen, 2008).
Weinstein, Balmford, DeHaan, Gladwell, Bradbury, and Amano (2015)
proposed that natural environments might promote a sense of connection or
NATURAL ENVIRONMENTS IMPROVE COMMUNICATION
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relatedness with one’s surroundings, which includes not only the physical
environment but also other people, and thereby enhance social interactions.
They reported that in a large-scale online study with a nationally representative
sample in Great Britain, self-reported contact with nature was directly and
positively related to community cohesion, indicated by agreement with
statements such as: “I feel connected to other people in my neighbourhood.”
Objective quality of nature was not directly related to community cohesion,
however, raising the possibility that the association between contact with nature
and community cohesion might be due to shared method variance or some other
alternative explanation.
In this study we evaluated the possibility that natural environments
influence the quality of human communication, specifically between parents and
children. We focus on turn-taking and responsiveness as key indicators of
communication quality (Hilbrink, Gattis & Levinson, 2015; McGillion et al., 2017;
Snow, 1977; Song, Spier, & Tamis-Lemonda, 2014; Zimmerman et al., 2009).
Communication quality is important because it impacts child development.
Numerous studies over the years have identified strong links between the
quality and quantity of child-directed speech and subsequent language
development (e.g. Borstein, Tamis-LeMonda, & Haynes, 1999; Hart & Risley,
1995; Huttenlocher, Haight, Bryk, Seltzer, & Lyons, 1991; Weizman & Snow,
2001). Studies also demonstrate that children’s language skills benefit from
opportunities to engage with conversational partners who are responsive to
their communicative bids (i.e. by following in to the child's focus of attention)
and to engage in balanced conversations where both the child and adult take on
comparable amounts of the conversation (e.g. Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2015; Romeo, et
NATURAL ENVIRONMENTS IMPROVE COMMUNICATION
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al., 2018). Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that connectedness in
conversation (that is, the extent to which conversational turns that are
meaningfully related to each other) is positively associated with cognitive
development (e.g. Dickson, Hess, Miyake & Azuma, 1979; Dunn, Brown,
Slomkowski, Tesla, & Youngblade, 1991; Ensor & Hughes, 2008; Slomkowski &
Dunn, 1996).
To date there have been no systematic studies of the effects of the physical
environment on human communication, including parent-child language and
communication. This is surprising since, as outlined earlier, natural
environments have a positive effect on a number of psychological processes and
states that are central to communication and social interaction, such as attention,
working memory and self-regulation. We therefore predict that natural
environments will promote connected and responsive communication between
parents and their children.
The Current Study
We examined the effects of physical environments on parent-child
communication during exploration of a natural environment and an indoor
environment. We selected a city centre park for the natural environment and the
park's nature-focussed education centre for the indoor environment. Our choice
to contrast thematically-linked natural and indoor environments as opposed to
two different outdoor environments (e.g. natural and built) was motivated by
two factors. Firstly the natural/indoor contrast has provided important insights
into the effects of the environment on cognition in both adults and children, as
outlined in the introduction. Secondly, there are no studies of systematically-
collected spontaneous parent-child communication in natural environments and
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therefore our first step is to compare parent-child communication in a natural
environment with parent-child communication an indoor environment that is
both well-matched to the natural environment and broadly similar to the indoor
settings in which previous research has examined parent-child communication.
Based on previous research displaying the beneficial effects of natural
settings on cognition and social interaction, we reasoned that natural
environments would enhance communication and connectedness. We therefore
predicted that parent-child communication would be more connected and more
responsive in the natural environment compared to the indoor environment. We
defined connectedness as sequences of
conversational turns that are
meaningfully linked
, and responsiveness as instances where speakers
follow in
and respond to the content
of their social partner’s utterances (Hoff-Ginsberg,
1991; Slomkowski & Dunn, 1996). To test these hypotheses, we conducted a
within-subjects experiment to compare parent-child communication in our two
family-friendly nature-oriented settings. Our measures include both
interactional and individual language measures typical of the key measures used
in studies of parent-child communication.
Method
Participants
Participants were 18 parent-child pairs (17 mother-child pairs, 1 father-
child pair) (6 female children; mean age = 45 months, range = 35-56, SD = 5.72).
Data from 3 additional pairs were excluded due to the child’s reluctance to wear
the recording equipment (n =1) and to not adhering to the time allocated to each
setting (n=2). Table 1 displays information on the education level of the parents
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and also general information on the frequency of visits to parks in general and
the test site specifically.
Table 1.
Background information on the study sample
Participants
n
%
Highest education level attained
Tertiary degree
13
72
Further education (up to 18 years)
3
17
High School education (up to 16 years)
2
11
Frequency of visits to parks
Once a month
1
6
Weekly
15
83
Daily
2
11
Visited Bute Park prior to study?
Yes
13
72
No
5
28
We focussed on three- and four-year-old children because basic language
skills are generally established by this point, while more sophisticated
communicative skills and social cognition are still emerging. At three and four
years, children have the linguistic tools to engage in sustained conversational
episodes but are still developing the interactional skills required for meaningful
and balanced interactions. Our within-subjects design ensured the power of
contrasts between conditions, while at the same time allowing us to collect
ecologically valid data within a short timeframe to ensure consistency across
participants for environmental factors such as weather and seasonal variation.
The novelty of the current study precludes power analyses since no existing
studies have contrasted the effects of indoor and outdoor settings on language.
However our sample size is consistent with a range of studies involving the
effects of outdoors settings (e.g. Berman et al., 2008; Faber Taylor & Kuo, 2009).
NATURAL ENVIRONMENTS IMPROVE COMMUNICATION
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All parents had a high school level education (i.e. compulsory education up
until the age of 16) or above. Participants were drawn from the Cardiff area of
Wales, UK and recruited through the Cardiff University Development@Cardiff
database, local museums and social media. Ethical approval for all aspects of the
study was provided by the University of Manchester Ethical Approval
Committee. Written consent was obtained from the parents and verbal assent
was obtained from the children.
Research Context
Test site.
The study took place at Bute Park and Arboretum in Cardiff,
Wales. Bute Park comprises an extensive area of mature parkland within Cardiff
city centre. The park contains a range of trails and sculptures in addition to an
arboretum and river corridor. The park also contains an indoor education centre
that promotes the park’s wildlife, horticulture and history. The education centre
contains displays, books and child-focused craft activities. Both the education
centre and the park are focused on promoting historic and wildlife interest, and
are stimulating and visually pleasing environments. Therefore, the natural and
indoor environments constituted distinct contexts with shared themes. For
example, the education centre contained a range of displays and exhibits that
reflected the flora and fauna of the park (e.g. a butterfly display and activity,
pictures of local wildlife, and maps of the park and surrounding area).
Importantly, both settings afforded a similar range of activities such as physical
exploration, manipulation and sharing of objects, and cooperation (see Figure 1).
NATURAL ENVIRONMENTS IMPROVE COMMUNICATION
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Figure 1. Still images taken from the children’s head mounted cameras in the
natural environment (top row) and the indoor environment (bottom row)
Design.
We used a within-subjects design with environment (natural vs.
indoor) as the independent variable. The order of environment was
counterbalanced across the sample. The dependent measures included
interactive communication measures and individual language variables. The
interactive communication variables were (a) the overall number of utterances
produced by the parents and children, (b) the mean length of connected
communication episodes, and (c) levels of responsiveness to the co-participant.
The individual language variables were (e) levels of grammatical complexity and
(f) lexical diversity in the speech of the parents and children.
NATURAL ENVIRONMENTS IMPROVE COMMUNICATION
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Procedure. The parents and children were asked to wear head-mounted
video cameras (Go Pro Hero 4 Silver edition)1 and informed that they would be
recorded in two settings: in the park and in the education centre. The head-
mounted cameras allowed the participants to roam freely without the intrusion
of a researcher and at the same time allowed us to record both the visual and
auditory components of the data, which was essential for the calculation of our
fine-grained interactional measures. The participants were then given the
instruction:
For the next 15 minutes, we want you to go on a treasure hunt in the
(park/ centre). See what you can find
. The instruction was the same for both
settings. The participants were told that the experimenter would come and find
them after 15 minutes and take them to the next setting. After the recordings
were conducted, the parents were asked to complete an activity questionnaire
and provide general demographic information on their family (i.e. age of child
and education level of the parent). Parents were provided with travel expenses
and the children were provided with a small gift to thank them for their
participation.
Language Analysis Coding
All recordings were transcribed in ELAN (Sloetjes & Wittenburg, 2008) by
trained transcribers and checked by the first author. The measures of number of
utterances, length of connected communication episodes, and proportion of
responses were calculated directly from ELAN. We outline each of the dependent
variables below.
1 Participants were also equipped with pedometers but due to mechanical issues in
some data collection sessions the measures were not entered into the analyses.
NATURAL ENVIRONMENTS IMPROVE COMMUNICATION
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Number of utterances.
Utterances were defined as discrete units of speech
delimited by a pause of three seconds or more.
Connected communication episodes. The mean length of connected
communicative episodes measure (CC) was coded manually and calculated using
a procedure based on Slomkowski and Dunn (1996). While automated
procedures are available for broad calculations of conversational turn length
(e.g. the Mean Length of Turn function in CLAN, and general turn taking
measures in LENA), there are no automated programmes that can code whether
one utterance is
logically and semantically
related to the next and thereby
contributing to a meaningful conversational interaction. Therefore, all CC coding
was conducted ‘by hand’ using the following method. The start point for each
connected conversation was coded as an initiation and the CC consisted of the
initiation and all subsequent logically related turns. Minimally, a CC could consist
of one initiation with no response; this would be scored as having a length of 1.
For example, in (1) the utterances would be coded as two independent
initiations each with a CC length of 1 due to the lack of a connected response
from the co-participant:
1. Parent: I can see a dog over there.
Child: Can I climb that tree?
Conversely in (2) the CC score would be 5 since the caregiver’s initiation
What shall we go and look for
?’ is followed by four logically-related turns. As
demonstrated in (2) a turn could consist of more than one utterance (line 3).
2. Parent: What shall we go and look for?
Child: Erm, frogs.
Parent: Frogs? Where would we find frogs?
NATURAL ENVIRONMENTS IMPROVE COMMUNICATION
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Child: In a pool.
Parent: I don’t know if there is a pool.
Interrater reliabilities were conducted on 10% of the data and were good
(Cohen’s kappa =0.77).
Responsiveness.
The responsiveness measure was calculated within the CC
analysis. All responses to initiations were counted for the parents and children
separately and the final score comprised the number of responses over the total
number of utterances for each parent and child.
Individual language measures. For the individual language measures of
grammatical complexity and lexical diversity we imported the transcripts into
CLAN (MacWhinney, 2000). The MLU function was used to measure the mean
length of utterance (MLU) for the parent and child speech samples. MLU is the
standard measurement of grammatical complexity used in language
development studies (e.g. Brown, 1973). The measure calculates the average
number of morphemes in an utterance, which is then taken as a proxy of
grammatical complexity. Lexical diversity was calculated using the VOCD
command (Malvern, Richards, Chipere, & Purán, 2004). VOCD calculates the
proportion of different words produced, taking into consideration the overall
size of the speech sample.
Results
No order or gender effects were attested in the data and therefore the
analyses were conducted on the sample as a whole. All dependent variables were
normally distributed with the exception of parental VOCD. Consequently, the
non-parametric Wilcoxon sign rank was used for parental VOCD and Paired
NATURAL ENVIRONMENTS IMPROVE COMMUNICATION
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Table 2.
Results summary
Indoor
Environment
Natural
Environment
t
p
95% Conf. Interval
Hedges' g
M
SD
M
SD
Children
129.00
32.63
150.28
34.70
2.77
.013
5.02
38.87
.63
Number of
utterances
Parents
217.11
38.25
221.56
55.42
0.49
.63
-14.79
23.69
.09
Length of connected episodes
1.75
0.22
2.27
0.49
4.59
<.001
.28
.76
1.37
Children
51.93
9.95
66.90
10.35
5.48
<.001
9.20
20.74
1.47
Responsiveness
Parents
46.15
9.42
57.72
8.96
4.02
.02
5.48
17.65
1.28
Children
3.24
0.76
3.22
0.85
.13
.90
-0.18
.21
0.03
MLU
Parents
5.49
0.63
5.42
9.10
.34
.74
-0.29
.40
0.01
63.83
14.12
66.80
13.74
.78
.45
-10.98
5.07
0.21
Children
Md
Md
z
p
r
VOCDM
Parents
80.85
12.40
83.36
11.68
-1.02
.306
.18
Note.
M
(Mean),
SD
(Standard Deviation),
Md
(Median)
NATURAL ENVIRONMENTS IMPROVE COMMUNICATION
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Sample T-tests for all other analyses. All analyses are presented in Table 2 and
discussed in turn below.
Analyses of Communication and Language
Number of utterances.
Our first analysis focussed on the amount of speech
produced by parents and children in each setting. The children were significantly
more talkative in the natural environment than the indoor environment but
there was no significant difference in terms of the quantity of parent utterances.
Length of connected communication (CC) episodes.
The parent-child pairs
engaged in significantly longer connected communication (CC) episodes in the
natural environment when compared to the indoor environment.
Levels of responsiveness.
Within the connected episodes we compared the
proportion of utterances produced in response to the co-participant in the two
settings. A Paired-Samples T-test based on the proportional frequency of
responses indicated that both the parents and the children produced a
proportionally higher number of responses in the natural environment in
comparison to the indoor environment.
Levels of grammatical complexity and lexical diversity. Our final analyses
compared two general measures of language in the speech of the parents and
children. Levels of grammatical complexity were consistent across setting for
both the parents and children as were levels of lexical diversity.
Discussion
We investigated whether and how natural environments influence human
communication. Our study combined robust experimental design with fine-
NATURAL ENVIRONMENTS IMPROVE COMMUNICATION
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grained analyses of naturalistic data collected during parent and child
exploration of two settings, a city park and the park’s indoor education centre.
The results confirmed our hypothesis that communication is more connected
and responsive in natural environments. Three- and four-year-old children were
significantly more talkative in the natural environment. In addition, in the
natural environment parent-child conversations were longer (i.e. more
connected) and levels of responsiveness were higher for both parents and
children. By contrast, the individual language measures (i.e., grammatical
complexity and lexical diversity) were unaffected by setting. In the following
sections, we discuss the implications of our findings with regard to our two key
themes: environmental influences on human behaviour, and the context-
sensitive nature of parent-child interaction.
Natural Environments Benefit Social Interactions
Our findings demonstrate that natural environments influence social
interactions. Natural environments support parent-child interactions by
increasing responsive and connected communicative behaviour. Our findings are
consistent with a growing body of literature demonstrating positive relations
between natural environments and psychological processes and states within
individuals (e.g. Berman et al., 2008; Dadvand et al., 2015; Faber Taylor & Kuo,
2009; Kaplan, 1995). Our findings also make a significant and original
contribution to scientific understanding of the relations between natural
environments and human behaviour by providing causal evidence of the
influence of natural environments on social interactions between people. Natural
environments thus benefit social interactions as well as individuals.
NATURAL ENVIRONMENTS IMPROVE COMMUNICATION
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Based on previous research we can identify and evaluate a number of
possible reasons for our findings. Firstly, research indicates that natural
environments have a restorative effect on human attentional processes as
captured in the seminal work of Kaplan and Kaplan's Attention Restoration
Theory (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989; Kaplan, 1995). To date, most studies of
Attention Restoration Theory (ART) have focussed on the attentional skills
within individuals (e.g. Lee, Williams, Sargent, Williams, & Johnson, 2015; Faber
Taylor & Kuo, 2009). Our findings suggest that natural environments may also
promote greater levels of attention
between
individuals, and thereby influence
interactions between people. Future research should investigate the potential
influence of natural environments on attention between individuals, including
joint attention, a psychological process that lies at the heart of meaningful
communication (e.g., Tomasello, 1999).
An alternative suggestion is that the natural outdoor environment resulted
in lower stress, and more positive mood, and a greater sense of connection with
other people. This explanation is consistent with the results of studies conducted
by Ulrich and colleagues (e.g. Ulrich, Losito, Fioritot, Miles, & Zelson, 1991) and
the proposal from Weinstein and colleagues (2015) that natural environments
may promote a sense of connection with other people. This too would be a
logical explanation, given previously reported correlations between mood state
and social interaction (e.g. Clark & Watson, 1998). The relations between the
three variables (i.e. stress, mood, and connectedness) could be viewed in one of
two ways. One possibility is that natural outdoor environments decrease stress,
which in turn leads to more positive mood, and consequently supports more
connected and responsive communication. The other possibility is that natural
NATURAL ENVIRONMENTS IMPROVE COMMUNICATION
19
outdoor environments decrease stress, which in turn supports more connected
and responsive communication, and that subsequently leads to more positive
mood. Both are outside the scope of our current analysis, but are a promising
direction for future research.
Natural Environments Benefit Parent-Child Communication
Our finding that parents and their children engaged in more connected,
balanced conversations in the natural environment builds on robust evidence
concerning the context-sensitive nature of parent-child interaction (e.g. Hoff-
Ginsberg, 1991; Hoicka, Jutsum, & Gattis, 2008; Noble, Cameron-Faulkner, &
Lieven, 2017; Sosa, 2016). Our findings also yield new insights into the
importance of physical environments for communication. Language
development is influenced by meaningful communicative exchanges in which
both parent and child take active and responsive roles (e.g. Snow, 1977;
Zimmerman et al., 2009). Importantly, the quality of parent-child communication
and degree of connectedness is positively associated with children’s cognitive
outcomes (Dickson et al., 1979; Hart & Risley, 2003) and the development of
social cognition in particular (e.g. Ensor & Hughes, 2008). In our study, the
natural environment had a unique positive effect on the interactive aspects of
parent-child communication. The specific effects on the interactive aspects of
language use are further underlined by the stability of the individual language
measures across the two settings. Future avenues of research are planned in
order to ascertain exactly what aspects of the natural environment are
responsible for the positive effects.
It could be argued that there are methodological factors that contribute to
our findings. For example, one could argue that the parents may have felt more
NATURAL ENVIRONMENTS IMPROVE COMMUNICATION
20
self-conscious in the indoor environment and that this affected their language
use, or that the parents and children simply found the natural environment more
interesting than the indoor environment. Here, the comparability of the
individual measures (i.e. number of utterances, and vocabulary diversity)
between the two environments are helpful. The number of utterances produced
by the parents did not differ significantly during interaction in the two settings,
indicating that the parents were not more self conscious in the indoor
environment. Secondly, there were no differences in the range of words
produced by the parents or children during exploration of the two environments,
suggesting that there were similar amounts of interest and 'things to talk about'
in the two environments. Importantly, both settings shared nature themes and
visually-pleasing, interesting stimuli. The main difference in parent-child
communication in the two environments related to the depth and involvement of
the communication as opposed to the number of objects and events available for
discussion.
Given the benefits of natural environments for human behaviour and
learning, it is surprising that developmental psychologists have shied away from
conducting studies in outdoor settings. This gap is reflective to some extent of
the sampling bias in developmental psychology, which is predominated by
studies conducted in western industrialised cultures where many child rearing
and learning activities occur in the home and other indoor environments. By
contrast, in many other cultures, children spend considerable time outside (e.g.
Callaghan et al., 2011; Ochs & Schieffelin, 1984). Therefore, understanding how
the physical environment affects parent-child interaction in industrialised
Western cultures will not only result in a more comprehensive understanding of
NATURAL ENVIRONMENTS IMPROVE COMMUNICATION
21
parent-child interaction but also provide a more appropriate baseline for cross-
cultural comparisons and generalisations across the human population.
Future Research and Applications
Our study makes an important advance towards an understanding of the
influence of natural environments on human communication and social
interaction. In doing so, it opens up an exciting area for future interdisciplinary
research. Firstly, future work is needed in order to ascertain exactly what
aspects of the environment facilitate more connected and responsive social
interactions. For example, are the present findings specific to natural settings,
and if so, what aspects of the natural setting are responsible for the positive
effects on communication? Secondly, future work is needed to evaluate whether
our findings extend to peer communication, including communication between
adults as well as communication between children. If so this avenue of research
could have important implications both for basic science in terms of the
cognitive processes associated with language but also for mental health and
well-being therapies and interventions. Finally, the interactions between stress,
mood, attentional processes and language use require detailed and extended
investigation. Identifying an influence of natural environments on
communication is an important first step, and understanding the processes
behind this relationship has the potential to provide valuable insights into
human cognition and our interactions with the world around us.
Our findings offer a promising new direction for interventions that aim to
support child development. Children learn language in the context of interaction
and conversational patterns associated with turn-taking (Ensor & Hughes, 2008;
Hilbrink, Gattis, & Levinson, 2015). Identifying situations that promote the
NATURAL ENVIRONMENTS IMPROVE COMMUNICATION
22
interactive aspects of communication is essential both for basic science and also
to inform interventions for children, including those with communicative
disorders and other broader risk factors as well. Future research should evaluate
the potential of natural environments as everyday contexts for language
interventions both delivered through parent-child interaction and also early
years settings.
Natural environments may also constitute optimal settings for learning
more generally. From conversations with parents, children learn about the
world, including community, concepts, and formal knowledge (Crowley,
Callanan, Tenenbaum, & Allen, 2001; Frazier, Gelman, & Wellman, 2009;
Paradise & Rogoff, 2009). Previous research has shown that parent-child
communication can support science learning, for example, by connecting formal
learning with everyday experience and by increasing transfer of knowledge
across contexts (Haden, 2010; Jant, Haden, Uttal, & Babcock, 2014). Future
research should examine how natural environments influence learning outcomes
as a function of parent-child communication.
Before closing this section we should note the limitations of our study. The
sample size was relatively small. We mitigated for this by using within-subjects
design but replication with a larger sample will be informative. While the effect
sizes for the interactional measures were large and robust, the small effect sizes
associated with the measures of MLU and VOCD mean that type II errors for the
individual language measures cannot be ruled out. Secondly, our findings may
have been influenced by specific characteristics of our sample. Population
estimates of British participation in higher education vary, but most estimates
indicate that less than 50% of adults go to university, whereas in our sample just
NATURAL ENVIRONMENTS IMPROVE COMMUNICATION
23
over 70% of parents were university-educated, indicating that our sample was
somewhat more educated than the population. In addition the majority of
families in our study reported visiting parks at least once a week, and we do not
know whether this level of visiting parks is typical of British families with 3- and
4-year-olds. Importantly, however, we observed robust differences in parent-
child communication in natural and indoor environments with a sample that
includes parents who did not have university degrees and who did not visit
parks with their children frequently. Future research should examine the effects
of natural environments on parent-child communication for families from other
cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. Finally, our analysis focussed on
language interaction within each environment as a whole as opposed to breaking
down the sessions into activity-specific episodes (e.g. climbing trees, sharing
books). Future research with larger samples could investigate the interaction
between activity, setting, and language use. On a related note, it will also be
important to build on the findings of the current study with future research
comparing parent-child communication in urban and natural environments.
Conclusion
Natural environments influence social interactions as well as individuals. In
this study, natural environments influenced social interactions between parents
and children by increasing connected, responsive communication. These
contexts may improve outcomes for interventions focused on cognitive and
linguistic development. The positive influence of natural environments on
human communication shows that when we respond to nature, we also respond
to each other.
Acknowledgements
NATURAL ENVIRONMENTS IMPROVE COMMUNICATION
24
We would like to thank all the staff Bute Park, Cardiff, Wales for accommodating
our study and in particular Meriel Jones and Julia Sas. Our thanks also go to all
the parents and children who took part in the study. Special thanks go to Rhys
Johnson for his help with data collection.
Funding
This work was supported by an institutional research grant awarded to the first
author and a Nuffield Research Placement grant awarded to Merideth Gattis and
Rhys Johnson.
NATURAL ENVIRONMENTS IMPROVE COMMUNICATION
25
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... Mean difference Cohen's d forests may provide cumulative positive effects of repeated restorative experiences (Collado et al., 2017;Hartig, 2007), the studies included in this literature review only considered the possible restorative impact of single visits (Cameron-Faulkner et al., 2018;Stevenson et al., 2019). A similar pattern was observed for behavioural outcomes (e.g., impulse inhibition, hyperactivity). ...
... According to these results, exposure to nature helps children inhibit impulses (Amicone et al., 2018), reduces hyperactivity (Balseviciene et al., 2014) and promotes physical activity (Raney et al., 2019), among others. Similarly, results included in the social category, although scarcer than the ones registered in the cognitive and behavioural categories, showed a clear restorative benefit from exposure to nature, with all the findings except one (Cameron-Faulkner et al., 2018), being positive and significant. This is in consonance with recent calls to extend restoration theory beyond ART (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989) and SRT (Ulrich, 1983) and, specifically, to contemplate the restorative effects that nature exposure has on social resources (Hartig, 2021;Kaplan, 1995). ...
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