The environmental problems associated with global warming result, to great extent, as a consequence of human behaviour (1;2). The World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) considers that human consumption is the core of planetary changes due to soil conversion, agriculture and overexploitation of species (3). For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that one out of every eight deaths in the world results from exposure to air pollution (4). Specifically, estimates indicate that 160 million children live in areas of high probability of drought and about 300 million reside in places with toxic levels in the air they breathe (5). That is why there ́s a need to carry out actions that guarantee the right of children to live in a safe and clean environment (5).
One of these challenges is to implant environmental awareness in the populations, specifically it is relevant to empower the young. Teaching children about natural processes is a key strategy to aim for the conservation of nature in the world (3). It is imperative that developing attitudes that benefit the environment and encouraging responsible behavior with nature be promoted since childhood, as the future of the earth depends on the following generations (6).
Psychological benefits of direct nature contact
Research has shown that contact with nature offers multiple benefits for health and emotional well-being (7). Evidence has been gathered of the positive effect of environmental programs through education, which contribute to the spiritual, social, mental and physical well-being of children (8). Specifically, several studies have confirmed that learning through nature promotes social-emotional well-being in children. For example, Chawla, Keena, Pevec, & Stanley (2014) conducted a study in the United States with elementary and high school students that demonstrated how contact with natural areas promotes the reduction of stress levels. The results revealed that contact with natural areas improves the sense of competence and increases the formation of social support groups, factors that promote resilience (9). Likewise, the cultivation of plants at school helped students feel greater levels of responsibility, confidence and pride in their performance, developing self-management skills and self-awareness (9). Other studies have evaluated the positive impact that a natural landscape view from the classroom window has, showing an increase in the ability of adolescent students to recover from stressful experiences (10).
Nedovic & Morrissey (2013), using a research-action approach, found positive results in children from educational institutions with natural play areas. In the study, carried out with children from 3 to 4 years old, a more imaginative, calm and focused game was observed; positive social interactions and increased physical activity. Likewise, the children from these institutions demonstrated a greater civic behavior, a more cooperative game and positive social relationships (8; 11). The study concludes that contact with natural spaces can reduce the problems of discipline and levels of aggression in children (8; 11). Similarly, Ruiz-Gallardo, Verde & Valdés (2013) found that nature-based learning significantly decreases school failure in adolescents and disruptive behavior in the classroom. Similarly, the teachers observed a decided improvement in their study habits and their levels of self-esteem (12).
Other studies also suggest that spending time with nature promotes better academic and behavioral outcomes in children (13). For example, learning in natural environments increases academic performance in the areas of mathematics, science, social studies, writing and reading (14; 15). Specifically, studies have shown better performance in focused attention tests (16; 9). In Spain, fewer symptoms of ADHD were found in children who spent more time in outdoor environments in contact with nature, finding themselves in a greener environment, the ability to focus primarily (17). Through exploration and discovery in experiences with nature we can increase enthusiasm and commitment to study and learning (18; 19). That is, children have more motivation to learn when they are conscious of nature in their environment.
Finally, there is evidence that contact with nature positively affects children’s mental and emotional development, decreasing the symptoms of mental disorders (20). Daily contact with nature is an efficient way to generate harmony with the environment, from which reflective capacity, mental clarity and, consequently, the restoration of focused attention, reducing common symptoms of attention disorders (21; 22). According to Kaplan (2017), connecting with nature offers several ways to replenish the «fatigue in the ability of directed attention», commonly called neglect. This attention fatigue occurs when a child gives too much focused attention to a topic or activity that does not motivate him, and as a consequence the child begins to have difficulty paying attention and following instructions (23).
A worrying issue today is the increase in cases of techno-addictions. The American Psychological Association (APA), currently recognizes addiction disorders not related to substances -as is the case of technology- (24). The symptoms associated with disorders due to excessive use of video games are similar to the those found as a result from the lack of nature contact: attention difficulties, anxiety symptoms, depression, devaluation of academic results and social skills difficulties (24).
However, the most worrying problem of this symptom is a decreased motivation, interest and care for the environment for future generations. This can lead to worsening of natural disasters and more conditions such as deforestation (25). That is why teaching children about natural processes is a key strategy to point to the conservation of nature in the world (3). It is essential that the development of attitudes that benefit the environment and responsible behaviors with nature be promoted from childhood, since the future of the earth depends on the following generations (6).
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