Healthy parks, healthy people – Understanding the human-nature relationship, Part 3

Gender and nature

Although much has been published in philosophy and sociology linking the
concepts of gender and nature, this is not the focus of the discussion here (e.g. Wilson, 2005; Norgaard, 2000). Although some reference is made to the philosophical literature, this review is concerned more with human perceptions of day-to-day contact with nature and how it can influence health and wellbeing. Yet research in this area on gender remains undeveloped, and what little is published relates mostly to women.

The Ecofeminist literature offers some interesting insights into conceptualisations of gender and nature. Norgaard (2000) provides numerous historical examples of the assignment of ‘male’ and ‘female’ genders to certain aspects of nature. For example, she attempts to explain gender-nature relationships by examining symbolic references from history, where Gaia, Eve and Isis were considered ‘female nature’, and Pan, Neptune and Thor were considered ‘male nature’ (Norgaard, 2000). Filemyr (1997) argues that nature as ‘the outdoors’ is gendered as a male space, racialised as a white space (see section entitled ‘Ethnicity and Nature’
above), and sexualised as a heterosexual space. Although a personal account, her article raises some important issues that could be tackled in future research.

In their study on gender, ethnicity, and urban park preferences, Ho et al. (2005) review some of the available literature on gender and nature. They cite the work of Hutchison (1994 in Ho et al., 2005) who found that in parks women were more likely than men to engage in stationary activities (i.e. associated with child care or as a member of a mixed gender social group), whereas men were more likely to participate in mobile activities such as sport, and to do so as individuals or with peers. Furthermore, new immigrant women have been found to be less likely than Western women to engage in activities outdoors, including the use of urban parks (Eyler et al., 2002 in Ho et al., 2005), let alone other ‘less tamed’ natural environments such as wilderness areas.

The work by Virden and Walker (1999) on forest environments also found that women perceived forests as more threatening than men. Virden and Walker (1999) explain that this is most likely due to women’s fear of their own species, particularly men, rather than fear of other animals. Indeed, the work by Wesley and Gardner (2004) seems to confirm this. They studied women partaking in a wilderness adventure program in the United States, who despite feeling empowered by their wilderness experience, still considered themselves vulnerable to violence in outdoor environments, particularly from men (Wesely and Gardner, 2004). Conversely, work by Pohl et al. (2000) found that rather than simply feeling empowered, women’s wilderness recreation resulted in feelings of increased self-confidence, assertiveness, problem-solving skills, self-trust, and self-worth outcomes which were transferred to their daily life and which enabled them to challenge norms and the restrictive worldviews of those around them. For their own findings on women, fear, and forest environments, Virden and Walker (2004) offer an alternative explanation by describing the possibility of a distinct, but not necessarily exclusive, feminine view of forested environments that perceives forests as threatening, but also as more mysterious and awe-inspiring that men do, where nature is considered an entity or organism in it’s own right (Virden and Walker, 1999).

Interestingly, in an early study by Kellert and Berry (1984) which investigated gender variations in human relationships to animals and nature, female participants scored higher on the humanistic and moralistic attitude scales than men, which Kellert and Berry (1984) reported was indicative of greater emotional attachment to individual animals and more concern for their ethical treatment. Along similar lines, Kruse (1999) studied gender, perceptions of nature and support for animal rights. He too found that women displayed greater support for animal rights than men. However, Kalof (2003) cites work by Peek et al. (1997) which showed that women’s devotion to animal rights is not explained by an ethic of care, but is instead explained by women’s subordination in the social hierarchy whereby an experience of oppression results in empathy for other oppressed groups, including animals. In terms of men, Kellert and Berry’s (1984) findings suggested, as did Virden and Walker’s (1999) research, that men demonstrated greater interest in wildlife and direct contact with the outdoors, and showed substantially less fear and indifference to wild animals (Kellert and Berry, 1984).

Bhatti and Church (2000) explore gendered meanings of contemporary gardens. In reviewing the literature, they conclude that for much of the twentieth century, the garden, particularly in working class households, was portrayed as the man’s domain and as a masculine source of leisure (Bhatti and Church, 2000). Yet their own work suggests that although men expressed a desire to control the garden by imposing their own personal order, for women the garden was a creative outlet, more so than inside the house (Bhatti and Church, 2000). Their findings show that for both genders gardening is a major leisure activity and that gardens have multiple meanings, including: as a private retreat; a social place for sharing; a connection to personal history; a reflection of one’s identity; and a status symbol (Bhatti and Church, 2000). Bhatti and Church (2000 p. 195) conclude ‘… that the garden often reveals hidden (or not so hidden) social relations and can be seen as a negotiated realm that highlights deeper gender relations.’ It is clear that the gender-nature relationship is complex, and that more work is needed to unravel this fascinating aspect of the human-nature relationship.

Children and nature

Humans’ perception of the natural world and the meanings they attach to nature are shaped by the influence of learning, culture and experience, despite their presumed biological origins (Kellert 2002). Kellert (2002) observes that there is a paucity of available literature on the role played by childhood contact with natural systems in character and personality formation. He comments that the literature that does exist almost exclusively employs the terms ‘ecology’ and ‘environment’ in considering family relationships, human social contexts, and the built rather than the natural environment (e.g. Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Kellert, 2002). Hence, the underlying assumption in the existing literature is that these are the predominant settings of modern childhood, or alternatively the more defining settings (i.e. more important). This assumption excludes the natural environment and its influence on human development entirely. As Kellert (2002, p.118) states, ‘.. .the relative absence of published material on this subject may be indicative of society so estranged from its natural origins it has failed to recognise our species’ basic dependence on nature as a condition of growth and development.’

So how does the natural environment affect childrens health and wellbeing? Tuan (1978) states that posed in this way the question is largely meaningless children’s health depends more on the quality of parental care, nutrition, access to medical services, and the socioeconomic environment than on whether they live surrounded by the built or the natural environment. As Tuan (1978) argues, in romanticising nature it is easy to forget that infant mortality is higher in many indigenous cultures that have close contact with the natural world than in developed countries where children live in almost entirely in urban environments. Nevertheless, this is most likely due to differences in culture, socioeconomic factors, access to and level of education, and access to health care services between richer and poorer nations. Any positive effects on the health and wellbeing of indigenous peoples obtained from contact with nature are likely to be ineffectual due to the dominance of these other factors. Yet, according to the
research presented in this review, the natural environment can and does have a positive impact on human health and wellbeing. Perhaps surprisingly however, there is not an expansive amount of scientific literature on children and youth and their relationships with the natural world. Despite this, there are some interesting publications that adopt an ecological or evolutionary approach.

Glenhaven Park June 2018

Heerwagen and Orians (2002) explore the ecological world of children. Their aim was to show how conditions experienced in ancestral environments still exert considerable pressure on humans today. Adopting an ecological-evolutionary perspective they predicted age-related patterns of behavioural responses to the environment or environmental stimuli. For example, as children develop physical skills and are able to gain some independence from the primary caregiver they begin to explore their environment (Heerwagen and Orians, 2002). In doing so, they should be motivated to seek out spaces that afford safety and protection, as children’s play at this age is highly focused on their activities and not on the surrounding environment (Heerwagen and Orians, 2002). But this type of play can leave them vulnerable to hostile people, animals, or other dangers (Heerwagen and Orians, 2002). As examples of natural refuges, Heerwagen and Orians (2002) describe a tree with a wide canopy, or a shrub open enough for a child to sit and play within it, while offering a view of the nearby surroundings. Heerwagen and Orians (2002) predict that young children, particularly of preschool age will seek out naturally occurring shelters in the environment and that older children (i.e. those old enough to attend school) will actively shape or construct shelters.

In fact, when playing outside research has shown that children do seek ‘refuge’ in certain elements found in the natural environment (Kirkby, 1989). Kirkby (1989) also predicted that children would engage in more dramatic and imaginative play in a natural refuge as opposed to a built refuge in school playgrounds. Her reasoning was that natural refuges offer a greater sense of enclosure and more opportunities to manipulate objects (Kirkby, 1989). She found that dramatic play ranged from 42% of the total play content in the built refuge to 68% in the natural refuge settings (Kirkby, 1989). Similarly, Heerwagen and Orians’ (2002) analysis of young children’s attraction to natural refuges in playgrounds showed that play behaviours in natural refuges differed significantly from play behaviours in built refuge or traditional playground equipment ((Heerwagen and Orians, 2002). They
cite evidence that natural refuges and natural materials (such as flowers, sticks and stones) facilitated long bouts of imaginary play, a behaviour known to have high social and cognitive benefits (Heerwagen and Orians, 2002).

In their overview of the literature, Heerwagen and Orians (2002) state that the design of day-care centres, playgrounds, schools, homes, and hospitals could benefit from a better understanding of children’s natural play behaviours. They state ‘Even a cursory investigation of schools and playgrounds shows that little has changed over the past 50 years. Children still sit in desks facing a teacher or sometimes in clusters of desks. And they still play in environments dominated by swings and slides or other fixed play equipment that does little to capture their imagination’ (Heerwagen and Orians, 2002 p.52). Disconnection from the natural environment has prompted some researchers to implore policy and other decision makers to remember their own youth (e.g. Nabhan and Trimble, 1994) and Louv (2005) has coined the phrase ‘nature-deficit disorder’ to capture ‘modern’
children’s lack of contact with nature.

Glenhaven Park Stockport

In terms of children’s contact with nature, Kellert (2002) has described three types of experiences—direct, indirect, and vicarious experiences. Kellert (2002) defines direct experiences with nature as actual physical contact with natural settings and nonhuman species (i.e. animals and plants). However, he restricts these direct encounters to creatures and environments occurring mostly outside and independent of the human built environment, where plants, animals, and ecosystems function without continuous human intervention and control. Kellert (2002 p.119) states ‘The child’s direct experience of nature is viewed as largely unplanned rather than formally organised into structured programs and activities…’ Examples of direct experience of nature are spontaneous play or activity in one’s backyard, in a nearby forest, creek, neighbourhood park, or vacant lot (Kellert, 2002) where the child is likely to encounter mostly native, wild species of plants, animals, and insects.

Kellert (2002) defines a child’s indirect experience of nature as involving actual physical contact but in more restricted, programmed, and managed contexts. Included here are examples of nature that are usually the product of deliberate and extensive human mastery and manipulation, such as animals, plants, and habitats encountered in zoos, aquariums, and botanical gardens (Kellert, 2002). Indirect experiences of nature also include domesticated species and habitats such as farm and companion animals (pets), vegetable gardens, and cultivated crops. As Kellert (2002) asserts these are all habitats and creatures dependent on (or the result of) extensive human intervention and control.

The final type of experience with nature described by Kellert (2002) is vicarious or symbolic experience. This is defined as ‘.representations or depicted scenes of nature that sometimes are realistic but that also, depending on circumstance, can be highly symbolic, metaphorical, or stylised characterisations’ (Kellert, 2002 p.119). This type of experience of nature has become more predominant in modern living through various technologies (such as books and other print media, radio, television, film, and computers) (Kellert, 2002). Yet, the depiction of the natural world through symbols is something that the human species has explored throughout our history, as supported by extensive archaeological and palaeontological evidence. Kellert (2002) argues that because humans have
symbolically experienced nature since ancient times this counters any inclination to treat vicarious experiences of nature as specific to modern humans. What has changed, however, is the proliferation of these images via technology and the mass media (Kellert, 2002). Furthermore, and perhaps more disconcerting is the concurrent decline in children’s direct experience with healthy and abundant natural systems’ (Kellert, 2002 p.120).

Some important research has been conducted on the potential effects of contact with nature on children’s health and wellbeing in a variety of contexts including the home and school environments. Wells and Evans (2003) examine the notion that nature might buffer or moderate the effects of stress or adversity in children living in rural upstate New York. Their research is part of a growing number of studies investigating children’s relationship with the natural environment and the potential for nature to positively influence child health. As Wells and Evans (2003) state, although some research has investigated the direct effects of nature on children’s functioning or wellbeing (e.g. Taylor, Kuo, and Sullivan, 2001; 2002; Wells, 2001; Taylor et al., 1998) very little work has investigated the potential for nature to buffer the effects of stress. Despite this, several studies have
demonstrated the positive effects of contact with nature on stress reduction and resilience to stress in adults (e.g. Parsons et al., 1998; Ulrich et al., 1991b).

Wells and Evans (2003) highlighted a number of studies demonstrating that
children have a preference for green natural settings. Included was a study by Moore (1986), who reported that 96% of urban children illustrated outdoor places when asked to make a map or drawing of all their favourite places. From this and other evidence, Wells and Evans (2003) state that it is reasonable to expect that green natural settings preferred by children would also have a beneficial effect on children’s wellbeing. In fact research in children has shown that children function better cognitively and emotionally in ‘green environments’ (i.e. those with higher amounts of vegetation) than those without (Taylor et al., 2001; Wells, 2000); have more creative play in ‘green areas’ (Taylor et al., 1998); and develop better interpersonal relationships and a more positive attitude to school (Crisp
and Aunger, 1998). Furthermore, other research has demonstrated that children have an abiding affiliation with nature, even in economically impoverished urban communities and across cultures (Kellert, 2002; Taylor et al., 1998; Kahn, 1997). Related work using companion animals and/or wilderness experiences to treat children and adolescents suffering from behavioural and/or psychological disorders has also indicated positive outcomes (Fawcett and Gullone, 2001; Ross, 1999; Crisp and Aunger, 1998; Beck and Katcher, 1996; Levinson, 1969).

Wells and Evans (2003) report however, that the majority of work investigating the beneficial effects of nature on children has been conducted since the mid- 1990s, and nearly all of this has been on children living in urban environments. Although this work is in the early stages there is significant incentive to explore the relationship that children have with the natural environment, and to look for ways this relationship can be used to maximise health and wellbeing. As Kellert (2002) writes, direct experience of nature plays a significant, vital, and perhaps irreplaceable role in affective, cognitive, and evaluative development but further study is needed.


As discussed above there are many ways of examining the human-nature
relationship, yet knowledge about our relationship with nature is still incomplete. Despite this, the importance of the natural environment is apparent across cultures and varying population groups. Overall, there is a strengthening perception that contact with nature is beneficial to adults and children alike, and is perhaps an antidote to health and wellbeing problems associated with an increasingly urbanised modern lifestyle. Some of the evidence is discussed in the following section titled ‘Health Benefits of Contact with Nature: The Evidence.’


Healthy parks, healthy people
The health benefits of contact with nature in a park context
A review of relevant literature
2nd edition
March 2008
School of Health and Social Development Faculty of Health, Medicine, Nursing and Behavioural Sciences
Deakin University
Burwood, Melbourne

© Deakin University and Parks Victoria 2008
Authors Dr. Cecily Maller Associate Professor Mardie Townsend Associate Professor Lawrence St Leger Dr Claire Henderson-Wilson Ms Anita Pryor Ms Lauren Prosser Dr Megan Moore

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: