Youth and the Environment

All young people should have opportunities to connect with nature and to contribute the power of their leadership and creativity to help ensure a healthy, sustainable environment.

In 2014, the Lawson Foundation revised its overall strategic direction to focus on the healthy development of children and youth. This triggered an interest in exploring the interdependence of healthy human development and a sustainable environment and led to a decision by the Foundation to support leadership and development opportunities for adolescents and emerging adults within an environmental context.

Connection to nature
The Foundation commissioned two systematic literature reviews, one by the Human Environments Analysis Lab at Western University (lead investigator Dr. Jason Gilliland, child health geographer), and the other by Dr. Robert Gifford, an environmental psychologist, and Dr. Angela Chen at the University of Victoria. The reviews assessed existing empirical evidence on the impact of exposure to nature on the physical health, mental well-being, and cognitive and social development of children and youth and provided recommendations for action by researchers, practitioners, parents and policy makers on connecting children and youth with nature.

The link between nature connection and health is becoming increasingly important, given rising rates of certain physical and mental health issues and the fact that young people are more sedentary and are spending less time outdoors. Nature connection could also pay a role in healthier food consumption.

The reports commented on the importance of equitable access to nature, especially for children and youth in low-socio-economic communities that bear a higher health burden due to overexposure to environmental toxins and limited engagement with nature. Cultural barriers and perceptions, e.g., of neighbourhood safety, also play a role. The take-over of local resources by strong outside interests could lead to negative ecological and social impact on communities. “Contact with nature is…also a bridge to social equality, ecosystem integrity, and long-term viability of environmentally sustainable cultures.” Gifford, Chen.

Youth development
Research by Ilona Dougherty and Dr. Amelia Clarke, of the Youth & Innovation Project at the University of Waterloo, built on the findings of the reviews by discussing recent research showing that adolescence/emerging adulthood is a critical period of brain development, and during this time, it is important to support effective programs and interventions that will have a positive impact throughout adulthood. The report also noted that this period of youth development is one of high creativity and that society would benefit by taking advantage of young people’s innate capacity for innovative thinking and collaborative action. However, organizations that work in the youth and environment space have indicated that there are insufficient interventions focused on the healthy development of youth aged 15-25 years and there is a lack of funding to support innovation and big picture thinking. Research suggests that separation from nature results in reduced ecological literacy and lack of interest in environmental stewardship. Studies have shown that youth think a healthy, sustainable environment should be a top priority for governments. However, this belief does not necessarily translate into action by youth to take leadership roles on environmental issues.

Youth Voices Retreat
The Foundation brought together a diverse group of young leaders to gather ideas and advice on how we could best support young people to connect with nature and help amplify their voices as leaders and stewards in environmental work. Their advice, found in the summary report and video, included: “Do nothing about us without us” and ensure that young people have an opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way; take a holistic approach, as environmental and social justice issues are interconnected; prioritize accessibility to nature; connect young people with good ideas to resources and intergenerational mentoring; be flexible, so that young people can be involved and balance their other responsibilities; and support reconciliation and culturally relevant programming.

Initial Grants
During this period of exploration, the Foundation provided funding to three projects: to expand the reach of environmental education initiatives at the Queen’s University Biological Station; to support Your Energy Future, a collaboration between the Public Policy Forum and Action Canada to engage young adults in the development of a clean energy policy for Canada; and to support expansion of Outward Bound Canada’s Urban Expedition Program to increase accessibility of outdoor learning programs for youth in urban communities in BC.

Youth & The Environment Project Cohort
We are pleased to announce that the Lawson Foundation is investing $2.7 million in ten youth-led environmental initiatives across Canada over three years as part of our Youth & The Environment impact area. Learn more here.



Have an idea?

The Lawson Foundation is always interested in hearing about new ideas. If you have carefully read our Strategic Direction and believe that your work is closely aligned to it, we invite you to put your innovative ideas forward for potential funding support via our Ideas Portal.

Active projects

Building Connections to Nature: Consolidation & Expansion of the Vancouver Urban Expedition Program (2017-2022)
Outward Bound Canada

Your Energy Future: Young influencers design Canada’s way forward (2017)
Public Policy Forum

Queen’s University Biological Station Outreach & Environmental Education (2016-2019)
Queen’s University

Systematic Review on the Impact of Nature on the Healthy Development of Children and Youth: Evidence, Gaps and Opportunities (2015)
University of Victoria

Systematic Review on the Impact of Nature on the Healthy Development of Children and Youth from an Environmental Psychology Perspective (2015)
Western University

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