Nature as children's space : considerations for children's subjective well-being
The emerging interest in 'spaces of childhood' over the past two decades can be identified in a number of disciplines. A substantial body of research has indicated that children's active engagement within the natural environment as a space has been associated with a range of cognitive, physical, affective, and moral developmental benefits. Given the exponential growth in research on children and nature interactions, it was imperative to explore how children make sense of nature and the influence this has on children's subjective well-being (SWB) to address the current dearth in the literature; both internationally and in South Africa. The aim of the study was to explore children's engagement with natural spaces. Within this process the study aimed to explore the extent to which children's engagement with natural spaces influences their SWB. The specific objectives of the study were: 1) To systematically review and synthesise the findings regarding children's understandings and engagement with nature as a space (Chapter Four- Article 1 using a systematic review methodology); 2) To explore the relationship between children's environmental perceptions and their subjective well-being (Chapter Five- Article 2 using Structural Equation Modeling); 3) To explore how children discursively construct natural spaces and the influence on their subjective wellbeing, using specific discursive resources and repertoires to construct and assign meaning to their engagement with natural space, and how their constructions and assignations are manifested in their discourses (Chapter Six- Article 3 using discourse analysis); and 4) To explore children's representations and perceptions of natural spaces using photovoice and community mapping (Chapter Seven- Article 4 using thematic analysis). The study employed a mixed methods approach to gain an inclusive understanding of children's daily lives. In advancing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), the study included children as key agents and valid constructors of knowledge, with crucial contributions to make about their well-being. The study comprised three phases; Phase One encompassed a systematic review which aims to explore how children make sense of, assign meaning to, and perceive natural spaces (addressing objective 1). Phase Two and Three constituted the mixed methods study: Phase Two included the quantitative phase (addressing objective 2) and Phase Three included the qualitative phase (addressing objective 3 and 4) with children between 12-14 years of age. Phase Two encompassed a cross-sectional survey design with children aged 12 years in the Western Cape province of South Africa, and included a final sample of 1004 children. Phase Three employed a qualitative methodological design utilising focus group interviews, photovoice, and community mapping across three diverse communities in both urban and rural geographical locations. While Phase Two showed no significant relationship between children's engagement in natural spaces (using Structural Equation Modeling) and their subjective well-being, the findings from the qualitative phase, utilising participatory methods, showed that socio-economic status (SES) was a key defining factor influencing how children made sense of their lives. The narratives of children from the low SES communities indicated that safety was a pervasive concern for children, with many having experienced first-hand negative experiences in their neighbourhoods. Many of these experiences have occurred in nature, which resulted in nature being constructed as synonymous with danger, while children from the middle SES community did not perceive safety as a concern in their community. Thus evincing the nuances which exist in children's understandings. Although children's environments are inherently unsafe, an important finding was that nature positively influenced children's subjective well-being. Given the significant role that nature plays in influencing children's subjective well-being, we advance children's environmental subjective well-being (ESWB) which merges the fields of environmental psychology and positive psychology which essentially have a shared goal of enhancing people's quality of life. 'Good places' for children should therefore give preference to children's safety in their neighbourhoods, as well as affording children opportunities for engagement in natural spaces which enhances their subjective well-being and life satisfaction. The study points to the need for environmental education in the formal and informal spaces which children inhabit, to foster an intrinsic care for nature.