Are we losing the natural wor(l)d?

What do you think of when you hear the words: tweet, web, stream, cloud? Do you think of birds, spiders, rivers and skies? Or messaging, data and live video?

A new study has shown that our language for the natural world is being lost or overtaken by uses that refer to digital technology, especially among younger generations.

Nature word use has been overtaken by ‘tech’ references, especially among younger generations. The study indicates that children appear to start switching from nature to tech definitions around the age of 10.

This study was commissioned by the National Trust to help children and families reconnect with nature through simple, natural experiences, like cloud watching and using our senses – looking, listening, feeling/touching, smelling and tasting, outdoors in nature.

Nature-related use of common nature words (e.g. Cloud, Net, Stream) has fallen dramatically in two decades new study reveals.

An academic study of evidence from over 25 years has highlighted a declining trend of Britons associating words like stream, web and cloud with nature:

  • Today just 1% of uses of the word ‘tweet’ relates to birds and 7% of the word ‘web’ to spiders.
  • In the 1990s, 100% of mentions of ‘stream’ meant ‘a little river’ versus only 36% today.
  • Nature usage of ‘cloud’ is down nearly a quarter (23%) in three decades.

Dr Robbie Love, linguistics fellow at the University of Leeds, who conducted part of the study using two data sets of informal conversations among members of the UK public, says, “Language represents what’s important to a culture or society. Nature language being replaced or used less frequently suggests nature potentially becoming less important or being replaced by other things.”

The research shows how the implied meaning of some common nature words has changed dramatically in the UK over just one generation, from the 1990s to the 2010s:

The following nature words have also decreased in relative frequency among young people between the 1990s and 2010s according to Dr Love’s analysis: lawn, twig, blackbird, picnic, fishing, paddle, sand, welly, desert, paw, snow, grass, jungle, sky, path, bridge, bush, land, hill, fish, pond, mountain, soil, branch, stick, park, ground, wheel, tree, stream, rock, bird, road, garden, shell.

A follow up study in June 2019 of 6 – 12-year olds using YouGov’s children’s omnibus survey observed that on average, kids start switching away from nature meanings in their language around the age of ten. The National Trust’s analysis of the YouGov survey found that almost 40% of kids associate the word ‘web’ with the internet rather than spiders. In some children, this was observed as starting at as young as six.

Parents and grandparents recognised this trend too, with 50% believing their children/grandchildren would see ‘web’ as a technology word, 48% ‘tweet’, 43% ‘net’, 30% ‘stream’ and 20% ‘cloud’.

Parents and grandparents also reported that time spent watching TV or playing on ‘gadgets’ is markedly higher for their kids (63% and 65% respectively said their 6-12 year-olds played “often”) versus their own generation’s childhood, where 50% of respondents said they watched TV and 20% said they played on electronic devices. However, they felt that their children spend a similar amount of time playing outdoors in the garden as they did as kids (66% vs. 75% ‘often or very often’ playing outdoors). What is important here is the difference between simply being outdoors and having a connection with nature – which has been proven to provide mental and physical health benefits to children.

The study commissioned by the National Trust accompanies this striking, unscripted video that shows seven to ten-year olds who are losing nature meanings in their language and then the joy of reconnecting with the nature meanings of words. It marks the launch of the charity’s updated 50 Things to do before you’re 11 ¾ initiative – 50 free and easy ideas to help kids connect with nature. New activities include ‘cloud watching’ and ‘watch a sunrise or sunset’, with the aim of inspiring kids to get stuck into nature with all their senses in a local park, their garden or National Trust place.

The answers and interactions by the children in this film were not scripted. Footage used in the first half of the film was recorded on mobile phones by real parents/guardians. The second half captures the reactions kids gave when reconnecting with nature, on location at Morden Hall Park.

The charity’s Andy Beer, Regional Director for the Midlands and nature writer, says: “As a nation we are losing our connection with nature. This is really worrying for us as a conservation charity. One of the key reasons we were formed was to protect and look after green spaces and wildlife for the benefit of the nation. If today’s children aren’t connected to nature, then who is going to stand up for our countryside and wildlife in the future?”

“Nature connection isn’t just about playing outside, it means using all the senses – actively noticing nature, such as the way gorse growing wild by the coast can smell like coconut, how fog in the autumn can cling to your hair, how a spider web can sparkle on a dewy morning and enjoying the eye-catching popping of colours of wildflowers that grow in the cracks in the pavements and waste ground during the summer”

What are people doing about it?

Almost 4 in 10 parents and grandparents (39%) in the study said they felt worried about their kids losing nature meaning from language. Among the most popular suggestions for helping children learn or relearn nature language included:

  • getting kids to play outdoors more (74%),
  • having outdoor lessons at school (56%),
  • having nature taught at school as a separate subject (54%),
  • and nature language taught in schools like modern languages are (30%).

National Trust spokesperson Andy Beer said: “There is a free way for parents to help kids connect with nature – 50 Things is our evidence-based list of things that help and it’s free for anyone to use, anywhere. Many of the words identified as losing meaning are covered there. Importantly, the list isn’t about ‘teaching’ kids or just getting them to observe – it’s about helping them think, feel and relate to nature, doing things that really help them connect. If we can strengthen the connection with nature, we can strengthen the benefits to our wellbeing, like increased happiness and self-esteem and reduced anxiety.”

The National Trust’s list of 50 Things to do before you’re 11 ¾ is a list of fifty nature adventure ideas available FREE online at for kids to have a go at over the Summer holidays, weekends and October half-term, at a local park, in a garden, at the coast or at a National Trust place.

Research Information

Dr Robbie Love’s research was undertaken using two bodies of transcribed informal conversations among members of the public in the UK. The first corpus comes from the 1990s and comprises five million words. The second corpus comes from the 2010s and comprises 12 million words, comparing over 100 nature words between these decades, deep-diving into frequency of use and how ten of these words have changed from nature to non-nature.

The quantitative YouGov research was conducted in two stages:

  1. YouGov Omnibus was conducted with 1296 parents / grandparents of kids aged 5-12. The survey was carried out online between 27th – 28th June 2019. Total sample size was 4404 adults, of whom 1296 were parents or grandparents of children aged 5-12. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).
  2. YouGov Omnibus conducted with 416 kids aged 6-12, answering one question verbatim – providing us with their definition of key nature words. The survey was carried out online. The verbatim responses were analysed by the National Trust.

Supporting information

Updates to 50 things to do before you’re 11 ¾ for 2019

The 50 Things list has recently been updated – in partnership with schoolkids in Bristol – to give ongoing inspiration, rather than a ‘one and done’ checklist (for example, ‘Climb a tree’ is now ‘Get to know a tree’). The list also reflects the work the University of Derby has done in terms of ensuring kids get to use a variety of different senses and emotions when outdoors. This is proven to help increase ‘connectedness’ with nature.

The National Trust has matched words that are most losing nature meaning with activities on the 50 Things list to give kids and parents a great starting point to learn – or stay fluent in – ‘Mother Nature’s Tongue’.

50 Things List examples to connect to that word and connect to nature

Branch – Get to know a tree, build a den, have fun with sticks

Cloud – Go cloud watching, watch a sunset

Map – Find your way with a map, go on a scavenger hunt, go welly wandering, take a friend on a nature adventure

Net – Discover what’s in a pond, catch a crab, spot a fish

Stream – Dam a stream, spot a fish, play pooh sticks, go paddling

Tweet – Watch a bird, wake early to listen to the dawn chorus

Web – Make friends with a bug, discover wild animal clues

About nature connectedness

Simple exposure to nature – eg playing or cycling outside – is good. But connection with nature is something more meaningful and deeper. An experience that helps you care about nature. Nature connectedness combines how you THINK, FEEL ABOUT and RELATE TO nature.

“No one will protect what they don’t care about and no one will care about what they have never experienced”

Sir David Attenborough

Increasing understanding of and observing nature alone don’t increase nature connectedness. Nature connectedness needs a two-way exchange. It can be increased through noticing the good things in nature and there is evidence it is better facilitated by arts-based, sensory and emotion-based activities.

1. Nature connectedness benefits people

“Nature connectedness gives people greater vitality, purpose and happiness and helps us cope better with anxiety and stress. Research has also shown [it] is associated with greater environmental concern and an increase in environmentally conscious behaviour.” Miles Richardson, University of Derby.

Nature connection has been linked to a range of well-being outcomes, including vitality, meaning in life, happiness and life satisfaction. Higher levels of nature connection are also linked to decreases in anxiety owing to increased positive emotions. Nature connectedness brings more transient moments of happiness, as well as long-lasting feelings of functioning well. In short, with nature we feel good and function well.

2. Nature connectedness also benefits nature

Connection to nature is also the strongest predictor of ecological behaviour – in a Nature Connectedness study by the National Trust, environmental education explained 2% of the variance in ecological behaviour in children. Nature connectedness explained 69%. In short, a connection with nature brings about more positive environmental attitudes and behaviour.

A connection with nature is part of a healthy future for everyone!

How do we affect peoples’ nature connectedness?

There are five pathways to increase nature connectedness, as identified by the University of Derby and the National Trust:

  1. Start with the senses – taste, touch, smell
  2. Hearts then minds – invite people to share what they care about
  3. Stand in the shoes of the bug – empathy and compassion help people relate to the natural world
  4. Use the power of localness, seasonality, arts and culture
  5. Beauty matters a lot – a beautiful experience gives much more impact

How 50 Things to do before you’re 11 ¾ helps nature connectedness

50 Things has run successfully for 7 years, by providing families with fifty free and easy ways to connect with nature. For 2019, this list has been evolved to increase the opportunity for nature connectedness, For example, ‘Climb a tree’ is now ‘Get to know a tree’, which can mean ‘touch the bark, smell the pine needles, listen to the wind through the leaves, lie under a tree, what can you see?’ – it opens up lots more two-way interaction opportunities.


  • Michael VJ Jones
    December 31, 2019 at 10:26 am

    This is BRILLIANT Nature Connection World (Ranger Number 24 feels GREAT)

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