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How to make good conversations a walk in the park

31 October 2018

Family walking in park

Conversations are more responsive in natural environments such as parks and gardens than indoors, finds new research by the University of Manchester and Cardiff University.

The researchers recorded conversations between three- and four-year-old children and their parents while they explored a city park and the park’s indoor education centre and found that the conversations in the park were more responsive and connected compared to those recorded indoors.

Dr Thea Cameron-Faulkner, Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at the University of Manchester, and one of the study authors, said: “Our research demonstrates that natural environments can significantly enhance social interactions, in this case improving the quality of parent-child conversations.”

Professor Merideth Gattis, from Cardiff University’s School of Psychology, one of the study authors, added: “One of the most challenging aspects of conversations is listening and responding to what other people say. The results of our study suggest that one simple way for people to improve this process is to spend time outdoors in natural environments.

“Our findings are an important first step toward building a better understanding of how natural environments can influence communication and could be used to inform and improve a number of services including education, child welfare and urban design."

Future studies will explore the reliability of our findings as well as probing which specific aspects of environments influence communication quality.

Professor Merideth Gattis

The team focused on families with three- and four-year-olds because at these ages most children have a lot to say, but coordinating with a conversational partner is sometimes challenging.

Dr Cameron-Faulkner said: “Our study introduces a novel experimental design, which allows us to draw stronger causal conclusions about the benefits of natural environments compared to previous correlational studies reporting positive associations between green space and child outcomes.”

Sam Williams, Co-author of the Arup report Cities Alive: Designing for Urban Childhoods, who was not involved in the research, commented: “Positive and engaging parent-child communication is key to a child’s healthy development with lifelong benefits. This study, which is the first of its kind, demonstrates the importance of access to local, natural environments to enhance this relationship. Providing opportunities for daily contact with nature is a simple but powerful way that cities can support both children and their caregivers, with significant implications for how we plan, design and manage our public spaces.”

Professor Courtenay Norbury of the School of Psychology and Language Sciences at University College London, added: “The language that children possess when they start school is highly predictive of later language competence and early scholastic and social success. Thus increasing opportunities for language learning that are embedded in rich social interactions is key to enhancing oral language competence.”

The study ‘Responding to nature: Natural environments improve parent-child communication’ is published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.