Our ecologist Dr Brenda Lin walks through her research to discover whether nature or nurture is driving your love of the outdoors.

As a youngster, did your parents ever drag you kicking and screaming for long walks in the nearest national park on a particularly hot Saturday?

At the time you probably thought they were being terrible. And your complaining could only be eased by the promise of an ice cream at the conclusion of this regular weekend torture.

Fast forward 30 years and, to your own surprise, you are now the parent encouraging your kids to step away from technology and into the great outdoors. After all, it is “for just one bloomin’ afternoon”.

Well, this is no coincidence. It is, in fact, science.

Two people wearing jeans walking along a log in a grassy forest.
Getting into nature is actually more nurture than nature. Image Shutterstock.

Does nurture explain our attachment to nature?

A group of international scientists, including our ecologist Dr Brenda Lin, have released a study in PLOS Biology journal. The research team used a groups of twins to figure out if people’s desire to spend time in nature is heritable, meaning it can be genetically passed down.

They discovered people’s desire for nature experiences are partially heritable. However, environmental influences are the predominant drivers. This means some of the desire for nature can be explained by genetics. But environmental factors including education, familiarity with nature, and learned behaviour, can have a greater influence.

So, it’s the nature (genetics) versus nurture (environment) debate. You can thank your parents for your adult appreciation of nature. But it wasn’t entirely in your genes.

For the study, scientists surveyed 2306 adult twins in the United Kingdom. They examined how much genetic versus environmental influences explain individual variations in nature experiences. They also considered home location, and the frequency and duration of public and domestic garden or nature visits.

The researchers found that although we may have a certain affinity with nature, this can change with time and circumstances.

Brenda says the levels of urbanisation around you can impact on your use of green spaces. For instance, public nature space visits significantly reduced with increasing levels of urbanisation.

She says education and policy that helps drive this desire to be in nature can help the general population have more positive nature experiences with associated wellbeing benefits.

Nature Nurture Outdoors. An orange and red climbing frame with a slide. There is a paper sign attached to the climbing frame that says the park is closed due to COVID.
Hinkler Park, a popular park and playground in Katoomba, New South Wales pictured closed due to Covid-19 on 13 April 2020. The park features a climbing frame in the shape of aircraft and a picnic shelter. Image Flickr.

Nature is good for the soul

Most people have experienced first-hand the welcome joy of a ‘permitted picnic’ in the great outdoors during COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions.

Time and again, research has shown that interaction with nature can improve people’s health and wellbeing.

But how do we get people outdoors to gain these benefits? Especially as urban life becomes increasingly time poor and technology driven.

Brenda says understanding why people differ in their desire to be in nature, and how they experience nature, is critical.

“We can then develop educational materials and supporting policies that improve opportunities and desire to interact with nature,” she says.

And let’s face it, that’s not only good for our genes but helps us to feel good in our jeans.


  1. Most of humans’ evolution has happened with us having little control over our environment. The wholly built and controlled environment is a very recent thing in terms of human evolution. So, for example, our eyes generally detect a very wide range of shades of green. Presumably to allow us to see accurately in a world mainly coloured by chlorophyll. Another example is that we need exposure to sunlight to create vitamin D, which is important to our immune system. So it is not surprising if we have a profound response to ‘non-human’ or ‘natural’ environments.
    In my own case my love of gardening and gardens definitely comes from my mother introducing me to gardening as a small child, and the many hours I spent working as a gardener in my teens. Is that an affinity for nature though? We are talking about a wholly ‘artificial’ environment when it comes to gardens are we not? On the other hand I have a very strong response to being in the bush and walking through it. After hours to days I feel as though I am part of the landscape I am moving through. When we stop the immediate area ‘feels’ like my own lounge-room. Apart from one visit to a national park at about 8 yrs and 2-3 hikes with the scouts all of this experience occurs during my adult life.
    So it seems there is something innate in us that keys into these experiences but separating it from learning experiences and socialization is definitely a job for a professional!
    A question I am left with is – what is a natural environment? Is the deep green jungle in my backyard, with its abundance of animal life (Butterflies, yabbies, dragonflies, bees, possums, bats, rats, birds) Nature? Is my reaction to it because it is ‘green’ or because it contrasts with indoors or the streetscape outside? Or, is my garden a highly constructed and controlled space in an urban environment that I erroneously think is ‘natural’? Would a visiting alien identify a block of flats and a termite mound as natural and unnatural respectively? If a factory is not natural is is supernatural (spooky 🙂 )?

    1. Hi there, it is the biophilia effect. There is a book with the same name by Clemens Arvay that explains it. Great book!

  2. I live on the Murri Yanna track running through Bidjigal reserve … iron bark Turpentine forest, I need to visit daily as a kind of natural antidepressant and recentres me, my kids it’s a different story, I cannot get them enthused about the beauty at our doorstep, the pull of technology is too much, maybe one day ?

    1. Hi Mathew
      Perhaps a ban on technology between11am and 4pm on Saturdays and Sundays might do the trick and make them look for other things in life such as going for family walks

      1. Yep, tried the ban, with app controls and also designated screen time limits … the problem is they pull the house to pieces or mill around in a resentful slump …. If I suggest going outside to do any activities it’s met with screams and tantrums … and there’s nothing left in the reserves to deal with it

  3. My parents appreciated nature, but generally from a car. I always wanted to go bushwalking and camping, but that was definitely not on the agenda. Maybe because there was 6 kids! Later on with friends we bushwalked and camped and my now husband and I have had many adventures around the world. Best place to be is in the wild!

  4. I spent holidays at the beach and love watching the waves roll in. My mother too spent a lot of time with her parents at the Beach (Point Lonsdale) and took me there when she was pregnant with me so I guess it is in my genes too

  5. Erm, no. My parents had zero appreciation for nature but as a child and teen I gravitated towards bushland and spent hours wandering in it alone, and now live in a rural area and spend most of my time outdoors, and a significant amount of time wandering around in the bush. No nurture at all…

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