How adults and children perceive river landscapes differently

I came across an interesting research angle this week looking at how people who live in and interact with river landscapes value different parts of the environment. I read a paper from 2002 in the journal “Landscape & Urban Planning” by Sampei Yamashita. Dr Yamashita gave a camera each to a group of adults and children who lived near a river in Japan and asked them to take photos of the environment and describe what they saw. The idea behind this was to match up their language and what the scene was showing in order to assess what they liked, what they valued and what they found interesting.


Photo from the study by a child “We often catch fish at a spot like this. Dozens of fish come upstream here, so we can catch a lot” Copyright © 2002 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.

The findings of this research are very interesting, particularly in the different ways adults and children perceive the environment. Adults who took pictures of the river had a fairly even split between photographing the entire river (32.8%), the opposite bank (26.1%) and a detailed shot of the water surface (29.0%). In contrast children were much more interested in the water itself with 53.8% of their river photos of just the water surface. It should be noted this is controlled for the height differences between the groups (i.e. perspective), in fact children got closer to the water (horizontally) to take pictures than the adults. The children are more interested in the water itself, rather than the aesthetic quality of the landscape.


Another photo from the study by a child “This part of the river [water] is clearer than others ” Copyright © 2002 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.

In terms of how the participants rated the features in their pictures, adults were more interested in flow rate and surface conditions of the river, they evaluate the landscape in response primarily to the features of the water. In contrast the children (in keeping with their closer focus on the water itself) were more interested in the water quality (using phrased like “clean” and “pure”), evaluating the landscape without reference to specific water features.


Photo by an adult ““A lot of sand and stones have been carried in. At Yoshidamachi Bridge”” Copyright © 2002 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.

The finding of this study also echo another earlier piece of work in which people were asked to assess pictures of a “wild and scenic” river in Colorado (I believe akin to the UK’s “area of outstanding natural beauty”) at different flow stages. This study found there was an optimum flow stage at which participants rated the scenic beauty of the river landscape highest; roughly at the mid-point between low flow and the highest flood. This ties into the above finding about adult’s preference for flow rate in valuing landscape. There has to be enough flow in the river to make it wild and pretty, but not too much so it begins to look threatening.

The importance of this in terms of river management is in relation to managing recreational riverscapes. Where adults are the dominant viewers of the landscape, planning would need to incorporate mid to long-distance elements and dynamic aspects of water. However where use of the landscape by children is important there would need to be more focus on short-distance water elements, paying attention to features such as visual water quality. From my own experience this would suggest children would enjoy messing about in some of the lowland chalk rivers we have in the UK with their characteristically clear waters.* What the research indicates quite vividly is that adults and children look for different things in rivers and so we need to be mindful of the needs of children in order to get them engaged in valuing and appreciating the landscape around them.

* – this obviously in no way constitutes an instruction or avocation for letting or encouraging children (or adults) of any age to play in or near water without wearing full protective gear, a comprehensive safety assessment and the details for Falmouth Coastguard on speed-dial. – Play safe.


Yamashita, S. (2002). “Perception and evaluation of water in landscape: use of Photo-Projective Method to compare child and adult residents’ perceptions of a Japanese river environment.” Landscape and Urban Planning 62(1): 3-17.

Brown, T. C. and T. C. Daniel (1991). “Landscape Aesthetics of Riparian Environments: Relationship of Flow Quantity to Scenic Quality Along a Wild and Scenic River.” Water Resources Research 27(8): 1787-1795.

This entry was posted in River Management and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to How adults and children perceive river landscapes differently

  1. thamesfacing says:

    What a fascinating piece of research. It really challenges taken for granted perspectives.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s