It’s Friday afternoon at the Alpine Club of Canada in Canmore, Alta. A gaggle of six- to 10-year-olds dash in and out of a teepee, paying little heed to the freezing rain pelting down. After warming up for a few minutes, they’re back outside retrieving knives from backpacks to whittle sticks around the fire – proudly made by one of the kids the old-fashioned way, with a fl int and steel. They’re part of Nature’s Tracks Forest Play, a group that meets every second Friday come rain or shine, for an afternoon connecting to the natural world.
Disturbing childhood trends such as obesity, attention disorders, and depression are on the rise in today’s wired generation, and many attribute this to the decrease in free play and experiences in the natural world. Writes Richard Louv in his bestseller Last Child in the Woods, “Direct exposure to nature is essential for the physical and emotional health of children and adults.”
For older generations, playing outdoors was a no-brainer – it came naturally. What else was there to do? Sadly, getting our own kids outside has been relegated to yet another item on the ever filling schedule. “We’ve become such an over-scheduled society, kids are losing their childhood. They’re losing the opportunity to play, to learn how to get back up when hurt, to be resilient,” warns Marlene Power, executive director and founder of Forest School Canada.
Despite living in a country brimming with nature, our kids are deprived of it:
- A 2012 survey by the David Suzuki Foundation found that 70 percent of Canadian youth spend an hour or less a day outdoors.
- Research shows that outdoor play in a natural setting makes kids healthier and happier, from improved cognitive abilities to increased respect for others.
- A 2011 University of Essex study revealed that participating in outdoor activities boosts children’s mental health and lifts self-esteem.
- The American Journal of Preventive Medicine says neighbourhood greenness and access to public parks is associated with lower body mass index scores in children.
“Having a strong connection to nature isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have for kids to become healthy, innovative and resilient,” says David Verhulst, a Nature Connection Mentor with Nature’s Tracks Forest Play.
While many parents are fearful their child will be left behind if not studying, there’s a growing trend towards getting kids back to nature and in schools and extracurriculars that offer these experiences.
To date there’s an estimated 20 forest and nature pre-schools and 12 programs in the public school system, with 25 more in the process of starting across Canada. Even the government is stepping up. Ontario has developed a Children’s Outdoor Charter with activities and challenges to help children explore the great outdoors.
Students who experience nature as part of the educational process have proven to be more engaged and enthusiastic in all areas of study. Research has shown they score higher on tests in reading, writing and math, and have demonstrated better listening skills.
Child-directed learning is at the core of nature-based or so-called Forest Schools. Education unfolds through play and experiences, and many parents find there’s more flexibility and freedom when it comes to solving issues that arise.
“The kids were having a hard time settling down first thing in the morning, so now they all go for a 10 minute walk around the school before going inside. It gives them a chance greet their friends and get it all out before transitioning to school,” says Amy Gagnon, whose children attend a Waldorf-inspired outdoor education public school in Canmore, Alta.
They also offer regular and repeated access to a natural space, typically for at least three hours a day. This allows children a chance to care for the land and understand how it changes with weather and the seasons. “My son knows every little bush, valley and creek bed in the area. He’s tied to this place in a unique way and will keep this gift for the rest of his life. What other kid’s program facilitates that?” asks Leanne Allison, whose nine-year-old son attends Nature’s Tracks Forest Play.
Just outside of Hull, Que., the Chelsea Cooperative Nursery School strives to create a bridge from the child’s home to the natural world through exploration of the great outdoors. This forestry preschool takes their young charges outside up to three hours at a time and for at least an hour during inclement weather.
For Sylvie D’Aoust, having her daughter exposed to the elements isn’t such a big deal. What is significant to her is the impact the program has made on her three-year-old. “It’s an excellent outlet for her. Before attending she was acting up at home. Now we can see how she’s matured and it’s fostered a curiosity for embracing the outdoors. She has more respect for hiking and even packs and carries her own backpack, as opposed to my 11-year old,” says Sylvie.
Balancing screens and green
Perhaps one of the most desirable aspects of nature-based programs is reduced screen time, which extends to after the activity. “These kids aren’t talking about what video games they’re playing or what they watched last night,” says Amy.
For the rest of us, it’s often challenging to figure out how gadgets and the great outdoors can co-exist. According to the National Wildlife Federation’s report Friending Fresh Air: Connecting Kids to Nature in the Digital Age, kids’ increasing use of technology and opportunities to appreciate Mother Nature can go hand-in-hand. “Media habits don’t have to be negative if used in moderation and not in competition with outdoor time,” says Christina Batcheler with the National Wildlife Federation.
There are all kinds of apps geared towards increasing kids’ knowledge of the natural world and new ways of interacting with nature. While technology can help enhance our experience outdoors, we ought to be wary of taking devices with us. “Bringing an iPhone often changes the dynamics of play,” says Marlene. “Things can happen that otherwise wouldn’t if it wasn’t there. Stay in the present moment and document afterwards.”
Where to Start
Transitioning to a more outdoor lifestyle is all about taking baby steps. If the majority of your child’s time is spent in malls, running errands or in structured activities, consider adding time each week for freestyle outdoor play. Nature’s playground is as close as your own backyard, so there’s no need to fret if you don’t live beside a designated green space. Check out these ideas to get you started:
- Develop an after school play group in your community for outdoor games. Hide and seek automatically fires up the senses. Children listen for those approaching, see things they might not have noticed before, plus smell and feel the earth while waiting.
- Follow a handmade treasure map, leaving a trail of clues through your community or backyard. Older kids can make their own maps and follow tracking signs made from twigs or pebbles, while younger kids are sure to spot bits of brightly coloured yarn. What awaits them where X marks the spot?
- Hand over control and let the kids study a trail map or choose a new route – even if it’s just to the playground. Pretend you’re explorers and make a game out of spotting trail markers or landmarks on your adventure.
- Try a sensory scavenger hunt, challenging little ones to use all five senses. Can they spy something wet or edible? Feel something furry? Hear the whine of an insect?
- Fire up flashlights for a nighttime game of tag or starry hike. Everything looks and sounds different after nightfall, plus it’s a real treat to get outside when it’s dark (especially in your PJs).
- It’s important for kids to feel heard, so give them your full attention when they describe their solo adventures. Doing so will leave them feeling validated and encouraged to have those experiences again.
Jody Robbins is a freelance writer living in Calgary. Follow her parenting and travel adventures on TravelswithBaggage.com or on Twitter @Jody_Robbins.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, August/September 2014.