Erin Edwards has seen too many classes meant to teach children the importance of nature turn into scary sessions about environmental destruction. Edwards, who is a teacher, wants her two-year-old daughter and six-month-old son to care about nature because they love it, not out of fear, she says. And so she’ll bundle them up every day and head to the park, or walk to a row a trees along a rail line near their home they call “the forest.”
They gather pine cones and try to identify birds. Edwards lets her little girl lead the way.
“My daughter loves the forest,” says Edwards, who lives just outside of Toronto.
More parents like Edwards are seeking out ways to counterbalance concerns over too much screen time and structured activities, whether by enrolling their children in outdoor kindergarten or forest schools, where much of what they would be taught in a classroom is done outdoors. Many of these programs are so popular they have long wait lists.
The idea of re-wilding childhood is the next evolution of this process. The movement encourages kids to spend time outdoors in a self-directed, unstructured way. But that encouragement doesn’t come in the form of a casual directive instructing them to go outside, it involves going outside with them to explore and learn so that they might one day want to do it by themselves. The goal is to get them to develop a deep love of nature in and of itself – before learning or worrying about environmental issues.
“For kids to grow up with this appreciation of nature and ultimately be the next voice for nature, they need to love it first, and the best way to appreciate nature is to spend time in it,” says Jill Sturdy, a program manager at Nature Canada, a nature conservation charity.
Advocates such as Sturdy point to troubling trends: Only 35 per cent of children between the ages of five and 17 meet the recommended one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day, while just 62 per cent of three- to four-year-old children meet their recommended three hours a day of physical activity, according to the latest ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth. Meanwhile, a large majority of kids in both groups are exceeding their daily recommended screen time.
Several studies have found that children who spend more time outside also tend to be more physically active. Other benefits include reduced blood pressure and heart rate, as well as increased creativity, says Mark Tremblay director of healthy active living and obesity research at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.
“As custodians of our kids, why wouldn’t we be doing everything we can to maximize that?” he says.
The notion of re-wilding childhood is simple, says Kevin Park, a spokesperson for We Are Wildness, an organization that works to encourage people to connect with nature by providing educational resources, based in Vancouver Island.
“It’s about putting them into situations where they will learn and interact [with nature] using their own self-guidance,” he says.
The organization launched a course called Wild Child: Rewilding Childhood, in 2015. The goal of the course is to get children out into nature for five hours a week, and offer parents and caregivers challenges to try with their children. In one of the challenges, a child is blindfolded and led to a tree that they are free to touch and smell and otherwise explore. Then, they are led back to where they started, the blindfold is taken off and the child must identify the tree.
Alison Tai takes her two daughters, ages eight and five, outdoors every day. She’ll teach them the difference between deciduous and coniferous trees, or help them gather sticks and rocks.
“We’re doing a lot of shelter building and recognizing wild plants,” says Tai, who lives in Vancouver.
Edwards says she makes it a priority to get her children outside no matter the weather to benefit their physical and mental health, help boost their creativity and also because she wants them to learn delayed gratification.
Children are guaranteed to be instantly entertained when they turn on a television or play games on a device, she says. “You have to be patient with the outdoors,” she says.
Most parents probably know their children should spend more time outdoors, but it is easier said they done, particularly during winter. Sturdy advises parents to start small. Take a walk in your neighbourhood and see how many animals you can spot or build a snow fort, she says. Even just a 10-minute walk around the block to look at trees or a short jaunt to the park is better than time indoors, advocates of re-wilding say.
They stress that nature isn’t something you need to drive to, and getting your children to connect with it isn’t something parents have to overthink.
“It’s as easy as walking out your front door,” Sturdy says.
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