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Preschoolers explore a mud puddle at a nature school near Seattle. (Ted S. Warren/The Associated Press)
Preschoolers explore a mud puddle at a nature school near Seattle. (Ted S. Warren/The Associated Press)

Finding new ways for our kids to connect with nature Add to ...

The decision to have a kid is an act of imagining. You imagine a baby, and then the childhood it deserves: a Huck Finn existence in the marshes, frog in hand, alert to wonder.

But then there’s the fact that you live in a city, and when summer comes, you still have to work. So you investigate computer camp, fashion camp, Glee camp – camps that look good on university applications.

All these pursuits are worthy, but it’s been interesting to notice anecdotally that in the past few years, “camp” camp – programs with some variation on kid + nature = fun – is a hot ticket. Where I live, my kids could go canoeing around Toronto Island, or learn about animal tracking and wild edibles at the PINE Project, or explore the ravines at the Evergreen Brickworks.

Since my nine-year-old programs my phone for me, my first response to this surge of environmental offerings is: Go, trees! But I admit to an inborn suspicion of the packaging and selling of the natural world, which is generally free for the taking. I don’t know if I want to see the environment added to the laundry list of hipster parenting trends, like kiddie Camper boots and babies in bars.

The impetus for this shift may be, in part, a 2005 book called Last Child in the Woods, wherein author Richard Louv coined the phrase “nature-deficit disorder.” In fact, NDD is not an actual medical condition but a description of the negative effects when a child’s connection to nature is severed. The reasons this break occurs include overscheduled, tech-saturated kids with parents who fear that any deviation from the paved path means danger. Louv also points the finger at social structures like carefully cultivated parks with “Do Not Enter” areas, and a lack of outdoor time in schools. At a moment when 80 per cent of the world’s population lives in urban surroundings, nature can be abstract. As Louv has said: “Kids today can tell you lots of things about the Amazon rain forest; they can’t usually tell you the last time they lay out in the woods and watched the leaves move.”

The repercussions of this void may have profound health implications. A study at the University of Illinois found that children with ADHD were able to better focus their attention after walking in a natural setting. In Japan, the government has spent $4-million on “forest-bathing” research since 2004, investigating the therapeutic benefits of exposure to nature. In one set of studies, researchers at Chiba University found that participants who took slow walks in the woods showed a 12.4 per cent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol and a 1.4 per cent decrease in blood pressure. Even anxiety – which has increased among Canadian youth – can be reduced by proximity to green.

A non-profit charity called Child & Nature Alliance of Canada works with organizations to get Canadian kids into the outdoors. One of the directors, Becs Hoskins, told me that she’s noticed a groundswell of interest. “We’re starting to get to people who are outside the choir. Our mandate is that all Canadians should be connected to nature in some meaningful way, whether it’s a plant on a patio or hiking a pass in Banff.”

Recently, a handful of “forest” schools have opened in Canada, inspired by a European model where the outdoors is literally the classroom. Preschoolers at New Brunswick’s Tír na nÓg Forest School in the Sussex area, opening this fall, will be outdoors 85 per cent of the time. In an on-line trailer for a documentary called School’s Out: Lessons from a Forest Kindergarten, kids at a Swiss school tumble into streams, use an outdoor toilet and carve twigs with knives. How would four-year-olds wielding pocketknives go over with North American helicopter parents who feel nervous about Ziploc bags? Possibly pretty well: When Sangster Elementary School in Victoria announced a nature kindergarten, parents lined up a day early to register. A program in New York’s Prospect Park called Brooklyn Forest, where kids build teepees and sing a lot, is so full that it’s expanding to Central Park.

It’s easy to scoff at the idea of nature as status symbol, wedged into a child-engineering agenda: “Okay, Olivia, after rep soccer and before tutoring, it’s time to feel something for worms!” Modern parenting can be unbearably precious, but making nature a hot trend is actually beneficial to everyone in society, not just to one parent’s special snowflake.

I believe in “biophilia,” Edward O. Wilson’s theory that humans have a natural affinity for all living things. The Romantic view of nature as a source of salvation and reprieve is enough for me to want to get my kids outside; improved stress levels are merely a bonus. Thoreau and Emerson elevated the natural world after the Industrial Revolution. Our incentive may no longer be the roar of machines, but the glow of screens.

I asked Hoskins what life would look like ideally for a 10-year-old Canadian a decade from now: “At school, his classroom is sometimes outside – and not as a field trip. Walking to school feels safe. There are places close to home for his family to experience the wild. A soccer field is next to a native plant garden. If he’s into bugs and birds, there are programs to deepen that. But mostly, nature is just woven into his day. He doesn’t even notice it as something separate.”

As elusive as it seems, this is what we all want for our kids: the Huck Finn childhood, reimagined.

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