Originally titled "Nature's Magic Touch," from the June 2007 issue of Canadian Living Magazine. Click here to purchase the back issue.
The dragonfly resting on the palm of my hand was large and brilliantly blue. Our children momentarily stopped their chatter as they gathered around to have a closer look at the insect we had found in the dirt while out for a stroll.
“It's dead!” three-year-old Joshua announced. Samuel, 7, nodded in agreement, peering solemnly at the motionless bug.
“Look,” I said, pointing to its long pulsating abdomen. It wasn't dead. But something was wrong.
“Why doesn't it fly away?” asked Emily, 5.
As we talked about what might have happened to the dragonfly, the children came up with a plan to help it.
“What should we do with it?” I asked.
“Pray for it,” suggested Joshua.
“Put it in the shade,” said Emily, stooping to arrange a safe place for the dragonfly in the grassy ditch.
Close to nature
As I later reflected on the compassionate response of these youngsters for an apparently insignificant hapless creature, I thought about the importance of nature to our children's overall development. Early in our relationship, my husband, Randolph, and I agreed that nature would play a significant role in the lives of our children.
Our own early connections to nature helped to make us physically, emotionally and spiritually strong, and strengthened our commitment to raise our kids close to nature. The purchase of our rocky, densely treed parcel of “marginal” farmland outside of Cold Lake, Alta., helped to incorporate nature into our daily routine. As a family, we walk almost daily, frequently paddle our canoe on nearby waterways, ski, cycle and just tromp around the outdoors.
The urban challenge
The nature-child connection is eloquently described in Richard Louv's book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Algonquin of Chapel Hill, 2006). Using personal stories and research, he paints a vivid picture of the rich contribution nature makes to children's overall healthy development. He also describes the unfortunate and widening gulf between nature and childhood –- and draws a bleak picture of the face of childhood without nature, a childhood lacking compassion, curiosity and wonder.
Canadians are increasingly urban. According to Statistics Canada, 80 per cent of Canadians in 2001 lived in urban centres. That's a complete reversal of the statistics of a century-and-a-half ago, when almost all Canadians lived in the country. As a result, children's access to wilderness is decreasing. “The days of all of us having cousins or an aunt and uncle on the farm are diminishing,” says Cam Collyer, program manager for Learning Grounds, a program of Evergreen, the Canadian charitable nonprofit organization that is committed to bringing nature to Canadian schools.
With a little imagination
There are simply fewer urban wild places to go to these days, and when they do exist, children are discouraged from using them, says Nathan Perkins, an associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Guelph, Ont., who has conducted research in this field. “We came to the conclusion after a year of work that wild places, which kids find incredibly appealing and meaningful and are good for them, are disappearing because of adults' good intentions to tidy up the world.” For example, he says, adults look at places such as hedgerows on the perimeter of playing fields and see only sticks and windblown garbage and imagine pedophiles lurking within. But these messy places afford children a sense of wilderness to be explored.
And studies suggest that parents' fears about unseen dangers are unfounded; wilderness areas today pose no greater danger than in the past.
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Despite Canada's international reputation for being the epitome of wilderness, most Canadian children never actually experience the wild spaces around them. They're much more likely to be spending their time racking up virtual knowledge from electronic sources.
So, while our three kids are splashing after frogs in ditches this spring, other Canadian youngsters will be sitting in front of computer screens merely reading about tree frogs. That's unfortunate, because they're missing out on a lot -- including improved physical, psychological, social and spiritual development.
Being connected to nature can help keep more kids in shape. Recognizing that, Evergreen is incorporating natural features into traditional playgrounds. In addition to asphalt and flat lawns, a naturalized playground may incorporate hills, gardens and trees. “When you're designing and then implementing a natural playground, you're diversifying the landscape,” says Collyer. This kind of layout is great for kids who want to run and catch balls but also for those who prefer to dig in the dirt, have a pretend picnic or watch butterflies.
This diversified landscape doesn't just engage boys, either. While traditional playgrounds are more conducive to aggressive boy-play than to the kind of play that typically attracts girls, naturalized playgrounds appeal to boys and girls equally.
And research suggests that activities encouraged in the naturalized playground -- such as gardening or nature-watching -- are more likely to be carried over into adult life and can be helpful in the fight against obesity.
Nature also helps kids function better mentally. Studies show that just being exposed to views of green grass or trees can improve memory, concentration and grades.
Nature can also reduce symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Our son Samuel, who has been diagnosed with short attention span with overactivity, has difficulty focusing his attention while doing school work. He's distracted by what's going on around him and is constantly fidgeting. But when he's outside in nature, he's a different child.
Recently, while rock-hopping on the shoreline at Belcarra Regional Park near Port Moody, B.C., he found a starfish in the sand and picked it up. He studied it closely, turning it over, touching its bumpy skin and suction cups. He examined it for a long time, far longer than the rest of us cared to stay and watch it. Suddenly, he had the longest attention span of anyone in the group.
Kids with ADHD appear to do better at focused activities such as homework after spending time in parks or other natural settings, according to Frances Kuo, the director of the University of Illinois landscape and human health laboratory in Urbana, Ill. Her survey of 450 parents of ADHD children showed that activities in relatively “green” outdoor settings consistently reduced symptoms more than similar activities indoors or even activities in other outdoor (but less natural) settings, such as a basketball court. “Children with ADHD may concentrate better after a dose of nature,” says Kuo.
Just watch students interact on naturalized school grounds. Instead of bullying and competing for the same climbing apparatus at recess, they might be playing a friendly game of hide-and-seek around the trees. Teachers spend less time disciplining as a result. Collyer attributes this change to children being more active and less bored. “When there's less boredom, there's less aggressive behaviour because it's often boredom that's the leading edge to aggression,” he says.
Nature also seems to soothe the psyche and ease tensions, paving the way for improved communication and closer bonding with others. Sisters Marie Jerome, Grace Espedido and Mary Ann Espedido cherish the nature-based family holidays they regularly plan together. On a recent family camping trip on Vancouver Island, nine cousins ranging in age from three to 13 chased one another across the beach, played baseball with driftwood and swam together in the bracing surf.
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Just as my children grappled with the dragonfly's mortality, many youngsters are stirred by nature to question their place in the world. Most of the students applying for admission to Canadian University College's Outward Pursuits -- a program that combines humanitarian service (a component of spiritual growth) with wilderness learning activities -- had important childhood experiences in nature. “I would say 85 to 90 per cent have had experiences while growing up in the out-of-doors that had brought them into this situation,” says Paul Lehmann, associate professor and chair of the Outward Pursuits program at the college's Alberta site in Lacombe.
For Lehmann, the tie between one's spiritual life and nature is an important one. “Can the spiritual journey happen outside of nature?” he asks reflectively. “Yes, but it's slower. There's too much coming in. The brain and heart can't deal with all that stuff coming in.” And so, with nature having such a significant impact on a child's overall development, it should be a necessary part of growing up. Nature shouldn't be just a frill as it's sometimes viewed today, says Collyer. “One way to describe childhood right now is that it's moving indoors and in front of the screen. The solution to that is to invest the time to be outdoors with your kids and watch their imaginations turn on.”
Have fun with nature
Here are some fun ways to make nature a part of your family's life.
• Go for a walk and learn about the bugs, birds, trees and wildflowers near your home. Bring along one of the child-friendly regional guides from Lone Pine Publishing that have easy-to-identify species. Some of their titles include: Bugs of British Columbia, Animal Tracks of Ontario and Mammals of Alberta. Ask for them at your local library or favourite bookstore.
• Plant something -- a tree, a tomato plant or a sunflower. Or try the sunflower house in Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Algonquin of Chapel Hill, $19.95) by Richard Louv.
• Volunteer to help restore natural streams, build a naturalization project or clean up a hedgerow. For ideas, contact Nature Canada at 1-800-267-4088 or visit their website.
• Check out naturalist groups. Log on to the Nature Canada site for information about naturalists in your area. Or visit a nearby nature centre (contact your local tourism information centre to find one near you). Some nature centres, such as the Wye Marsh Wildlife Centre in Midland, Ont., offer year-round family educational programs and activities; for example, at the Wye Marsh Parent and Tot Program, you can hike and bird-watch. For more information, contact Wye Marsh at (705) 526-7809.
Here are some sites to help you get personally connected with nature.
1. The Evergreen site lists volunteer opportunities and provides information about programs and educational resources. It also includes a native plant database and a discussion forum.
2. Planet Friendly, operated by People and Planet, lists outdoor and nature parks, resource centres, groups and gathering places, among other resources.
3. Nature Canada, a nonprofit conservation organization that introduces children to nature through outreach and education programs, provides a variety of ways to get involved. Go to the Nature Network tab, then select Provincial Affiliates for a list of provincial naturalist organizations.
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