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Health Canada reports that Canadian children spend up to 90 per cent of their time indoors. When your kids choose DVDs or computer games over an afternoon of active play outdoors, it may signal time for a change.
But you may not be in need of a completely tech-free lifestyle overhaul. Richard Louv, author of The Nature Principle, suggests all it takes is a few simple steps to close the gap between your kids and the outside world.
1. Plant a seed – the nature principle starts at home
As a young boy, Louv spent many hours planting vegetables with his father in their rural Missouri home garden. Looking back, he shares that those long days in the garden were what made up his family's "connective tissue."
Start planning your own backyard or windowsill patch with a trip to your local garden centre. Helpful staff will be around to answer questions such as what vegetables are easy to grow (tomatoes or cucumbers are tops) or how much space you'll really need for a crawling vine.
Let the kids choose a potted herb they'd like to care for too (try thyme or basil). Before you leave, ask if the store carries kid-tailored gardening gear: look for smaller shovels, buckets and gloves in bright colours for your budding gardener's excited hands.
2. Get a regular dose of "Vitamin N"
In his book, Louv emphasizes the need for nature experience – or, as he calls it, Vitamin N.
"Nature can be a park, the clump of trees at the end of a cul-de-sac, or the ravine behind your house," Louv says. "These places have great value to us."
Though a weekend camping trip or visit to a provincial park may be the best way to immerse your kids in nature, it may not always be realistic to what your family's schedule allows. Plan instead for weekly walks to a nearby trail – after all, Canada has an extensive network of accessible trails and paths.
3. Spend time in nature with your kids
For younger children, play a game to see who can name the most types of birds, plants, or cloud formations in the sky while walking along the trails. Talk about why it's important to conserve nature and forests, and encourage your kids to ask questions about where squirrels go to store their food, or how long it take for a butterfly to come out of its cocoon (if you get stumped, Nature Canada has lots of resources).
For older kids, make your weekly walks a time to wind down and unplug. Leave cell phones and iPods at home, and chat the old-fashioned way about what's going on in school. If there's one device you absolutely must take, "make it a digital camera," Louv says. "I take pictures and look closely at bark, or the grain in rocks," he adds. "When we bring those pictures home, it forces us to look closer at nature."
4. Encourage them to be good neighbours
When your kids spend time outdoors, they learn to become good neighbours – and not just to the people around your block, but to trees, streams and everything else that lives and breathes around them.
Even in densely populated cities, you can encourage your kids to become good neighbours to our earth by exploring urban parks or joining day camps, such as The Pine Project in Toronto.
"There's a correlation between how green neighbourhoods are and how well people treat each other," Louv says. Getting out in nature, he adds, helps increase kids' creativity and promotes better physical and mental health.
5. Make room for make-believe play
When Canadian talk-show host Marilyn Denis was a young girl, she spent a lot of time in her backyard. On her television show, she tells Louv that she used to line up her dolls in a patch of their garden – imagining they were an audience that cheered her on atop a make-believe stage.
This relationship between active play and children's imagination – an "executive function" to your child's development, Louv says – is important to nurture.
Setting aside one hour of outdoor play every day is an easy way to let your child's creativity flourish. "When you're in the natural world, it tends to occur more," Louv adds.
6. Strengthen your child's connection with nature
Begin with building your backyard oasis, and take your kids on a short stroll around the block before dinner. Listen for the wind whistling through trees, raccoons scurrying through bushes or a budgie landing on a low tree branch.
It's as easy as slipping on a pair of comfy shoes and heading out the door. When all it takes is time in nature to build lasting memories for you and your child, rediscovering nature is one of the best-hidden secrets to great parenting!
Check out how you and your neighbourhood can foster stronger, greener communities.