Children and the great outdoors

 by Theresa Peluso

NLRM camp
Museum Adventures Camp at the North Lanark Regional Museum.

We hear a lot of negative news about the physical and mental health of our children. For example, Active Healthy Kids Canada’s 2014 Report Card on Physical Activity for Chidren and Youth shows that Canadian kids rank near the bottom of an international physical activity survey of 15 countries, receiving a D- ranking, the same as the U.S. In fact, Canadian children received a grade of F for sedentary behaviours, below the U.S., which received a D. (http://dvqdas9jty7g6.cloudfront.net/reportcard2014/AHKC_2014_ReportCard_Short_ENG.pdf)

According to the National Wildlife Federation:

In the last two decades, childhood has moved indoors. The average American boy or girl (the situation is similar for Canadian boys and girls) spends as few as 30 minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day, and more than seven hours each day in front of an electronic screen. This shift inside profoundly impacts the wellness of our nation’s kids. Childhood obesity rates have more than doubled the last 20 years; the United States has become the largest consumer of ADHD medications in the world; and pediatric prescriptions for antidepressants have risen precipitously. Our kids are out of shape, tuned out and stressed out, because they’re missing something essential to their health and development: connection to the natural world. (http://www.nwf.org/be-out-there/why-be-out-there/health-benefits.aspx)

Bob McDonald, of Quirks and Quarks fame, made this observation:

While travelling through the mountains of B.C. recently, I was stunned by the sight of young people sitting in the back seat of a family car, watching videos on an overhead screen while some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet passed by outside the window.

This summer, try turning off the gadgets and let nature do the entertaining. The natural world has much more to offer than an animated cartoon, and it’s not hard to tune into nature’s channel. Whatever vacation plans your family has this summer, make sure there is some time spent outside, without the cell phone in hand or some other electronic device blinking in your face. (CBC News, June 20, 2014)

It’s a winning combination – combine physical activity and outdoor exploration, and what do your children get?

 For the body, outdoor play increases fitness levels, raises vitamin D levels (so important for strengthening bones, and preventing heart disease, diabetes, and other health problems), and improves distance vision.

 For the mind, there is evidence that being exposed to natural settings may be highly effective in reducing ADHD symptoms, and increase competency in critical thinking, math, reading, writing and listening.

 For the spirit, being surrounded by green spaces reduces children’s stress levels. Spending time leisurely exploring fields and woods is clearly more beneficial to children’s emotional development because it reduces anxiety and depression (the same goes for adults!) compared with leading a hurried lifestyle, where every minute is scheduled and programmed. Spending time in a natural environment has also been shown to foster good social interactions and relationships.

 To find out more about the reference material used for this article, go to the National Wildlife Federation website given above.

 For further support of the theory that children need to be connected to nature to grow up to become physically and mentally healthy adults, read the CBC article “Kids need to offset ‘screen time’ with ‘nature’ time”. In this article, Richard Louv, award-winning author of Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle, and originator of the term “nature deficit disorder”, is quoted as follows:

 The symptoms of attention deficit disorder go down in kids as young as five. In schools, first there’s evidence it’s connected to cognitive development, the ability to learn, and executive development which is the ability to control ourselves, At the same time, there’s growing evidence that lack of time in nature is linked to rising rates of depression, attention deficit disorder and other health conditions, An emerging body of scientific evidence suggests not spending much time outdoors connected to the natural world can be connected to rising rates of depression, attention deficit disorder, Vitamin D deficiency, and child obesity. (www.cbc.ca/…/health/kids-need-to-offset-screen-time-with-nature-time-1 (Feb. 26, 2014))

 The CBC article goes on to explain:

There are a couple of theories about why exposure to nature is so beneficial. The “biophilia” theory says humans are hard-wired genetically for an affiliation with the natural world and suffer when they’re deprived of it. A second school of thought is called Attention Restoration Theory (ART), which has been the basis of recent studies by Canadian researcher Marc Berman. It suggests the brain relaxes in nature, entering a state of contemplative attention that is restorative or refreshing. In contrast, in busy urban settings the brain’s working memory is bombarded with distractions and attention systems are on alert. Berman’s research found a walk in nature could improve memory and mood in people diagnosed with depression. Louv says there’s enough evidence of the physical and mental health benefits of time in nature that schools should be mandated to include it in the standard curriculum. He suggests families also make time for outings in wild places. He suggests creating or joining one of the growing number of family nature clubs that are popping up around the world. (www.cbc.ca/…/health/kids-need-to-offset-screen-time-with-nature-time-1 (Feb. 26, 2014))

Speaking of “family nature clubs”, everyone knows about the Girl Guides of Canada. Since their founding over 100 years ago, more than 7 million Canadian girls and women have been involved in Guiding. Programs are available for girls aged 5 and up. Scouts Canada is the go-to organization for boys aged 5 and older. For more than 100 years, Scouts Canada has provided outdoor experience and friendship to 17 million Canadian youth. The Scouts movement is international, with associations in 216 countries and territories, and every year it organizes opportunities for youth from all over the world to join together in jamborees, forums and conferences. To find out more about the Girl Guides of Canada, phone 613-256-2794 if you live in Almonte, or 613-256-4760 if you live in Pakenham. If it’s the Boy Scouts you’re interested in, contact Bill Lawrence at 613-256-7343. You can also email

Mr. Lawrence at scouter_bill@rogers.com – be sure to include the word “scout” in your subject heading when emailing him.

 The Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) is also a great source for information and programs that encourage children to learn about and explore our natural environment. Last March MVFN sponsored a public lecture at the Almonte United Church titled “Connecting Children to Nature: Urgency and Value.” The presenter was Shawna Babcock of KidActive, a Renfrew-based non-profit organization. KidActive encourages kids, teachers and parents to get outside more in our local, natural spaces to enhance learning opportunities and build physical activities and fun into children’s daily routines. See http://kidactive.ca/ for more background.

A summary of this lecture, provided by Cathy Keddy, can be found on the MVFN website under the link http://mvfn.ca/connecting-children-to-nature-topic-of-mississippi-valley-field-naturalists-next-lecture/

Keddy explains how, under the leadership of the Back to Nature Network and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, a coalition of organizations, including Ontario Nature, developed the Ontario Children’s Outdoor Charter, with the aim of getting children away from electronics and into nature.

MVFN provides opportunities for children to become acquainted with and develop a love for nature and natural areas at our very own Mill of Kintail, in the form of the Young Naturalists Program. This program consists of indoor and outdoor adventures for kids ages 7-12 (http://mvfn.ca/?cat=614). Ontario Nature, too, has a program—Nature Guardians (http://www.ontarionature.org/connect/nature_guardians/index.php).

MVFN also provides outdoor education to local schools. In the last few years, Patty Summers of the Wild Bird Care Centre (WBCC) has been mesmerizing students with amazing facts about birds and their environment in her presentations at schools in Carleton Place, Pakenham, and Almonte. These presentations have been sponsored by MVFN through their Environmental Education Program (EEP). Some of the topics covered by Summers were: What’s on the Menu?;All about Feathers; How to Eat and Not be Eaten; How Birds Survive our Canadian Winters; Human Impacts on Birds: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly; and Pairing Up: Building a Nest and Raising Young.

So, encourage your children to take advantage of every one of our seasons by not only playing ball sports, but also swimming, fishing, rowing, sailing and paddling in our many rivers and lakes, biking around the neighbourhood, (or skating, skiing and snowshoeing once the snow arrives) and accompanying you on hikes and camping trips in our nature parks. Be sure to take along a guidebook or two (on birds, insects, fish and other animals, rocks, trees, and wildflowers), and try to learn about the landforms, plants and creatures you see on your explorations. The MVFN website (mvfn.ca) is a great source for finding out about the many walking/ hiking and canoe/kayak routes in Lanark County waiting to be discovered by you and your family.