Returning our kids to nature

Close your eyes.

Think back to your youth and how you interacted with nature. You’re laying on your back, a piece of grass balanced between your top teeth and bottom lip. You stare at fluffy clouds that are the purest of white, and you try to discern what earth-based item they resemble – and make something up if you can’t put a finger on it – before they float into oblivion.

You close your eyes and ignore the fact the long grass tickles your arms, legs and neck, a necessary part of being there, one with nature. The sun’s rays warm your face and, since you’ve only ever worn sunscreen at the beach, you pull your hat lower on your brow and shade your eyes.

The summer breeze shakes the treetops and rustles the tall grasses that hide you from the world, and your pal goes quiet as he too contemplates the clouds, tracks a bird or just reflects on life.

Although your concerns will get more complicated as you age and the issues of your youth will be of little consequence in hindsight, you still have school struggles, parents you don’t always get along with, or a friend who has moved on from you and you’re not sure why. Being a kid can be stressful, but here, lying on a riverbank, the soothing sound of a quiet stretch of the Pine (or Saugeen or Teeswater or Boyne or Sydenham) River rolling gently over the rocks, your chest lightens.

You can breathe.

As a town-boy in one of Bruce County’s smallest villages (Ripley), I was fortunate to have many friends and family who lived on farms, and I spent my summers biking to their houses and roaming the fields, rivers and acres of bush on their properties. We’d load up a BB gun and head to the ‘back 40’ to, in theory, shoot birds, but luckily we were terrible shots and never snuffed the life out of any innocents. Our expeditions were just an excuse for us to explore our natural surroundings – climbing trees, searching for frogs near the creek before jumping in to cool down and letting our minds and souls run wild. The closest adult was, literally, a mile away at the house. They may have known the general direction in which we had headed, but they didn’t worry themselves about it or never dreamed of tagging along with us, as parents of today surely would, lest a scrape occur. They gave us the freedom to put our imaginations to work and learn about nature by squeezing cold mud through warm toes, our sopping socks and shoes sunning on the riverbank.

Our bikes were our chariots to this freedom. We’d pedal miles into the countryside on paved roads and just as far down dirt trails, farm paths and the former railway line that once ran through the heart of town, allowing Kincardine’s harbour access to the world in the decades before I was born. The expectation was I leave a note for my parents if I was leaving town, but sometimes these things just happened, and we’d head ‘back the tracks’ to test our resolve on the creaky old trestle bridge that spanned a stretch of river. We’d talk of jumping to the water far below, but never consider actually doing it, and clamber down the hill to the river to explore it further.

One time we looked to prove some schoolyard talk of the town’s original cemetery, which today is the end-point of a manicured walking trail in a small bush just outside of town, but back then was difficult to find, located in a stand of trees in the middle of a field. The prospect of a hidden cemetery was much too intriguing for young boys to ignore, so we took a guess and started wandering. As we quietly walked through the 100-year-old tombstones we had triumphantly ‘discovered,’ our minds struggled to understand how stones so old could still be legible and why so many babies died in the 1800s (many headstones have cause of death on them). Upon returning to town, and just in time for supper – we judged the time by the sun or Mom’s yells if we were close – our parents would ask what we’d gotten up to that day (because they truly didn’t know!), and were happy to explain how fortunate we were to know nothing of whooping cough, measles or polio, unlike our forebears.

Being in nature taught us about life and where we came from – and it was our playground, to explore at will. My generation (I’m 35) may be the last to experience nature this way; wading through a river to reach the other side, shoes held above our head, walking through shoulder-height grass in the middle of nowhere, and dragging our fingertips along rough bark before scraping our legs as we try in vain to swing a leg up into the tree.

Not our kids. They drink from a garden hose and we shout warnings at them.

True, we are fortunate to live in Grey/Bruce, where opportunities to be outdoors abound. We can spend our days on the beach, camp in any corner of the region, play in the snow, or canoe down the Saugeen with our family. But kids today just don’t experience nature they way many of us did. In fact, few kids in my town – my own girls included – even walk to school without a parent, despite mine having one fairly quiet street to cross in order to get there. The walk home from school was prime time for exploring when I was a kid, so why are we denying ours the same cherished opportunity?

Author Richard Louv calls this lack of connection ‘Nature-Deficit Disorder.’ His book, Last Child in the Woods, is the pre-eminent study of this currently non-medical affliction, which outlines direct exposure to nature as essential to a child’s healthy physical and emotional development. There is growing evidence linking the lack of nature in children’s lives to the rise in obesity, attention disorders and depression.

“Within the space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience nature has changed radically,” Louv states in the book. “The polarity of the relationship has reversed. Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment – but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading. That’s exactly the opposite of how it was when I was a child.

“As a boy, I was unaware that my woods were ecologically connected with any other forests. Nobody in the 1950s talked about acid rain or holes in the ozone layer or global warming. But I knew my woods and my fields; I knew every bend in the creek and dip in the beaten dirt paths. I wandered those woods even in my dreams.”

A kid today, he continues, can likely tell you about the issues facing the Amazon rainforest but not about the last time they explored the woods by themselves, or, “… lay in a field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move.”

Today’s families live in a fast-paced society, running their children to organized sports, swimming lessons and community groups numerous nights a week, said Krista McKee, Community Relations Coordinator for Grey Sauble Conservation.

“It’s wonderful that families are active, but I feel we don’t take the time to stop and smell the fresh air,” Krista said. “We’re the culprits. We need to make it a routine for our family to take an hour to go on a leisurely hike in a forest to listen to the sounds, explore and talk about the things you discover along the way.”

Matthew Cunliffe, Senior Park Naturalist at MacGregor Point Provincial Park near Port Elgin, said kids today aren’t forced outdoors and into nature to fill their days, their imaginations providing the stimulation.

“With the accessibility of computers, smartphones and tablets with Internet access, sedentary entertainment has never been this reachable by youth,” Matthew said. “When I was a kid, I would wait a whole year for a new video game, when today there’s entertainment – movies, games, music – at our fingertips.”

Even when people do load up their bikes, fill a cooler with hotdogs and the makings for S’mores, and pitch their tents in the heart of MacGregor Park, Matthew has witnessed a major change in how people are experiencing their natural surroundings during his 10-year career.

“When I started at Ontario Parks, campfire programs were our most popular. We would get over 100 people in an evening. Now, we find campers are staying on their sites, many with computers or tablets for watching movies.”

Though today’s parents weren’t raised with smartphones and Internet access everywhere (I was in Grade 9 when Ripley first got the Internet!), we have since become connected to our devices. Youth and teens, who don’t know a life without these technologies, see us on our phones even if we are outdoors, and they think that is normal.

“It’s simple – just get outside,” Matthew said. “Kids emulate adults, so if your kids see you on your smartphone during dinner, vegging in front of the TV or checking Facebook during your downtime, they will think this is the norm. By spending family time going on hikes, bike rides or just playing outside together, children will associate outdoor recreation as the norm.”

But parents have to present their children with the opportunity and authority to roam the wilderness, Louv states in Last Child in the Woods. Kids need to discover nature on their own, to adapt to new situations in the wild as they arise, to shed themselves of the leash parents too quickly pull back on the instant our children do something remotely dangerous or unproductive (despite doing the same, or likely worse, when we were kids).

“Whatever shape nature takes, it offers each child an older, larger world separate from parents. Unlike television, nature does not steal time; it amplifies it. Nature offers healing for a child living in a destructive family or neighborhood… Nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualization and the full use of the senses. Given a chance, a child will bring the confusion of the world to the woods, wash it in the creek, turn it over to see what lives on the unseen side of that confusion. Nature can frighten a child, too, and this fright serves a purpose.

“In nature, a child finds freedom, fantasy and privacy; a place distant from the adult world, a separate peace.”

Nature calms the mind and soothes the soul. Our children need to experience it for themselves. And we need to let them.

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