Helping a wired generation reconnect with nature
Children will follow when parents lead
By: By Nicole Starker
| Posted: Saturday, Sep 08, 2012 06:00 am
Scouts Open House
Scouts Canada Northern Lights Council is opening its doors and invites families to enjoy the climbing wall, archery range, kub kar races, monkey bridge and more!
Takes place today, Saturday, Sept. 8 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Adventure Centre, 14205-109 Ave., Edmonton.
Remember heading with your friends to the open field or corner lot in the neighbourhood? The hours spent building forts from fallen branches, and squatting in the dirt to examine an anthill or coax a grasshopper onto a twig?
Do kids do that anymore?
Experts suggest they will – if we will.
“Kids are still quite willing to get wide-eyed and ooh and ahh about things, but they usually need a bit of a helping hand, sometimes just to locate stuff or find it,” says Dan Stoker.
Stoker was one of the original founders of the Big Lake Environment Support Society and is currently part of the Riverlot 56 Natural Area Society and River Edge Enhancement Project. He has been involved in outdoor education for over 40 years.
In his bestselling book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv introduced the phrase “nature deficit disorder,” a description of the growing gap between human beings and nature, with implications for health and wellbeing.
While Louv’s book focuses on the divide between children and the outdoors, Stoker says that this isn’t just a phenomenon among kids.
“I think there is a gradual tendency in all of our society to be getting further and further away from nature, including parents,” he says.
Brent Andressen, co-ordinator of agricultural education with the Alberta government, says kids have lost the meaning of nature.
“They experience snow and cold and rain, but they’re not too sure what it means,’ he says. “Like if they go out in cold weather, they don’t know that they can get frozen cheeks with wind chill.”
So where did the meaning get lost?
Andressen acknowledges that technology has played a role in distancing children from nature as the attention of younger generations becomes more divided between the backyard and the computer screen.
“They do a lot of virtual surfing and virtual studying and they’re hooked up virtually with their homework and all those things with technology and it’s got its advantages,” says Andressen. “But it disconnects them from the real.”
Certainly technology like computers and video games has played a role in widening the gap between this wired generation and the outdoors, but placing all of the blame on the shoulders of electronics is shortsighted. Other changes have contributed to this shift as well.
Stoker points to the fact that while it used to be common for children to play unsupervised as young as seven years old, kids now engage in more programmed or supervised play up to their teens.
He cites the example of his own children’s involvement in organized sports.
“Those were all planned organized events that they took and they enjoyed it, it was fun. But it wasn’t your random activity that I think leads to a lot of nature study, just because it’s fun and neat to find things when you’re a kid,” says Stoker. “I don’t think kids get the same opportunity.”
So what opportunities are there for kids to engage with nature?
Children are quite willing to dig in to the natural world – they just need a little guidance.
The classroom is a major source of nature learning. As an education co-ordinator, Andressen has been involved in initiatives like Earthbox Kids, a program that brings portable gardens to schools.
He says that children quickly reconnect with nature, and the meaning of nature, when given the opportunity.
“They would say, ‘oh, we need water to make the plants grow, oh, it takes time’, and they got reconnected and I think that the bright spot in that project was that it brought them back,” says Andressen. “It reconnected the kids to the meaning: a flower means that there will be fruit.”
He says that while older youth in junior high and high school connect through thinking, younger children connect through touch. That tactile experience links them to the natural world.
“It’s just charming to see the smiles on the kids as they stick their hands up to their elbows in the soil.”
Parents are one of the most important influences in leading children back to nature and Stoker says that sometimes moms and dads are hesitant because they don’t feel they’re skilled enough to take the lead.
Stoker advises parents not to worry about what their knowledge or experience level might be.
“Don’t worry about names, worry about colours and shapes and beauty and smells,” he says. “Just enjoy the opportunity, and if a child finds something that’s unusual, enjoy that fact and give them praise. The excursion can be ‘let’s try to find something really unusual or let’s find something that’s beautiful and yellow,’ and give them little challenges. I think kids love challenges.”
Parent David Hnatiuk grew up spending a lot of time outside and wants his son Kaleb to experience the outdoors as well.
“I grew-up in North Vancouver, B.C., and my backyard was the Seymour Demonstration Forest so I did a lot of mountain biking, a lot of hiking, and then I’d also take the bus up to Grouse Mountain to go skiing,” he says.
After hearing that his son spent a camping trip reading in the tent and watching DVDs in the car, Hnatiuk enrolled his son in Scouts to expose him to nature.
“I wanted him to understand that there’s more to camping than just being in a tent. It’s also about going out and discovering things about nature, and going on the hikes, and the camaraderie you can get from being with friends out camping,” says Hnatiuk. “And he’s very happy that I’ve done that.”
Hnatiuk got involved in scouting along with his son and is the group commissioner for 2nd St. Albert Scouts.
“I know that if it weren’t for scouts, it would be more challenging for me to get my boy to go outside,” says Hnatiuk.
Groups like the Scouts and Girl Guides and Junior Forest Wardens provide opportunities for kids to get out and experience nature together, and Andressen says that municipalities are making an effort as well.
“I think cities are trying,” he says. “There are those summer programs, parks programs, nature hike things. I think there are bodies trying hard, and I think they’re out there, but again it’s up to adults to steer kids that way.”
The St. Albert Nature Centre is one local destination where kids can engage with the natural world. Samantha Morris-Yasinski is the co-ordinator charged with educating youngsters this summer.
Stoker says, “if (Morris-Yasinski) can instil a little bit of curiosity or a little bit of familiarity so that kids feel comfortable holding the crayfish or holding a container full of little aquatic stuff, and they’re not afraid of it anymore and they actually know the names of these things, then they might be shown how to go and do that one on their own, and then all of a sudden it takes off.”
Morris-Yasinski says that the curiosity already exists in the children, whether or not they have a foundation of nature knowledge.