Connecting with nature in the city

People will occasionally tell me that they can’t connect with nature because they live in the city.  They view nature as something far away that they will have to travel to explore.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

My little girl is three months old and I’ve noticed that when I take her outside, she calms down and listens to the birds, enjoying the world around her.  She’s connecting with nature in our own backyard.

If you want to go a little further afield, visit a park and have a picnic, let your kids go biking or even float down whatever body of water is available.

There are always opportunities for connecting with nature close to home.

Why not share your favourites in the comments and I will try to remember to do a post about everything that you come up with.


I’m been thinking about exploring for a little while now. Specifically, I’m been thinking about what captures the imagination of kids and inspires them to explore when they get older. I remember my dad coming home when I was 9 with a copy of the Toronto Sun declaring that the Titanic had been found. It was a profound experience in my life: someone had explored the depths of the ocean and had found a ship lost for generations.

Titanic Found

In the 1980s, there was still an active space program and, suddenly, an active program exploring the seas.  The world around me was exciting and I read everything that I could about sea exploration.  When Bob Ballard, who found the Titanic, was mapping a shipwreck at the bottom of Lake Ontario, I was one of thousands of school kids who got to watch via telepresence – an early form of taking part in a webinar.  I actually got to speak to one of my heroes!  In short, exploration was in my blood and, it should be of little surprise that my own play was about exploring and, as I grew older, I explored farther and farther afield. As an adult, I identify with exploring as a way of life and always try to keep moving our society forward.

So, where does the next generation of explorers come from? It’s true that there are still rocket launches and sea explorers, but it doesn’t hit our collective conciousness in the same way.  I think that it’s up to all of us to inspire children to explore the world around them. Give them a magnifying glass and a notebook. Get them a bird book and ask them to keep track of what they see. Give them a map and see if they can figure out where they are. Make them the navigators on your next road trip (take extra gas) and see where you end up.

I don’t know what the next frontier of exploration is going to be, but I know that if we don’t keep inspiring our children to look farther afield, just over the next horizon, we will never get there.  Exploring is a part of our nature, but we have to nurture it, or it will disappear.


One of the great joys of a Canadian winter is sledding down a hill.  As a child, I remember ripping down hills that were taller than I was and laughing all the way (as the song goes).  I remember Crazy Carpets, giants disks and a whole bunch of other things.  They were awesome.  Sure, one time, when I was going down a hill on a giant tube it launched me into the air and winded me when I landed, but I was back up the hill shortly afterwards and there was no lifetime damage.  The worst accidents that I ever saw were broken bones and one concussion (and that was an adult).  Why?  Because people knew where to sled, we increased our comfort level to a place where we were happy and didn’t go beyond it.  It was part of learning about our own risk management and risk tolerance. It was fun and it was important learning.

So, I was shocked today to learn that many municipalities have banned sledding or are considering banning it.  Hamilton has banned it in city parks since 2001, Toronto and Calgary only allow it on designated hills and a number of cities in the US are following Hamilton’s lead and banning it outright.  This makes me really angry.  I can understand publishing the safety risks of sledding or suggesting that people wear a helmet.  I even get the idea that some hills are just too dangerous for sledding – like this one in a parking lot – but an outright ban makes not sense at all and gives the idea that sledding is somehow more dangerous than skiing or snowboarding.

With that in mind, I am proposing that we make this Sunday, January 11th, the first annual “go sledding day.”  I’m not suggesting that you break the law of course, but find a hill (here is a great resource for that) and go sledding with your kids.  If you’d like, tweet or instagram your fun with the hashtag #gosledding (I was going to suggest #takebackthehill, but it turns out that’s a political hashtag).  It would be fantastic to see the internet full of people having fun out there this weekend.

Photo courtesy of Pierce (

Winter Campfires

I think that one of the greatest things about living in Calgary is that it’s a big city AND I can have a campfire in my backyard. There is nothing nicer than the end of a hard day at work, sitting around the fire.

But why have I only limited it to the summer months?

Last weekend, I started on what I’m going to call my “make peace with winter” backyard. I lit a campfire, my son played in the snow for about an hour and a half, and it started building a snow heat reflector around the fire (really, it will be more of a wind break). The idea is that I will be able to sit outside in all weather, read a book and have a nice fire and be warm. It worked quite nicely yesterday, and it was -20 or lower for the whole time I was out there.

We’ll be having a lot more winter this year, so we’re going to have a lot more winter campfires too!

An idea to prevent indoor recess

It was really cloudy last night, so I couldn’t ponder the stars as I went on my evening walk. That gave me some time to think about winter clothing for kids. While I was researching my last blog post, I came across a lot of school policies for a kid who comes to school without lunch. They were all a variation of “if your kid arrives without lunch, we will make sure they get one.” In some cases, the school would have a fee to the parents for the lunch for this service.

What I didn’t see what “if your kid comes without a jacket (mitts, hat, etc) we will make sure they get one.” Obviously, this would be complicated, but if governments were serious about the outdoors as a wellness activity and as something that promotes learning, they would fund such a thing. Schools could have a materials manager who looked after clothing and other equipment (like computers, desk, snowshoes, etc). Parents would still be responsible for being the primary provider of proper outdoor clothing but, if your kid comes without mitts, we’ll make sure they get them.

Cold today

So, it’s currently – 28 with the windchill here in Calgary.  That means that, if school were running, the local school board would cancel recess.  The theory is that it’s too cold to do anything and too dangerous to let kids outside.  Instead, kids are allowed to run around the gym, play computer games, read or play other games.  This means that the kids lose the opportunity to burn off some energy, gain the calming benefits of nature and get some valuable exercise.  It would be far better if we adopted the old Norwegian custom of “no bad weather, only bad clothing.”  This is a country where people embrace winter – it’s no wonder that they dominate Cross Country Skiing at the Olympics!  It does mean that we’re going to have to think a little bit differently about what our kids go to school in though.  Jeans and t-shirt, while stylish, aren’t going to stay stylist very long if your kids freeze in them.

My $5 balaclava came in handy!

My $5 balaclava came in handy today!

Here’s a great video from Active Kids Club that shows how people should get dressed during the winter (and, go figure, Kari, who runs the site, is originally from Norway). It’s a great place to start.  I would add that you can find most of the clothing at places cheaper than the high end stores – Costco sells Merino Wool Socks and underwear, lots of places sell fleece and high end gear can be found cheaply on eBay – I paid nearly $500 for a jacket like this one 15 years ago and now it can be found for under $20. Patagonia even has a partnership with them to encourage people to buy used.

I was out for ages today – dressed well, I even got a bit too hot at one point. That meant that I was able to take some photographs, get some exercise and really enjoy the day.  I couldn’t have done that if I’d stayed inside!

Year long nature challenge

Thanks to a fitbit that my sister gave me and a desire to “walk the talk,” I have decided to start a nature challenge.  My goal is to go outside for a minimum of 30 minutes every day, for a year.  Ideally, this will be active time outside – walking, hiking, snowshoeing – but I’m also hoping to take some time to reflect on my experience.  I’m also going to try to blog about it as I go.  I don’t promise that I’m going to do a great job at it, but I’m going to try.

Finally, I’m going to try to make sure that I do as much of this as possible with my son.  As you no doubt can tell, he loves being outside and has a great time with it.  Along the way, I will tell you about where we went and what we did and what made it easier (or could have made it easier).  I hope you enjoy it.

With that in mind, today we went skating in Calgary’s Bowness Park.  The park has been closed for ages, having been hit hard by the 2013 Calgary Flood, but it’s back in business and better than ever.  The new tea house (which isn’t open for tea yet) has a great bit deck out front with gas fireplaces – a wonderful spot to sit and put on your skates!  I’ll be honest, I would have been happy just to hang out by the fire and relax, but it seemed like a good idea to at least do a few laps of the pond.  The ice is a little bumpy (isn’t all outdoor ice?) but it’s a very kid friendly spot – people watch where they’re going and there aren’t any hockey games.  Don’t get me wrong, I like hockey, but it doesn’t mix well with teaching your kid to skate.

Our son and his new friend also discovered that the shore is a great spot to find but chunks of broken ice – a pretty cool diversion when you’re six.  He would have played for hours, making forts and throwing snowballs but us adults were getting a bit bored.  Next time, we will bring folding chairs and a thermos of hot chocolate and just let the kids play.

Most communities have some kind of outdoor rink.  It’s an easy, inexpensive way of having a bit of outdoor fun as a family.  Such a nice fun afternoon!


Inexpensive days outside inCalgary

Being outside with your kids doesn’t need to be expensive. Yesterday, I spent a chunk of my day tramping around the Cross Conservation Area – a beautiful piece of rolling prairie on the southern edge of the city that was set aside to protect wildlife. This is an amazing place – less than 45 minutes from my house in the Northwest (much closer if you live in the southern half of Calgary) and it feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere. Miles of hiking trails, dark skies and ample opportunities to see wildlife are here. Well worth the short little drive.

One thing that I love about Canada is that virtually every city has a conservation area, a natural park or even a whole island nearby to explore nature with your kids. Why is it that we always think that we have to get in the car and drive for a couple of hours to the mountains/cottage country/beach/ocean to explore nature? I’ve never lived somewhere where nature wasn’t at my back door! Growing up in Toronto, we rolled down hills in the ravine, explored the urban forest and visited the beach all the time. In Nanaimo, we rolled over rocks and looked for sea creatures – here in Calgary, my son and I enjoy running through the tall grass in urban wild lands!

It does mean that you have to be wearing the right clothing. Even that doesn’t need to be expensive. I will teach you a little secret – it turns out that fleece is fleece, even if it doesn’t say North Face. You can learn to knit hats and teach kids to knit their own. Get a sewing machine and make your own wind pantsuit me wear them over Walmart fleece pants. I bet you can build up a winter outfit for a lot less than you think.

Once you’re dressed right, get out there. You’re gonna love it!

They’re selling dirt now!

I’m the first to say that a little bit of dirt in somebody’s life is a healthy thing. There are studies that show that you have to eat a bit of it to have a healthy brain and immune system. Kids have immeasurable fun experiences when they play in the dirt, because there are an infinite number of possibilities! It can be pies one minute and a racetrack the next. I love dirt!

But. this is going too far. This isn’t play sand. It isn’t garden soil. This is dirt to rub into your hair and your clothing. I can think of so many better ways to get dirt in your hair and on your clothing. Here are a few ideas:

– roll down a hill
– go camping
– garden
– mountain bike
– go canoeing
– sit on a beach
– go rock climbing
– go caving

The are some many more. Tell your hipster friends! Maybe they’ll buy you a beer with the money they save!

The value of self directed play

I’m taking a course on the human nature connection and I thought I would publish some of the reflection papers that I’ve been writing.  These are a bit more academic than what I normally post, but I thought they were worth sharing.

Last summer, I watched as my five year-old son climbed high in the branches of the only climbable tree in our local park.  There is a built playground in the park, but he has been drawn to this tree for the past two summers and has finally learned how to climb it.  After he had been playing in the tree for about an hour, a local grandparent brought her grandkids to the park and started organizing the kids in to games.  Within ten minutes, my son asked to go home.  Play, organized by adults, wasn’t as much fun as using his imagination.

This shouldn’t have surprised me; children are often more responsive to self-directed play than they are to structured programming. It’s worth noting that there were a number of other reasons why her type of play wasn’t as fun.  My son had picked a part of the park that matched the preferences of children his age.  He had shelter under a tree and the freedom to explore within that shelter but he was also able to see me outside of that area.  By choosing this area to play, he was following the preferences that evolution has created in his brain (Heerwagen and Orians, 2002).  In the little thicket that he had chosen to play in, he was safe from weather and predators.  He was able to see me in case he needed help and he was exploring nature on his own terms in a place where he felt safe.  Children have always played in places like this and it would have been extraordinary for him to have done any differently (Wilson, 1993).

Child in tree

What is extraordinary is the reaction that humans have taken as we have moved from a rural to a primarily urbanized society.  Not only have we over programmed our children, reducing the chances that they will be able to explore nature on their own terms, we have begun the process of actively discouraging play.  In many jurisdictions, children are not allowed to play in the trees or build forts out of a misguided fear of liability (Louv, 2005).  We have scheduled structured activities for our children at the cost of virtually any unstructured free time (Honoré, 2008) and we have declared that a simple trip without direct parental supervision by a nine year old qualifies as child neglect (Skenazy, 2010).  We have made a crucial error in our evaluation of childhood; we have decided that children need to be protected by adults and, if we can’t protect them directly, they will be safer indoors.

Furthermore, as a result of our disconnection with nature, we have tried to replace actual nature with television documentaries and photos.  We have created an industry around programs for children that feature strong nature themes and lessons.  While these programs have much to teach young people about the world around them, studies have shown that the sort of “virtual nature” does not have the same impact as actual nature (Kahn, 2012).

As educators, we need to pay attention to these lessons and act accordingly.  We know that a vital skill for the next generation will be the ability to adapt to situations as they arise (Henderson, 2008).  As such, we should be encouraging behaviors that encourage creativity.  One way to do so is encouraging play in the outdoors and it encourages creativity, stress reduction and an increase in self-esteem (Heerwagen and Orians, 2002).  We need to understand that purchasing the latest colourful post and platform playground from a catalogue may actually discourage play in the outdoors.   Recent research has found that a child who is left to his or her own devices in a natural environment will play for an average of one hour and eight minutes.  That number drops dramatically to eighteen minutes when a standard playground is introduced (Standing Committee on the Environment and Sustainable Development, 2012).  As we design spaces for children to play in, we need to be very careful that we do not destroy the very things that will encourage unstructured play.

I do not believe that modern society has eradicated the connection between children and nature.  Children have an innate connection and desire to interact with nature (Wilson, 1993).  We need to create and encourage opportunities for young people to increase their connection with this natural world.  Perhaps the best measure for any of our decisions is the measure proposed by Kahn for the use of technology: by doing something, will people get outdoors more than if we had done nothing (Kahn, 2012)?  If we cannot meet that measure, we must carefully reconsider our actions.


Canada. Parliament. House of Commons. Standing Committee on the environment and sustainable development. (2012). Evidence. Meeting 47, October 22nd. 41st Parliament, 1st Session. Available:

Heerwagen, J. H., & Orians, G. H. (2002). The ecological world of children. In P. H. Kahn & S. R. Kellert (Eds.), Children and Nature. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Henderson, J. (2008). Developing students’ creative skills for 21st century success. Education Update, 50(12), Retrieved from’-Creative-Skills-for-21st-Century-Success.aspx

Honoré, C. (2008). Under Pressure: Rescuing childhood from the culture of hyper-parenting. Toronto, Ontario: Alfred A. Knopf Canada.

Kahn, P. H. (2012). Wild-technology. Ecopsychology, 4(3), 237-243. doi: 10.1089/eco.2012.0004

Louv, R. (2005). Last child in the wood: Saving our children from nature deficit disorder. (1st ed.). Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Alqonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Skenazy, L. (2010). Free range kids. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass.

Wilson, E. O. (1993). Biophilia and the conservation ethic. In S. R. Kellert & E. O. Wilson (Eds.), The biophilia hypothesis. Washington, DC: Island Press.