Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

A video for you to check out

Last week was the Children and Nature network’s Grassroots Gathering.  One of the keynotes was Claire Warden.  Here is a link to her talk – it’s great!

Slowing down

When I was in my early 20s I spent a couple of summer helping young people experience the wonder of nature by canoe.  We would spend 10 days travelling by our own power, at a slow pace, covering only fifty of one hundred miles.  We really explored and disconnected from the world.

I got to thinking about that because, as I wrote this, I was travelling on a plane flying over the area when I used to paddle.  It’s amazing that, over a decade later, I can still make out the lakes and the rivers that I explored those summers during the late 90s.  Artery lake stands out as a cross on the Bloodvein River, Aikens lake, with it’s crater at the source of the Gammon.  I couldn’t make out Scout lake or “Bing’s Death Swamp” but I know they’re down there.

During those summers, we didn’t have cell phones or email at the base camp.  Landline telephone service was limited, so we wrote a lot of paper letters.  Life was very slow.  I got excited to even see another person and would spend time getting to know the little details of their lives over the past week on the trail and crossing paths with another canoe trip was amazing.

With that kind of slow life, you really connected with the people around you.  You created a tight knit community.  You learned about each other and enjoyed each other’s company.  You could do that because you slowed down and paid attention to the little things in life.

We used to occasionally see planes overhead.  We even had radios to contact them if there was an emergency.  I used to really resent seeing them – they represented the outside world.  I couldn’t imagine that one day I would be flying on one of them, looking down at the landscape that had become a part of me in the past.

If we are to connect more people with nature we need to slow down and remember that we need to create community. We need to know our neighbours.  We need to trust each other.  If we’re able to do that we will be able to spend time going for walks in the woods.  We’ll be able to let our kids play with each other and we’ll be able to let them explore without our intervention.

We need to have the courage to know on our neighbours doors, to say hello and to sit in the park.  We also have to have the courage to slow down and take the time to really get to know each other.


There is a certain power of spending time in natural light. Seasonal affective disorder is well documented and is thought be caused in part by a lack of natural light during the winter months.

It’s not a terrible stretch to think that our moods could improve if we just spent a bit of time during each day outdoors in the natural light. I know it certainly works for me. If I spend just a few minutes outdoors in the sunshine, it will put me in a better mood and I will feel noticeably more alert.

Beyond that, we now know that the blue light of sunshine has a particular effect on eye health and may be one of the reasons why we are seeing more nearsighted children. The indoors may be hurting our children’s eyes.

I’m not going to say that, for kids with depression and genetic eye damage that the outdoors will cure them but we don’t want to cause damage by keeping kids indoors.

Remember that something as simple as a walk at lunchtime will get you out and you will have the added benefit of getting a bit of exercise, something we can all use.

So get out and enjoy the sunshine and let’s see all of our moods improve just a little bit.


I was in a conversation yesterday when someone asked me a tough question. If I could do one thing to get more teenagers into our outdoor based program, what would it be? That’s a very tough question because there isn’t one single silver bullet. Teenagers have a very good lie detector built in and want to get what you tell them they’re going to get. They want adventure. They crave risk. These are the things that have moved humans, as a species, forward. The risk part literally saved humanity during the ice age, when some teenagers said to their parents, see you later old guys, we’re getting on the ice floe to look for new adventures elsewhere. Those are all important things, but they weren’t what I settled on – I settled on trust and doing things with their friends.

Teenagers want to be trusted and they want to do things with their friends. More importantly, they can be trusted to do things with their friends. If we want to get more teenagers through the doors, we need to create opportunities for them to do these things.

The organization that I work for has a provision for older youth (11 – 14 year olds) to camp without adult supervision. I did that when I was that age. We set up duty rosters, we bought and cooked our own food and we learned from our mistakes (at age 14, I had a love of Cajun seasoning, my friends didn’t). Most importantly, we didn’t get in to trouble.

When I was 16, I joined the older program and, although all the camps we wanted to go to required an adult advisor to be present, we didn’t have one available most of the time. We would recruit an adult from one of the other groups to take responsibility for us and we would camp without adult supervision. We camped this way for thirty or fourth days out of each year, in all seasons. We never got in to trouble and most people thought that one of us was a young looking adult, but they could never quite figure out which one of us it was. We never got into trouble and our group grew from six the first year to thirty in the next.

These sort of opportunities seem to have disappeared in the 21st century. We think that our world is too dangerous (it isn’t) and that our teenagers can’t be trusted to do the right thing (they can) to allow this sort of thing to happen. We need to recreate opportunities that allow teenagers to learn how to do things without adult supervision, be trusted to do so for extended periods of time and know that they will do the right thing. Those sorts of experiences made me the man that I am today. People trusted me to do the right thing. We can trust today’s teenagers to do the same and, if we allow them to do so, we will build the next generation of community leaders and nature lovers.

Beach Fun

There is nothing so natural than kids and the beach!  We took my son up to the ocean for the first time in a few years (we do live in a landlocked province, so it’s not entirely our fault), and he immediately started playing in the mud,looking for shells and visiting with other kids.  I heard them yelling to each other about what they’d found in tide pools and about the fun of having mud between their toes!

He learned about getting stuck in the mud, about tides and about beach creatures – fish, birds and an abundance of sea life.  I defy anyone to tell me that wasn’t education!

He ran and ran and ran, threw handfuls of mud, got his boots and the rest of him all wet and cried when it was time to go home.  He went right to sleep when it was bedtime, actually asked for bedtime!

A perfect afternoon!


The Value of Recess

Tag! You’re it!

Ahh recess . . . that wonderful time when, as children, we had a chance to run around the playground, exploring nature, tasting dirt and maybe getting to use the great big playground structure in the yard.  I remember some of the adventures that my friends and I went on as kids – we were the Hardy Boys, the Scooby Gang and sometimes ourselves, off to solve some kind of great mystery.

Recess is a great way for schools to encourage unstructured free time – that time when kids learn on their own without the help of adults.  Research has shown that this sort of time is critical to the full development of a child and allows them to learn practically anything, given the right environment.

Recess is special as well, because it encourages child based physical activity.  That’s one reason why the American Association of Pediatrics just released a statement saying that all work and no play is bad for kids. Kids who learn how to play will play without an adult organizing them.  They don’t need a soccer coach to line them up and tell them the rules, they will make them up as they go along and, when the rules stop making sense, they will change them.  In the span of a few minutes they will roll down hills, they will taste grass and they will have authentic childhood experiences in an active way.  We might say that this is them getting exercise, and it certainly is, but it’s the most important type of exercise – the kind that they get without even realizing it.  That goes on to set lifelong trends – going for a walk in the evening or skating in the park.

So, when I see stories about recess being cancelled, I get really annoyed.  This is something that is needed for the whole development of a child and should always be a part of a child’s education.

Winter Fun

The park down at the end of my street has a skating rink.  My son got ice skates for Christmas.  Guess what we’ve been doing?  Yep – learning to skate!  We’ve only been out once, but he really liked it.  I liked that we were spending time outdoors in the fresh air!

Winter is a time when it’s all too easy to stay inside watching tv, reading and playing on the computer but, as many parents will tell you, it’s also a time when the lack of time outside leads to some pretty impressive behaviour issues.  You see, when a kid doesn’t get the chance to run around outside, they don’t get the chance to burn off extra energy and that goes into driving you a little bit nuts happy fun times running around your house and not going to bed on time.  They also don’t get necessary light from the sun and that’s hard on the eyes, can lead to vitamin D deficiency and makes for less fun at bedtime.

I’d love to hear your ideas about how you keep busy in the winter.  I’m always looking for new things to try!

Until then, we’re going skating!

Nature on Christmas Day

Dashing through the mall, on a one man open checking account, through the stores we go, cashing all the way.

Do you ever get the feeling that there isn’t anything natural about Christmas? Plastic trees, hurried lifestyles, buying lots and lots of stuff and then, you’re inside most of the day watching old movies on Christmas.

Some stores even open for Boxing Day sales early to let the shopping continue (for my American friends – Boxing Day is our shopping equivalent to Black Friday).

This Christmas, I’m going to make sure that I spend at least a little bit of time outside.  I will get my son and I all bundled up and we’ll go sledding, or digging in the snow or something fun outside.  Maybe we’ll make snow angels! Maybe we’ll just go for a walk and look for reindeer tracks.  I know that we’ll be spending some time outside.

We’ll be doing it because everything about a modern Christmas is just ripe to keep him awake to the wee hours of the morning.  He’ll be excited, there will be tv, new things and a great big supper – with pie, no doubt.  We know that all those things stimulate a child and get them wound up.  We also know that time outside helps a child sleep better at night.

I know that I’m going to need the rest!

Speaking to the House of Commons

I recently had the chance to speak to the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Environment and Sustainable Development.  It was an amazing experience and the MPs were very engaged.  Here is what I had to say:

“Thank you, Mr. Chair and members of this committee, for having me back to speak about this important issue.

When I was last here, I was telling you that on this, the 50th anniversary of the printing of Silent Spring, we’re now facing a new silence in the wilderness. The peregrine falcon is no longer on the endangered species list, but we are close to losing the sound of children’s laughter from our forests.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that people who spend time in nature are a species at risk and, like the peregrine falcon in the 1960s, it’s the youth numbers that are plummeting. Having a strong connection to an outdoor place is the first step to ensuring any kind of conservation ethic, and it is an essential component of our Canadian identity. We must act decisively to reverse this trend or we will soon find ourselves in the position where it is too late.

In order for us to reverse this trend, we first must understand why it is happening. Research has shown that a combination of fear, a lack of education, and overzealous conservation practices have been the major contributing factors.

Government has a role in reversing these trends. It can implement tax credits to encourage families to take part in programs that bring young people in touch with nature. It can enact a liability shield for adults or groups taking young people on activities in nature. It can partner with organizations like Scouts Canada in delivering quality outdoor experiences in nature for Canadians. It can make it easier for youth groups to take advantage of parks and protected areas.

Across Canada, young people will experience the wonder of the outdoors on their own terms on a Scouts Canada activity. Earlier in this study you heard Mr. Bienenstock speaking of roam rates declining: children are not able to explore the world to the extent they once were; one of the things that we try to do in our programs is create an environment where young people feel confident enough to work together in groups to roam and explore nature without the direct supervision of adults. They work on projects and they camp in tents away from their adult supervisors.

I’ve seen the impact that these programs have on kids: bullying decreases, attention spans are lengthened, and interest in the world around them—and not just the natural world—is increased. You’ve heard about these benefits from other witnesses, so I won’t belabour the point, but nature makes a difference in the lives of young people.

Every summer I’ll get at least one phone call from a parent who is concerned that their child will be abducted by a stranger or eaten by a wild animal at camp. I have to explain that the natural world is a very, very safe place.

I have searched deeply, and I have found only two cases of child abductions from a summer camp in the last 50 years. The chance of a child being harmed by a stranger at camp is incredibly low. These are supervised environments with policies in place that make sure the kids go home with the right people. Natural environments in Canada have one of the lowest crime rates in the world.

Also, negative concerns about wild animals are not significant either. There are less than two fatal bear attacks every year in North America. There have been only 38, total, in Canadian history, but parents ask me about them constantly.

Now, at the risk of overstating the obvious here, a parent who is concerned about her daughter being abducted from a Scout camp isn’t going to let her child roam the local ravines in the city with her friends. I understand that. I am a parent myself. I know that I should let my son roam to develop resilience and a strong conservation ethic, but I get nervous when he’s playing in the backyard, much less in the local park, and I do this for a living, so while these fears are misplaced, we have to recognize that they exist and that we reinforce them in this age of 24-hour news cycles and with the Internet telling us about every time a child anywhere in the world has gone missing or is hurt. Those of us in public roles must be careful to talk about the world as a safe place if we’re going to reconnect people with nature. We have to come from a position of hope.

There’s also a fear of liability. This has left many organizations helpless in regard to taking more kids outdoors.

In the United States, there is a grassroots movement that’s engaging more than a million children each year in nature play in what are called family nature clubs. This program began less than five years ago when one family asked another if they could take their kids to the local park. You have to understand that this required a tremendous leap of faith that they weren’t going to be sued if something went wrong.

We need to make it easier for people to act within the scope of their abilities and not be sued for their actions, in the same way that “good Samaritan” laws protect first-aiders. It should be noted that this kind of law would not remove the need for high-quality risk management protocols, but it would remove the risk to personal property because of a need to defend against a frivolous lawsuit.

I would next like to speak about education. We’ve moved from a place-based model to a classroom-based model in Canada. While curricula guide teachers to teach about Canadian geography and animals, they do not guide how to teach those topics. Great teachers will use experiential methods to allow students to learn about the world, but many will simply tell their students about what they could see outdoors, without helping them experience it, and if students don’t experience their local environment, they’ll not internalize it.

There is a growing body of evidence that supports the value of learning in a natural context. For example, youth who engage in multi-day nature immersion programs graduate from high school at a higher frequency than those who don’t.

I’d submit to you that the loss of this shared knowledge is one of the biggest issues facing Canadians today. Students who don’t know the birds in their neighbourhoods will not notice that they are missing. Students who are not in touch with the land will not notice that droughts last longer or that winters had heavier snowfalls in the past. It’s a massive problem that in classrooms across Canada students can describe the problems of polar bears drowning in the Arctic but can’t tell you what fish live in the local ponds or the colour of a robin’s egg.

In 2008, the Oxford University Press announced that they were removing nature words from theOxford Junior Dictionary because they weren’t being used in classrooms. I’d ask you to consider how far society has gone, knowing that the word “beaver” has been removed from one of the standard dictionaries used in elementary school classrooms across Canada.

I’d like to move on to health. In many jurisdictions, in response to childhood obesity, students take part in daily physical activity programs. These programs haven’t worked. A 2009 study found no impact on obesity in 15 separate studies conducted around the world. Studies on organized sports have found the exact same thing. In fact, the rise of childhood obesity has exactly mirrored the rise of organized sport in Canada. I’d hesitate to stretch the causality of that number too far, except to say that the growth of sport in Canada hasn’t helped this epidemic. Outdoor programs help, because they encourage unstructured play in the outdoors on an ongoing basis.

It’s time for government to treat programs that engage young people in the outdoors in the same fashion as sports programs are treated. A tax credit similar to the child fitness tax credit should be extended to programs that engage young people in nature. A tax credit of this sort would serve to get programs like Scouts Canada back on the menu for many families.

It’s also time for the government to work more closely with programs that are making a difference in the conservation sector. While great work has been done in Parks Canada’s Xplorers program, the My Parks Pass program, which was only used by about 6,000 students across Canada last year, has not had the same kind of return on investment. The My Parks Pass program would be much more effective if it were expanded to allow members or organized groups free access to Canada’s national parks and historic sites. Currently, organized groups do not use these resources to the extent they should because of the cost.

Allowing more access would permit members of organized programs to be in these areas more often, and they would become advocates for them. It’s worth knowing that studies show that many adult users of parks first visit these areas as part of an organized youth group. In other words, no-charge passes become a no-cost marketing tool to expand the use of the parks. In the long run, they will expand park revenues.

We also need to learn how to collaborate across sectors and replicate successes. There’s an opportunity for charitable groups to engage more young people in the outdoors. Scouts Canada has been working with the Palisades Stewardship Education Centre in Jasper to replicate the programs that have been developed at Scout camps across the country. We need to build more partnerships like this to create both short-term opportunities for service, such as learn-to-camp programs, and also longer-term opportunities, such as a summer service corps of young adults who would be embedded in national parks. They would be able to help people in the park do camping stuff and would communicate with friends back home using social media.

One of the hard lessons those of us in the field are learning is that in order to make our programs relevant to neophytes, we have to use a limited amount of technology in the field. Digital photography has been found to have a strong ability to bridge the gap between worlds, as have certain apps. If we’re going to connect people in any meaningful way to the outdoors, we need to ensure that we’re not turning people away with a dogmatic “no technology” approach.

A second hard lesson we must learn is that the look-but-don’t-touch philosophy toward outdoor areas has left millions of people disconnected from the very land that’s been protected for them. When I think about how we treat conservation in this country, I’m reminded of the words of the Five Man Electrical Band: we “put up a fence to keep me out or to keep Mother Nature in”. There are certainly good reasons for that in some terrain, but there are other areas where it would be acceptable for young people to roll rocks back to see what’s underneath or to skip stones in the local pond.

In a recent article David Sobel, from Antioch University in the States, wrote that our overzealous protection of some areas and telling people that they should look but not touch are creating a generation of people who are not as connected as they should be to the natural world. It’s ironic that when we look at the long view, our protection schemes may actually be damaging the lands we’ve aimed to protect.

In closing, I’d like to invite you all to spend a day at a Scout camp in the near future to see what a program that engages young people in nature on their own terms looks like. Most of our youth come from urban areas, and after some time in the woods, they come to view those areas as their own. We believe that the best practice for engaging our youth in conservation projects is to ensure that they first learn to love the land by spending time on it. Then they will become stewards of it.

Thank you.”

Finding Nature Everywhere

Last week, I attended the Children and Nature Network’s Grassroots Gathering in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.  It was a wonderful group of very dedicated people working together to get kids in touch with nature.  I heard some great ideas – family nature clubs, working with new immigrants and harnessing social media to connect people together who are working exceptionally hard to reverse a dangerous trend.  I sat with the leaders of this movement – Richard Louv, Robert Bateman, Adam Bienenstock and Juan Martinez amongst others.  Everyone was amazing and I left feeling even more inspired than when I began.

At the end of the gathering, I stayed the evening in Washington, DC and decided to wander down to the Washington Mall.  For those of you who haven’t been to DC – the mall is that huge green space in the middle of town with Mr Lincoln at the one end and the US Capitol at the other end.  I was there at about 9 pm and wandered around the Lincoln Memorial and looked at the moon with about a thousand of my closest friends.  I ran into Scouts and families, Americans, Canadians and people from all around the world.  There were young people and old people.  They all had one thing in common – they looked at the memorial for sure, but pretty soon they found themselves looking at the moon.  They listened to the sound of crickets.  They were fascinated by the praying mantis that I found around the back of the monument (I was too – it was the first one I’ve ever seen in the wild) and they looked for the stars.

We can find nature in the strangest of places.  I’ve found it in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver.  I’ve found it on the Las Vegas strip and at a Jacksonville conference centre.  I hate it when people say that nature isn’t accessible to some people – it’s accessible to everyone, we just have to know where to look.