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.

Fire ban

So, the local government implemented a fire ban this weekend locally.  And it’s supposed to be my son’s first campout with me.  While I was initially disappointed not to be able to have s’mores with him, I’m going to make sure that we have lots of fun with candles and looking at stars.  Camping is not all about campfires and marshmallows.  It’s about appreciating nature and telling stories and enjoying being outdoors.  That’s what we’re going to do this weekend.

I’m awfully excited!

Getting ready for family camping

I’m getting excited for family camping season!  We haven’t taken our son camping yet (well, other than living at a camp for part of his life) and him and I are excited for his first night “under canvas.”  We’re getting prepared mentally – had nap time in the sleeping bag and play time in our indoor tent.  We have a sleeping mat.  This weekend coming up will be the first big event – sleeping in the backyard in a tent!  We might all do it, or maybe it will just be the kid and me, but we will have a great time.

In preparation for family camping, you first will need a tent.


If you haven’t been camping in a while, you may find it a bit dizzying the various types and shapes of tents that are available.  Breathe.  Don’t panic and remember that you’re not taking this on an expedition.  Here is what you need to know about a tent for family camping:

1) Tents aren’t the size that they are advertised at.  A four person tent will fit four people. Not four squirming people.  Not four people with any gear.  Buy bigger than you think you’ll need.

2) Buy one with a waterproof floor.  Heavy duty is great!  It will keep you dry.  It won’t be lightweight and will be awful for backpacking.  Backpacking is not what we’re going for here – we’re going for dry and fun.

3) Buy one with a full fly.  Good tents are made with a breathable inner bit and a waterproof fly.  This allows the moisture inside the tent to escape but will keep the rain off you.

4) Don’t worry about “toys” like gear lofts, but look for pockets.  I wear glasses and pockets are a vital part of my camping routine.  If I don’t have them, I stop being able to see when I crush my glasses.

5) If you live in a place where it takes a long time for the sun to go down, it might be worth looking at the colour of the tent closely.  Yellow tents are bright inside – cheerful on a sunny day, but are going to be difficult for your little one to go to sleep in.  Blue will be hot on a sunny day.  I suggest red or silver.

Most important – don’t worry about it so much that you don’t buy a tent and get outside!  Summer is here – let’s go exploring!


The value of summer camp

In my day to day life, I run several summer camps. I believe that immersive outdoor experiences are the best way to connect young people to nature in ways that will allow them to live a lifetime connected to nature. Next to parents, it’s the best long term method. Today is the first day of staff training here at our camp and I’m very happy that we have a team of engaged young adults who understand what we are trying to do.

What I find particularly interesting is just how much they are open to new ideas. I’ve worked with camp staff who thing that any technology is a bad thing, but these guys are open to the idea that you have to meet kids half way if they are going to find what you’re doing at all relevant.

As well, they’re open to letting the kids free range a little bit. That doesn’t mean that camp is going to be absolute mayhem, but it does mean that the kids will have some time to plan their own programs and will be able to engage in ways that are meaningful to them. Experimentation is the key.

Ask questions of your summer camp leadership to see if they will meet your goals or if they will just translate the problems of the city into a natural setting.


I’m convinced that one of the big problems with the environmental movement is that we’re not very good at speaking to those outside of our social circles.  That means that we do a lot of preaching to the choir and thinking lofty thoughts with people who agree with us.  It also means that we run the risk of becoming exclusionary.  Don’t believe me?  When was the last time that you thought of a Republican hunter as an environmentalist?  Or the guy who runs the local ATV club?  We forget that the US National Parks were created by Teddy Roosevelt who, if he lived today, would be both those things – I would bet on it.

We need to understand that we can’t solve all the problems of the world all at once and that getting small results might just be enough.  I believe that part of the solution is just getting kids outdoors.  If we get them outdoors, then they’ll bring their families outdoors.  They’ll learn to love the places that they’re living in.  Eventually, they will want to protect them, they’ll connect them to other issues and they’ll want to do something about those issues too.  When that happens, they will seek out the groups that are doing that kids of work.

But first, we need to do something and we can’t do that if we only talk to those people who agree with us.

The importance of play

I’m convinced that one of the biggest things that gets in the way of kids experiencing nature is that we don’t give them a chance to explore it on their own.  That is, we don’t let them play in an unstructured way.  We’re pretty good at structuring them into play – over 50% of kids take part in some kind of organized sport – and that doesn’t count piano lessons or community organizations.  What we’re not so good at anymore is just letting kids play.

Recently, the Alberta Centre for Active living published an article about this – they found that parents are the number one thing that gets in between kids and play time.  We need to remember this when we’re getting busy – we could be disconnecting our kids from the outdoors.

Here’s the article:

Some new ideas for getting kids outdoors

For the past few days, I’ve been participating in Robert Bateman’s Get To Know your wild neighbours unconference. This has been several days of discussions around getting kids involved in nature. Tons of ideas.

Here are the two biggest ones that I’ve heard so far. In his keynote speech the other night, Robert Bateman suggested that the best thing that we can all do is simply take your children and their friends and parents into the outdoors. It’s really simple, but that’s what will make it work. Make it a weekly habit and pretty soon we will have a lot more kids going outdoors.

But what do you do when you get out there? How will you know what to tell the kids about the various species? That’s where the second idea comes in – and it’s really simple – take photos of various species and go home and learn something new about the species. Parks could help with that as well by thinking about their park design. How many times have you been walking through a forest and seen a sign that has the Latin name of the tree and no other information? That is the ultimate “so what?” moment. Those signs should have some more information about the species. They could tell us something about the plants and help people learn something deeper about them. We should all write letters to the local parks departments offering to help research one plant to help this happen. It wouldn’t take much – one fun fact on a laminated sign would be enough.

I think we need to understand that getting kids outdoors doesn’t mean going to a national park (though there are lots of great reasons to go to a national park – check out my parks pass for grade eight students for a free way to get in) – going for a walk in the local park, a walk on the boardwalk or exploring a local wood lot on a local level make a huge difference on the lives of young people.