Posts Tagged ‘kids’

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.

Summer is here!

The first day of summer is here!

School will soon be out and kids everywhere will be heading to summer camps and other things that parents have signed them up for to provide child care while they are out of school. Many parents have taken some kind of summer vacation but, our system isn’t really set up for that. Most people get only three weeks of vacation time a year which doesn’t really coincide with the eight weeks most kids get off.

So, off the kids go to various summer camps, day camps, hockey lessons (I still don’t quite get those in the summer) and, more often than not, to their basements to play video games.

Let’s focus on the positive for a few moments though, shall we? Finding the right summer camp. I should let’s you know that I’m in the summer camp business, there’s your disclaimer, so I’m really biased to my type of camp. But here are the things that you should be looking for in a nature based summer camp:

First, it should focus on nature. When I look at the average camp brochure these days, I notice that a lot of them are computer camps, sports camps and sometimes even fitness camps. A nature based camp will focus on games and learning about nature. Ask the camp director what sorts of activities your children will be doing. If all you hear are soccer, canoeing and games and there is nothing about free time with nature, look elsewhere.

Next, it should be in a natural area. While I think there is value in the community based day camp, if it doesn’t go to at least a natural park, it’s not going to expose your kids to nature.

Finally, residential camps are better than day camps, especially for o Oder kids. Day camps don’t offer the chance for kids to learn about stars, experience sleeping in a tent or really internalize the nature experience. They’re good if nothing else is available, but they’re not as good.

Please, if you get a chance, send your kids to camp. There are few experiences that are as transformative as a good summer camp experience. Plus, it will give your family something to chat about around the campfire.

Rain gear

I honestly think that a lot of the reason why people don’t like the rain is that they had a bad experience when they were a kid.  Too many of us had ponchos or windbreakers as rain gear when we were little and, as a result, the rain meant being cold and wet.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

I’m  strong believer in outside in all weather.  Now, to do that, you have to make sure that you and your kids are equipped to be warm and dry.

That starts with making sure that you have the base layer taken care of.  If you live some place where rain and warm go together, you’re all set, but for the cold rains that we used to get on Vancouver Island it means sweats, a hat and mitts – all synthetic of course – likely you have that already, but if not it can be hard for under $30.

Then, look to buy a pair of rubber boots.  For you, you can find a black pair for under $20, and a brightly coloured fun pair for your child at about the same cost.

Then, it’s time for the rain suit.  You want to make sure that you’re covering your legs and your torso.  More so for your child.

There are one piece suits available for kids – we’ve had this one for a while and our three year old loves it.

Two piece suits are also a good idea.  Just make sure that the top is a jacket and not a poncho – sleeves make a big difference.  I also recommend buying fully waterproof for kids over the waterproof breathable fabrics. You’re going to replacing this stuff often as your kids grow and, with that in mind, cheaper is better.

So, now you’re outfitted with quality rain gear, you’re going to be dry in the rain.  Now you can get out there and hike, paddle or just go splashing in all weather.

Travelling in cars

It’s pretty easy to think that you don’t have time to help your kids experience nature because you’re always shuttling them about in cars.  Likely many of you have band practices, french lessons, a daily commute, and soccer games to attend, not to mention a drive to the family cottage in the evenings.  It’s pretty easy to put on a DVD and let that amuse your kids while you travel.  I know that I’ve done that relatively often.  We also play guess that roadkill, look at the clouds and spot the colour yellow and keep score (I saw a family doing that recently on the metrorail in Washington, DC – they were having too much fun).

The National Wildlife Federation has come up with a great way to get you going – Car Window Bingo – the cards have pictures on them so that kids of all ages can play.  The smaller kids can mark them with crayons, to avoid terrible messes and have a great time.  As always, a straight line wins (depending on the length of the trip, the prize may vary – I would suggest against candy for very long trips).

When you do stop (and I would suggest stopping often), take a few minutes to look for some species you haven’t seen before.  If you have guide books in your car, you can research what you saw when you get going again.  Ask your kids how what they found was different than what’s at home or if they’ve ever seen something like it at home.

I also always make sure that my kids make a point of picking up at least one piece of garbage and throwing it out to leave the rest area a bit better than we found it.

Stewardship doesn’t need to be hard.  We just have to know to start small and do something!

Out in the garden

My wife and I put in a garden this past weekend. It’s a great way to not only teach out son about where food comes from, but also how to dig in the dirt and appreciate being outdoors. Not that it’s that hard for him to appreciate being outdoors. He’s been outdoors his whole life. We go for walks in our neighbourhood (currently a summer camp, but it’s also been an urban area, a cottage and a city from time to time. We spot trees and local animals. We smell leaves. What we don’t often do it travel somewhere else to find nature. Nature is all around us – it’s not something that you have to drive a long way to go see. When I was growing up in Toronto, we used to go explore the ravines and the local parks. We’d dig on the beach and skip stones. I believe that it was those experiences that led me to have a passionate connection with nature and that those experiences still exist today, if only we would allow our children to do them.

David Suzuki just wrote a great article about backyard nature in his blog – he says that we need a new kind of NIMBY – Nature in my backyard. I agree and have been saying so for the past few years. If we could just convince people to head out into their backyards and look for the local species that are already out there – the birds and bugs, the plants and animals – we would be much father ahead in helping kids to get out of the basements and outdoors into nature.

Having a family garden plot is a great first step to that goal. Plant some easy crops – our radishes are already coming up! I should point out that we’re not really gardeners, so this will be a work in progress. It’s just one way that I’m hoping to be able to help you get your kids outdoors.

That’s what this blog is really all about – easy ways for you to get your kids into nature. Over the next few months, years, days and weeks, I’ll be sharing some of what I’ve learned, some ideas that I’ve picked up along the way and neat new things that I notice that just might work. I’ll likely also get up on my soapbox from time to time and I’ll share just why nature is important. Hopefully you’ll come along for the ride.