Balancing screen time with sunshine: A Q&A with Take Me Outside founder Colin Harris
Calling in from the comfort of his home in Canmore, Alberta with his four-legged friend at his feet, Colin Harris, executive director and founder of the Take Me Outside (TMO) organization, spoke with NCC-staffer Carly Digweed about getting children outdoors, his nine-month trek across Canada, and his appreciation for winter weather.
CD: What sparked you to take on the Take Me Outside initiative, to get kids outdoors? And why do you feel it’s important?
CH: In my youth, when the school bell rang, I was outside until dinner. And once I finished my homework I was outside until it was dark and the street lamps came on. And I'm sure that that phrase has been repeated ad nauseam by many, many people. But originally that spark was working in outdoor education; seeing firsthand, kids who came up to our centre for three, four, five days... removed from any devices and just seeing sort of mini-transformations happening within those few days. Even just seeing the smiles on their faces and observing a real enjoyment for being outside, a real enjoyment of being with their classmates.
I wanted to try, in my own way, to encourage this young generation by showing them that they can have a lot of fun playing outdoors and being out in nature, in balance with the enjoyment that can come with playing video games and browsing the internet.
CD: Some two years ago, you took on a fairly long run...7,600 kilometres. Why did you choose running as a means of raising awareness to the TMO cause? More importantly, why a run across the country?
CH: Honestly, running across Canada was a life-long dream. In grade 7, when I was living in Winnipeg, I ran alongside the torch-barer when it came through the city for the 1988 Calgary Olympics. I didn’t exactly say right then and there that I wanted to run across Canada but I think it planted the seed for wanting to do something big.
As the years progressed, maybe when I was 18 or 19, the actual dream of running across the country solidified and it took another many years for it to come to fruition. But yeah, the run across the country was a personal dream but then I also wanted to marry it to something worthwhile. Having worked in outdoor education, and keeping in mind the notion that we’re spending more and more time in front of screens and less amount of time outside, it seemed like a good fit to go into schools and give a simple presentation to try and encourage them to spend more time outside.
CD: This run allowed you to see Canada in a way most people will never get to experience – what was you favourite place or landscape and why?
CH: It’s really hard to pinpoint.... and I know it sounds like a copout...
I mean, Newfoundland’s geography – granted I experienced it in the winter – is stunningly beautiful. But, what I think makes it even more beautiful are the people who live there.
Northern Ontario holds a special place in my heart. The run along Lake Superior and that stretch of the Trans-Canada [Highway] is, in my opinion, one of the more beautiful parts of the country.
And sometimes the prairies get a bad rap, but there’s a real beauty to big prairie skies and the endless miles, with the horizon being miles and miles away.
Then obviously the mountains and their grandeur... it’s really hard to pinpoint. And then there are places I’ve lived in Canada that weren’t part of the run. I lived up in Northwest Territories for six months, and that’s a whole different story. I know many, many friends that have gone up there, fallen in love with it and not come back down south.
All that said, over the last few years, this idea has stuck with me; this idea of Canada’s backyard and this notion that we have one of the best backyards in the world. It doesn’t matter where in the country you live, if you take a few steps away from your house or from the urban sprawl, you’ll find that backyard, and it’s stunning in so many different parts of the country.
CD: The TMO Challenge highlights the importance of getting kids outside while they’re still kids. Is there an experience from your childhood that you feel was an influencer in developing your organization... a moment that you pull from when you were a child that you know had an impact on your feelings toward nature, and the importance of exposure to nature at a young age?
CH: I can definitively say no to that. I’ve heard a lot of people tell their story, but for me there was no defining moment or experience or place.
I was born in Drumheller, Alberta and when I was a baby, the advice my mom was given for the winter was to not keep me inside. Everyday, she took me for a walk to expose me to the cold, and now I'm used to it – I'd say winter is my favourite season. I wasn’t aware of what she was doing, I was a baby. And for my generation, our connectedness to nature and wanting to spend time outside was a given; it’s just the way it was. So I think, my entire childhood, those experiences outdoors in general led to my love for being outside.
That said I’ve spent my fair share of time in front of the television... I love TV, I love watching movies... I'm not very good at video games. And that’s the approach I try to use with the Take Me Outside program; it’s not about putting our devices, our screen time and technology against time outside or nature, it’s about finding better balance.
CD: Now knowing that winter is your favourite season, do you have tips for motivating kids to get outdoors in all seasons, including the chilly ones?
CH: Whenever I’ve gone into schools and I ask them to raise their hands if they like spending time outside, they all raise their hands. And the list is endless for what they like doing outdoors.
Kids make their own fun; we don’t necessarily need to give them things to do outside. Especially, with the idea that’s hugely supported by now, out about the benefits of children experiencing free play. So if you just go to a park, or go to a green space and let kids go, they’ll find their own fun. And I think that’s true regardless of the season. So outside of organized sports and clubs, if kids can find the time for free play, it would be really beneficial.
CD: What is your ideal day outdoors? Might it include running?
CH: That’s a hard question. I think just being out there, really. If it’s just a day, ideally I'd like to go for a canoe paddle with friends, maybe a picnic lunch, have my dog by my side, and just soak up some sun. I'd like to either be on the water or in the trees.
CD: Sounds like a great day to me. Thanks, Colin!