Good things happen when you take your class outside
In many urban areas, children and families lack access to nature and the freedom to explore local plants and animals. Anxiety levels, attention-deficit disorder (ADHD) and antisocial behaviour in children is on the rise, and, it's said, that the average child spends more than seven hours a day in front of a screen and less than 20 minutes a day in outdoor play. If children are to be our next conservation champions and engaged naturalists, how can we expect them to care about nature if they haven’t experienced it first-hand? Inspiring children and youth to create healthy and vibrant communities for themselves and the planet is vital to understanding that we belong to a community that extends far beyond our close friends and family, and includes all living things.
On a beautiful, fall day in October, Grade Two students from Northern Lights Public School in Aurora, Ontario, joined the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) for a day of fun and discovery through the Nature Days program. Forty-four students marched single file down the pathway onto the Goldie Feldman Nature Reserve in Happy Valley Forest, with Jenna Siu, NCC’s conservation biologist for Ontario Region, leading the way.
Armed with rubber boots, gloves and hats, the children came ready for a new experience in nature. Splitting off into groups of three, the students, and accompanying parents and teachers, had the chance to become wildlife detectives, professional birders and seasoned trail guides. They learned about wildlife tracking, how to identify birds, how to build a bird feeder and how the Oak Ridges Moraine provides a quarter of a million people with clean drinking water. The students also had time for unstructured, outdoor play in a nearby field, where they inspected logs and animal tracks, and even saw a woodpecker in a nearby tree and a turkey vulture flying overhead.
“Although these children have had opportunities to explore spaces, such as an urban arboretum and parkland, it doesn’t compare to the experience and freedom of exploring a natural forest like Happy Valley,” said Shelagh Dunlop, Grade 2 teacher at Northern Lights Public School. “The children loved the chance to hug a huge maple, learn about invasive plants and about frogs that freeze over winter, mimic animal tracks in the sand, see a woodpecker through binoculars and to make a birdfeeder to take back home.”
The natural environment instills a sense of beauty and peace. It engages children’s sense of curiosity and imagination, exposing them to things they might never have had the chance to see in their local communities. If we want to lay the foundation for an interest in taking care of the environment, we must provide opportunities for children to access natural areas. Studies have shown that when people are asked what motivates them to take care of the environment, they draw on recollections of their childhood, describing connections they had to special places growing up.
Creating opportunities for young Canadians to access natural areas, and to build a collection of memories in nature to draw on as they grow up, will help them become the engaged and caring citizens our planet needs.
Nature Days was launched in 2012 by the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) with support from HSBC Bank Canada to engage youth in the natural environment, to provide primary school students from select schools in the vicinity of Calgary, Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto with the opportunity to explore the natural world through a day at NCC’s nature reserves with conservation science staff and experts.