Getting kids inspired by the natural world is good for their well-being – and critical to the fate of our threatened species. And it can start with school.
When I visited a high school recently as a guest speaker, I was surprised by how quiet I found the crowd of students in the entrance foyer.
There must have been a hundred students, but rather than the noisy, chatty hallway I was expecting, they barely seemed to speak at all.
Instead they were looking down, apparently completely absorbed, at the phones in their hands.
When I remarked to the principal who greeted me how odd I found it that the students didn’t talk with each other, she explained I was mistaken. They were talking. On their phones. They were texting. Or Snapchatting. Or WhatsApping – or some variation of these.
“Convincing students to unplug and get outside? That can be challenging.”
I’d been invited as a speaker to motivate kids to “unplug” and get excited about nature. I could see I had my work cut out for me. I’m a professional adventurer, the Explorer-in-Residence of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.
Normally, I’m out in the wild, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest other person, in some of the most isolated places on Earth. I get to spend months out of the year unplugged. If that’s your idea of paradise, then we think alike.
My days are pretty simple: ploughing through arctic ice floes in a canoe, sleeping alone with polar bears, paddling across lakes that stretch beyond the horizon, trekking in places where there are no trails, coming face-to-face with wolves and muskox, and wandering across ancient lava flows. Pretty relaxing stuff. But convincing students to unplug and get outside? That can be challenging.
According to a recent report, “Kids and teens age eight to 18 spend an average of more than seven hours a day looking at screens.”1
That data was from a study in the U.S., but there is little reason to think the numbers are any different here in Canada. Researchers have linked excessive screen time to increased anxiety, stress, difficulty concentrating, unhappiness, and other unhealthy outcomes.
The American author Richard Louv has even coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” to refer to the growing trend of kids (and adults) spending too much time indoors.
It turns out that a steady stream of social media, emails, online content, video games, and binge-watching shows, does not lead to a well-balanced, healthy life. (Which is not to say any of these things are bad in moderation.)
But how do we encourage kids to get passionate about nature? Maybe there is an app for that? Probably, although I think there’s a better way.
When I cast a glance back at my own childhood and education, I count myself lucky. I happened to grow up with a forest on my doorstep. We lived on a country road without streetlights or sidewalks. My playground was the woods that surrounded our home on all sides. Out there, among the oaks and sycamores, the birch and basswoods, I learned about plants, tracks, birds and other animals. I developed a deep love for forests, nature, and the wild that has never left me.
But I was also lucky that my interest and enthusiasm for the natural world was nurtured and encouraged by the Ontario public school curriculum and the teachers I had.
In elementary school, we gathered leaves from our schoolyard and made rubbings of them, identifying the different species. Nearby was a conservation area where we learned orienteering and played predator-prey games about the food chain and web of life.
I vividly recall learning about environmental issues in my Grade 3 class from Mr. Sibley, and how alarmed I was at the thought of forests disappearing.
In Grade 4, our class did projects on endangered species (I chose the wolverine).
In Grade 6, my teacher, Mrs. Stock, had our class do projects on an individual tree species. I did mine on tulip trees – towering giants found in the Carolinian forests of southernmost Ontario.
I still have my Grade 7 project on “Canadian woodlands,” where I studied different types of forests in Canada and what makes each unique. For that project, I was able to do research in my own backyard.
We had many other projects involving nature and field trips to nearby nature parks. All of this helped encourage my appetite for the outdoors.
Now when I write about my expeditions in my books, I try to re-awaken people’s dormant sense of awe and delight at the mysteries and magic of the natural world, in the belief that doing so will inspire people to want to know more about the outdoors and then get active in working to preserve and restore natural habitats.
That’s why I write about trekking alone through ancient forests of spruces and tamaracks, or meeting arctic wolves that look you in the eye, or wandering over weathered rocks that were already a billion years old before the first dinosaur ever walked the earth.
At schools, I entertain students with tales of adventures in the wild, of sleeping under stars, of mapping northern rivers that snake across the land like giant anacondas, and of meeting bears and wolverines.
Once I’ve stirred up a suitable sense of awe at the wild and eagerness to experience the great outdoors among screen-addicted students through adventure stories, my next step is to give them the mental tools they need to experience nature for themselves in an exciting way, in their own backyard or local conservation area.
I think there’s a two-pronged approach that can do wonders to accomplish this in schools.
The first is teaching more nature in the classroom – things like leaf rubbings and tree identification, and plant and animal ecology.
The second is getting students outside more in the woods or wetlands. The crucial part is that these things need to be combined.
A common mistake is only emphasizing one element, instead of both together. But just sending people out into the woods without any knowledge of how to interpret them is like assigning Shakespeare without first learning to read. On the flip side, learning about nature only indoors is like studying music theory without the music.
So I place a lot of emphasis on both classroom learning and getting outdoors.
For students, I like to begin with a focus on things that are immediately at hand and almost always visible – trees and birds.
These are nature’s ABCs – the fundamental building blocks that will let anyone begin to “read” the woods. But then we go beyond just tree identification, to figuring out more about the character of each tree. How old is it? What are its traditional uses? How does the wood compare? Soft basswood is a wonder for carving, while hop-hornbeam is rock-hard. Why did that tree grow in a particular way? We compare the big spreading branches of the white oaks to the wiry understory witch hazels. Why do silver maples grow in swamps? Hemlocks in shady ravines?
Then, suddenly, those generic trees around the schoolyard aren’t just “trees” anymore – they’re red oaks, white pines, and sugar maples. They begin to tell a story – the story of the natural world.
“It’s not only that we need nature. Nature needs us. Now more than ever, the natural world is under tremendous pressure.”
The other thing I like to focus on at first are birds. Birds, like trees, are almost always around – even in urban settings – and since many are migratory, they connect us immediately to faraway places, from the warblers that spend their winters in the Amazon to the snow geese that in summer migrate to the Arctic.
Like the trees, each bird has a story to tell. As we learn about them, gradually the birds flying by or singing in the cedars aren’t just catch-all “birds” anymore.
To borrow a digital metaphor, now the picture starts to come into High Definition, and we can make out white-breasted nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, gray jays, tufted titmice or black-capped chickadees.
The more we learn, the sharper the focus gets as the natural world becomes more and more intelligible, and ever more fascinating.
Long after I left school, I’m still learning about nature. My expeditions for the Royal Canadian Geographical Society have taken me everywhere from exploring caves in the Arctic, to gathering marine fossils along isolated rivers, to tracking down and photographing Canada’s most elusive snake, the endangered blue racer. Currently I’m preparing for a new four-month solo canoe journey, in part to be based on following bird migration routes. When I return, I’ll have new material to share with the schools I visit.
There’s another reason why I think it’s critical we re-awaken our sense of awe for the wild.
It’s not only that we need nature. Nature needs us.
Now more than ever, the natural world is under tremendous pressure.
A landmark UN report last year laid out in stark detail the grave loss of biodiversity directly from human actions – chief among them habitat loss. The UN report’s key conclusion was that humans now threaten over one million species with extinction. The report found that over 100 million hectares of tropical forest were lost between 1980 and 2000 alone. Even more severe was the disappearance of wetlands: an estimated 87 percent of the world’s wetlands are already gone. All of this habitat destruction is driving sky-rocketing rates of extinction.
That’s why I think it is so critical we reconnect with nature – not only for our own well-being, to live healthy, balanced lives, but for the fate of the plants and animals we share our world with.
The first step is learning to care more about the wild all around us. In doing so, we’re not only helping students lead healthier, more balanced lives; we’re planting the seeds for a greener tomorrow.
Photo: Adam Shoalts
First published in Education Canada, March 2020
1 Victoria Rideout and Michael B. Robb, The Common Sense Census: Media use by tweens and teens (San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media, 2019).