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Science says: getting kids outdoors is a game changer

Think back to the most fun you had as a kid. Chances are, whatever comes to mind, it probably wasn’t time spent glued to a screen. Turns out (unsurprisingly), cold creek water on our skin, awe at the distance of the stars, the taste of gooey, melty s’mores – all those outdoor childhood moments – shape who we are.

Early outdoor activity and play are inextricably linked to physical and cognitive development. Exploring new spaces gives us a sense of our place in the world, fires up our senses and helps us develop muscle strength, coordination, flexibility, balance, gross and fine motor skills, and self-confidence. We feel accomplishment at crossing a log, develop personal preferences in trying new activities, and build character when things don’t go our way. Over time, we build a relationship with nature and start to identify with our favourite activities; we become skiers, paddleboarders, campers, hikers, bikers, runners and so on.

I first learned about climbing from outdated copies of Freedom of the Hills and Basic Rockcraft that I’d discovered on my parents’ bookshelf. Naturally, I decided to practice my hip belay technique on my unsuspecting sister. My adventures eventually moved from the backyard to mountains around the world, but I’m thankful for my early exposure to the outdoors and for my parents who clearly thought it was more important to take a photo than to immediately get their kids down off the fence.” – MEC Ambassador Nick Elson

Where we’re at

Yet, the 2017 edition of the Coleman Canada Outdoor Report found that as adults, 29% of us spend less than half an hour outside each week – that’s less than 5 minutes per day. Meanwhile, data collected by Statista revealed we’re watching 17 hours of TV per week. It’s not that we don’t know it’s good for us; the Coleman study found 98% of Canadians agreed being outdoors improves our well-being and 95% agreed it reduces stress. If most of us are having such a tough time doing it, how can we change things so the next generation spends 17 hours outside each week and watches only a half hour of TV?

Kids should be getting at least 60 minutes per day of vigorous activity, several hours of light activity, and no more than 2 hours of screen time.

The Canadian 24-hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth recommends at least 60 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity, accompanied by several hours of light activity and muscle and bone strengthening activities incorporated 3 days per week. As for screen time? No more than 2 hours per day. Currently, only 15% of preschoolers and 24% of 5- to 17-year-olds meet the Canadian Sedentary Behavior Guidelines.

Participaction similarly recommends that preschoolers 1–4 years old get 180 minutes of physical activity of any intensity throughout the day, with kids aged 3 and 4 getting less than 1 hour of screen time per day and kids under 2 abstaining from screen time altogether.

“My dad shared his passion for mountain sports with me as soon as I could walk rocky trails, slide on skis, and scramble up holds. Safety was important and he’d make it fun and funny, promising potato chips or jelly beans as he counted my turns (so I wouldn’t go straight downhill). Being active in the mountains is deeply-rooted as my happy place. Though I took that passion forward to become an Olympian and an X Games gold medallist, it was never about competing when I was a child, it was always about fun and taking on new challenges.” – MEC Ambassador Roz Groenewoud

 

The guidelines make sense. As kids we have stores of energy and curiosity. I bet if we could ask our younger selves how they wanted to grow up, they might suggest something in line with Hackschooling prodigy Logan LaPlante’s approach to growing up. In his 2013 TED Talk, a 13-year-old Logan posited, “What if we based education on the study and practice of being happy and healthy? Because that’s what it is, a practice.” In short, we should make getting outside a habit and routine as early and consistently as we can, so we continue to prioritize it as adults.

The rise of forest and nature school

Enter Child and Nature Alliance of Canada (CNAC). This national charitable organization (and MEC community partner) is dedicated to connecting Canadian kids with nature in a meaningful way. CNAC’s flagship program, Forest School Canada, is leading the child and youth nature education movement across Canada. To date, they’ve worked with over 300 educators who are now supporting child-directed and play-based learning initiatives in their own settings. The Ottawa Forest and Nature School (CNAC headquarters) sits on 900 acres of land ripe for exploring, learning and reintroducing risky play into kids’ lives.

Risky play is thrilling and exciting play where children engage with the probability of danger. From a child’s perspective, it can feel both scary and funny. Testing new swing designs, building bridges out of rocks, identifying bugs and fossils, taking note of the different animals in the area, growing leaves to feed caterpillars, drawing and writing about things found in the schoolyard, even climbing trees all help them thrive developmentally.

Image courtesy of CNAC.

While the play may seem arbitrary to onlookers, kids who attend the Ottawa school gain ample benefits associated with risky play time, including improvements in test scores, positive social interactions, decreased ADD and ADHD symptoms, and decreased stress, among others.

Young outdoor leaders

Toronto-area Trails Youth Initiatives has graduated year-long programming to help vulnerable youth from the Greater Toronto Area reap benefits similar to those of CNAC’s students. At their 143-acre natural environment facility, students attend one weekend per month during the school year and two weeks each summer over the course of four years, with the option to return for a fifth leadership year. Across kilometres of hiking trails, campsites and playing fields – not to mention three lakes – participants explore yoga and equine therapy, go on canoe trips, swim, snowshoe, hike, cross-country ski and camp.

Trails’ programs assist in building self-awareness, empathy, mindfulness, non-violent communication strategy and more; giving them the skills and confidence to become community leaders (of the 2015 graduates, 98% took on a service or leadership role following their time with Trails). MEC is proud to support this programming through grant funds and gear donations.

“Car camping was the name of the game growing up in southern Ontario. Every summer, like so many Ontarians, my dad and mom would pack us up for 2 weeks of thrashing about. It was fun – really fun. My brother and I would be gone for hours off in the woods exploring. I’m so grateful for the long leash our parents gave us, because I think it was that freedom that taught me how to trust my gut in the wilderness, and feel comfortable decision-making on my own – skills that have become very useful in my career as an alpinist.” –MEC Ambassador Sarah Hart

Recreational reconciliation

As the CEO of Spirit North, MEC Ambassador Beckie Scott works with Indigenous communities and local schools to break down racial and socio-economic barriers through cross-country skiing. Since its inception, Spirit North has grown from 4 participating communities to 32, reaching 6023 Indigenous children and youth every year. Participants learn basic skiing techniques, play games and develop skills that transfer back to the classroom and community.

The program is holistic in many respects; not only does it promote good mental health and nutrition while keeping kids inspired and active, but it also promotes cultural exchange and understanding through multi-community festival days, Powwow drumming and dance, as well as Métis jig activities. After participating in Spirit North programming, 90% of kids wanted to exercise more, 93% felt supported, and after just one day with Spirit North, 95% of students said, “I feel like I matter” – what’s better than that?

“Spending winters outside on my skis, immersed in nature and loving the great outdoors were some of the most formative and enduring moments of my childhood. Those years spent gliding through the parks and trails of Vermilion, Alberta, led to both a professional career in skiing and sport, and a life-long love of winter and the outdoors.” – MEC Ambassador Beckie Scott

Ready to get the little explorers in your life outside? Here are 5 simple ways to start:
  1. Give them more freedom. Participaction breaks down the statistical instances of common parental concerns to give you more peace of mind.
  2. Connect with an organization such as CNAC to learn more about balancing and managing risk to create a good balance of fun and risky play.
  3. Get into some further reading on raising a wild child, counteracting “nature-deficit disorder” and fearlessly bringing them to the great outdoors.
  4. Make the outdoors part of story time, with classics like A is for Adventure.
  5. Don’t forget to make it fun!

Top photo courtesy of CNAC.

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Kim Budziak

Wordsmith, avid skier and rookie road biker. Firmly believes the best days are the snowiest ones.