Family walking

All about the new movement to get children into nature

A huge—and I mean huge—black bear walked right past the car as I was loading my infant daughter into the back seat. It was in no particular hurry. It had emerged from the forest and was cutting through our driveway en route to the dumpster near the elementary school, where it would poke around and then hang a left back into the wild. We both watched it recede. At 300 feet it still looked pretty big. Lila was curious but not frightened: it occurred to me that living among bears—not to mention coyotes and the odd cougar—is normal for her now. And that's a good thing, I think.

"You know why I like it here?" my wife explained to someone not long after we'd moved to this little townhouse complex, high on the flank of Vancouver's North Shore mountains. "Because the only predators you have to worry about have four legs. And I'll take those over the two-legged kind any day."

In a sense the decision was made for us. We'd been priced out of the city itself. Driven into the 'burbs. But Upper Lynn Valley doesn't really feel like the 'burbs. It feels like a subalpine redoubt, the kind of place where you hide from the law or cook up a new religion. Walk a few hundred feet from our front door and you are out of civilization. You're in wilderness that continues for 2,000 kilometres, until the boreal forest peters out into tundra. We have a couple of preschool-aged daughters. We figured up here they could run around and climb trees and burn off steam and breathe good air. And we wouldn't have to worry about them being greased by a taxicab or solicited by a deve in a raincoat on the way to school. It was really as simple as that.

We didn't realize that we had become part of a global crusade, led by people with lofty philosophical aims and reams of scientific data behind them, to "reconnect children with the outdoors." It's not a trivial issue. If we do this right, the argument goes, kids will be happier, healthier and smarter. And if we don't? Well, not just those kids, but the whole planet is screwed.

Willie Sutton once famously said he robbed banks "because that's where the money is." Kids stay indoors these days for a similar reason: because that's where the electrical outlets are. Until recently, when moms pulled the plug after the third or fourth hour of TV and frogmarched the kids out into the sunshine, they rarely had persuasive reasons for doing so, short of vaguely moralistic ones. ("You're wasting your life, buster!") Now they do. It turns out that hanging out among snails and lichen, building stick-forts and floating stuff down streams, awakens the brain in a way that no artificial environment can match.

Watching too much TV is disjunctive to the way our wetware evolved. Our brains were built to process sensory input from all sides, to focus our attention in tight and then pull back for a global sense of where we are. If we deprive ourselves of that global input, we theoretically become vulnerable to an affliction the writer Richard Louv calls "Nature Deficit Disorder." I know. It has a cheesy ring to it, like "halitosis" or "social-anxiety disorder"-terms concocted to sell mouthwash or Prozac. But Louv is a careful researcher and has no ulterior motive except maybe to sell his own book, Last Child in the Woods, which was published four years ago and won last year's Audubon medal. So persuasive has Louv's book been that it has launched a movement with a catchy, Bush-beating moniker: No Child Left Inside.

Last Child leans heavily on Harvard anthropologist E.O. Wilson's "biophilia" hypothesis: that there's a powerful, important bond between human beings and other living systems, and we sever it at our peril. But Louv is making more noise than Wilson ever did on the subject because of his impeccable timing, right at the convergence of two crises -mental and physical health problems in kids, and the dire health of the planet. The two problems are said to be related, in the following sense: the more unhealthily detached kids become from the natural world, the less they'll feel the urge to take on the job of saving us from ourselves.

Environmental psychologists are now piling onto the scrum, and all kinds of fascinating data is emerging. For instance:

When you build real nature-rocks and trees-into school playgrounds, kids seem to behave more civilly to each other. When kids have played outside for awhile, they concentrate better in school and perform better. When a kid with attention deficit disorder has gone camping or fishing, his symptoms diminish. It's tempting to object that-Aha-it's just the exercise they're getting that's responsible for the brain boost. But that's not true. Because, as University of Michigan researchers recently proved, a 45-minute walk in the forest increases cognitive performance, whereas a 45-minute walk through the downtown does not.

The movement is gaining a real foothold in the U.S. The National Forest Service and the National Wildlife Federation there are now humming with well-funded initiatives to return kids to nature. There are even a handful of "Forest Kindergartens"-based on the European model of Waldkindergartens or "wild kindergartens"-where four- and five-year-old kids spend all day outside, rain or shine, year-round, working co-operatively to boil up pretend soups out of leeks or berries, making toys out of what Louv calls "nature's loose parts," and sometimes napping on couches made of sticks and mud.

Us? Well, we're a little behind. But the forest school drumbeat is at least audible, and ground zero for its development may be Vancouver.

Tricia Edgar has been intrigued by the forest school idea for years. Edgar works at the Lynn Canyon Ecology Centre, a resource so fabulous it actually influenced our decision to move where we did. (The centre's children's programs are amazingly inventive. One afternoon I tagged along with a kids' group and learned to identify all the edible berries in the region. Sneaky tip: you can recognize salal because if you turn the leaf upside-down you can make a fake beard and moustache out of it.) Edgar and her staff teach the ecology program to countless kids in the North Vancouver school system, and they give workshops to adults on how to teach outdoor education.

Edgar is among a small group in the Vancouver area that has been trying to rustle up interest in the forest school concept. Personally, the idea strikes me as pretty radical, but Edgar believes the basic premises are sound, and she's working toward weaving them into the school programs.

There's very little actual "teaching" in Waldkindergarten-kids figure stuff out on their own, with minimal structured oversight. That's Edgar's approach, too. For younger kids, the centre has an outing called the Five Senses. "You go out into the forest and you don't try to put labels on things," says Edgar. "You just pay attention." Let's say the kids are coming up to a creek. They can hear the distant burble. As they get closer their focus closes on the water they can now see, on the log across it, on the bug on the log. The toggling back and forth between short thoughts and long thoughts is exactly what scientists say the brain was evolved to do.

"We have kids who are very urban, so even walking on the forest floor is unusual for them," Edgar says. "We go to the creek and they're afraid of touching the water. So you give them the experience in graduated steps." Edgar says those inner-city kids put the forest experience in the only context they know: video games. "It was cool," they will later report. "It was just like the Jurassic Park video."

My pal Drew has long been a model to me of how you do this kids-in-nature thing right-and why you do it.

Drew's own family vacations, growing up, were classic mainstream fare: one week each summer his family would do a little car camping, of the sort where upon arrival dad deployed the lawn chair and the newspaper and radio and "basically reproduced our living room" in the campground. "I wouldn't say my own strategy now is a reaction against that," he told me recently, "but I do remember thinking, even as a kid: There's gotta be another way." Drew's other way looks like this: you take your kids into the wild places you yourself would like to explore. With one or both of his kids in diapers, he and his wife, Daphne, roared off-piste, on multi-day adventures in the Australian outback or the Gulf Islands. They canoed the Bowron Lakes circuit: adults in back, kids lily-dipping up front. They cycled the old Kettle Valley Railway trail one summer when forest fires were ravaging the B.C. Interior. (While they were on the trail the winds shifted and the fire closed in, and the air smelled like smoke, and they ended up with flames almost licking at their heels, burning down those historic trestles just days after Drew's family crossed them.) This summer they're planning another canoe trip on a chain of B.C. lakes in a remote provincial park that happens to be home to one of the densest concentrations of grizzlies in the world.

Without knowing it, Drew and Daphne crafted a perfect Petri-dish culture for growing bright, good stewards of the land. People become environmentalists, all the studies show, not by sitting inside watching Al Gore videos but by having a powerful experience while actually out there in nature. Drew and Daphne intuited precisely the two components that researchers at Cornell and the University of Colorado recently revealed are key to developing lifelong environmental consciousness: early and "vivid" exposure to the wild, and a mentor figure to help them understand it all. The outings don't have to be extreme, just memorable. The mentor doesn't have to be an expert, just enthusiastic.

It worked. Their girls, Zoe and Téa, are totally green kids. They're the kind who push for the school to adopt a watershed or improve the recycling program. They're horrified by SUVs. Drew recently sold the family car and joined a car-share. For some near-teens, the prospect of no wheels in the driveway would qualify as a hardship worthy of UN intervention. But far from objecting, Zoe and Téa "were all over it."

I asked Drew what other benefits he's seen.

"Well, I can think of at least two," he said. "The trips are definitely part of our shared experience as a family, and we're determined to keep doing them as long as the kids will hang in there with us. Every trip had its low and high moments, and for sure it all brought us closer together.

"The other thing is that the girls are less fearful in nature than a lot of other kids are. Zoe is downright fearless in terms of not being squeamish about picking up a worm or a bug. I think that's a good skill that can translate—whether it's to public speaking or whatever else."

There's a further benefit. Drew didn't mention it, but Tricia Edgar had.

"What are you going to do, where are you going to go, in your mind, when you're stressed out in later life?" she asked, rhetorically. "If you make positive associations with nature early, then you can draw from that well, wherever you are. You can summon that scene and calm yourself down. And because you spent so much time there you can vividly evoke it, right down to the scent of the trees and the sound of the wind."

It's not a bad thing to have at your disposal. No matter how old you are.