Children are spending less time outdoors than at any other time in history. This estrangement from nature can have profound impacts, not only on the child, but on the land itself. The land that our beloved trails are on.
This loss of direct intimate experience with the natural world is known as Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD). This term was coined by American writer and child advocate, Richard Louv, in his best-selling book, The Last Child in the Woods. In researching his book, Richard Louv spent ten years speaking to American children and parents about their experiences and relationship with nature. He found that in the last three decades, a rapid disengagement has occurred between children and the natural world.
It’s just as true in Canada. Canada’s 2020 Participaction Report Card on Physical Activity of Children and Youth found that only 39% of Canadian kids get 60 minutes of physical activity per day and that only 30% of children spend an hour a day outside in any capacity. We need to do better by our kids. We need to protect them from the combined phycological, physical and cognitive impacts of NDD like depression, inattentiveness, lack of imagination, lower grades, poorer health and obesity.
For the past eleven years I’ve made it my personal mission to raise a nature loving child. My son, Luke, turned everything I believed about how I wanted to raise a child upside down. Independent, free roaming, climbing, risk taking - this is what I envisioned. But, in his eleven years on this planet Luke’s epilepsy journey has challenged him with as many as sixteen seizures a day, countless hospital visits, heart issues and many years of needing more than ten pills a day to keep the seizures away. Meds that while necessary, messed with every single part of him. His cognition, his language processing, his dexterity, his coordination, his emotions, his endurance, his self-efficacy. This is not a kid that you can send out into the woods alone to freely roam and take risks.
Instead, I’ve been his constant outdoor companion. He took his first hike at seven weeks old, his first Algonquin trip at five months and he has logged more trail and paddling kilometers than most adults we know. We have screenless Sundays, we camp under the stars no fewer than thirty nights each year, he’s skilled in outdoor survival, and we spend about fifteen hours a week in the woods, in all weather.
Last year was a momentous year for us. We set a goal to do 100 hikes together and Hike #1 on January 1, 2020 was Luke's very first drug-free hike. In 2020, coincidentally aligned with our hiking challenge, Luke was being weaned off of his seizure meds and embarking on a drug free existence. It was a gamble. It was fear inducing. It was exhausting. Yet, it was hope and it was faith. On December 31, 2020 we logged hike #112, drug free and seizure free and Luke became the youngest person ever to earn the Hike Ontario Tamarack Award for hiking 1500 kilometers on Ontario’s trails.
What we learned through our hike challenge is that nature heals. It provides the respite we need during the most challenging times in our lives. All children deserve the opportunity to learn this first-hand as it will serve them well their entire life.
We need to get more kids outside. Childhood experiences are significant precursors for adult activism on behalf of the environment. Hands on experience during the critical time of childhood is what counts most in the making of a naturalist.
If we want children to thrive personally and to become environmental stewards, then we must actively enable and support their connection to nature. We need to act now while we have a generation of parents and grandparents who know the value of the outdoors, or quite possibly the future of Ontario’s trails and natural species will become endangered.
Terri LeRoux, President, Ontario Trails Council