Why kids need more nature in their lives

A child gets a close look at daisies in the garden.

A child gets a close look at daisies in the garden.

Benefits of outdoor education: Teachers, parents, experts speak out

How important is it to teach our children about birds, butterflies, pollinators and the natural world in their own backyard?

Extremely important, according to experts in the field from professors in Environmental Science to on-line educators, authors and millions of parents who want their children to grow up knowing as much or more about the environment and the natural world around them than they did when they were growing up.

The learning opportunities for young children in even a small garden are endless whether it’s watching the life cycle of a monarch, seeing a fawn feed from its mother, or becoming familiar with local bird species and how they survive throughout the seasons. Outdoor education has never been a more important component in a child’s physical and mental development whether its a few hours spent in a woodland garden or a walk in the woods.

“Children have a natural affinity for the living beings all around them,” says Nancy Lawson, author of The Humane Gardener. “Cultivating that sense of wonder is as easy as walking out the front door and encouraging them to explore things at their level – the shape of a fallen leaf, the sound of a bee buzzing on a flower, the busy ants carrying seeds to their nests,” she adds.

What’s the value of Outdoor Education for young students

“Just a little bit of awareness during those early years will stay with them for a lifetime.” says Lawson, who also operates an informative website The Humane Gardener, Cultivating Compassion for all Creatures Big and Small.

“I find it amazing that almost everyone I talk to in this line of work has a vivid memory of some spark that was lit during a camping trip with their parents or while helping their grandma in the garden. It may subside for a while during the growing-pain teenage years but then somehow takes over again in adulthood. It’s like that early exposure to nature just gets in your bones,” she adds.

Julia Daly, who works at Saanich Native Plants in Victoria B.C. and has extensive experience in plant identification, species at risk management, ecological restoration, and native plant gardening, knows first hand how important early childhood learning and backyard environmental science is to young children.

Over the past year, her 4 and 6-year-old daughters helped turn a 2x5 meter section of barren lawn space outside their backyard fence into a diverse native plant pollinator meadow that is now teaming with life.

“My children have found that if they provide quality habitat, wildlife will come and benefit. They are coming to understand that if each of us does something, we can make a difference on a large scale. And this gives them a sense of power and hope,” she explains.

“Young people are faced with the overwhelming task of remediating environmental damages passed down by previous generations (e.g., climate change, habitat loss, pollution, and invasive species). Introducing children from a young age to outdoor play and the relationships found in nature, within their own backyards and neighbourhoods, provides them with the knowledge and confidence to better understand and care for their local and global environment.”

“Outdoor play holds a child’s interest because it is always changing (weather, seasons, etc). Children instinctively value nature,” Daly explains. “Outdoor learning is accessible and low cost. For families without a backyard, regular walks to a local natural area to observe seasonal changes, and learn about native plants, insects, and the diversity of wildlife that depend on them, can have a huge influence.

Dealing with Nature deficit disorder

In an article from the Child Mind Institute, author Danielle Cohen states: The national panic about kids spending too much time indoors has become so extreme that the crisis has a name: Nature deficit disorder.”

She explains that the shift is largely due to technology: “The average American child is said to spend 4 to 7 minutes a day in unstructured play outdoors and over 7 hours a day in front of a screen.”

Recent studies illustrate the importance of being outside. In fact, “most of the studies agree that kids who play outside are smarter, happier, more attentive, and less anxious than kids who spend more time indoors. While it’s unclear how exactly the cognitive functioning and mood improvements occur, there are a few things we do know about why nature is good for kid’s minds,” she writes.

These benefits include: increased confidence, creativity and imagination, and responsibility. Exposure to nature also provides a different stimulation activating more senses – such as hearing, smell and touch.

“As the young spend less and less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow,” explained Richard Louv, author of the book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.

Giving children “experiential education” in the environmental sciences by getting out into our own backyard and local parks is critical, explains Jessica Slomka, a lecturer at the University of Toronto with a Phd. in Earth Sciences.

“The outdoors is a natural laboratory where students and children can experience nature first-hand in all of its complexity (something a textbook cannot accurately capture), she explains.

“Providing children with the opportunity to explore the natural world in their own backyard and neighbourhood green spaces allows them to observe interactions between species, such as a bees buzzing around the flowers, and processes in natural systems, such as sand rolling along a stream bed, ask questions about what they see (why? how?), and follow their curiosity and interests to seek out answers by continuing to observe and interact with these natural systems.

“As a result, children develop a personal connection to the natural world and their local environment, which may, in turn, foster a lifelong sense of responsibility, passion, and respect for nature,” Slomka explains.

Helping children discover nature

Debra Toor, an on-line educator, is doing her part to teach young children about everything from the life cycle of monarch butterflies to the importance of the Turkey vulture in the natural world.

And, although she works out of her home in Burlington Ontario, her message is carried around the world from Canada and the United States to Singapore, South Africa, Poland and Belarus. She’s also touched the minds of thousands of children in Ireland, England, India and even the United Arab Emirates.

Spreading the word to the world

In the United States she has taught on-line classes to students in Michigan, California, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, New York, Tennessee and Texas. In Canada, her backyard wildlife courses have reached school children in British Columbia, Newfoundland, Ontario and Quebec.

Debra Toor in her backyard checking out a Monarch chrysalis in her milkweed patch.

Debra Toor in her backyard checking out a Monarch chrysalis in her milkweed patch.

And the list continues to grow as more educators and concerned parents discover the value of educating young students in the importance of the natural world and the steps that these students and future leaders can take to protect native flora and fauna.

The former communications director for Earth Day Canada, an environmental communications non-profit organization, has been involved in environmental communications for more than 10 years. So, it was only natural for her to start her own company, Conservation Scientists in Action.

“My mission is to educate about ecosystem services of wildlife and how scientists are using tools and methods to learn about declining wildlife populations,” she explains, adding that she also works to explain “how scientists use scientific data to advocate for wildlife recovery programs and to support legislation.”

What does all this mean to the students who take her courses?

“Each topic is designed to get students to think about the roles of wildlife, specifically, how do they help the earth?  I place an emphasis on how wildlife benefits humans, not to be human-centric, but to drive the message home that we cannot survive without wildlife,” she explains.

In my 25+ years of being an environmental educator, I have learned that the way to get people to be more open to wildlife is to see the big picture of how we are all interconnected.”

Children get to experience nature up close

A tall order for sure, but one she tackles by focusing on school children primarily in Grades 1-7, but also high-school-aged students. Her presentations are far from dry. Children interact with her live and are entertained with videos showing nature in action.

“My classes are interactive expeditions that allow students to become Jr. Biologists as they investigate videos and images of wildlife interacting in habitats, and conservation scientists as they use scientific methods and tools.”

Based on feedback from parents and teachers, students love the videos clips, Toor explains.

“I make sure to include videos of incredible scenes that they have never witnessed before. Students also really enjoy using their voices in the expeditions to make observations and inferences, and to ask and answer questions.”

She tells a story about childrens reactions during a video of a bald eagle stealing carrion from a group of vultures.

“There is one vulture video I show where a bald eagle snatches a dead animal away from squabbling turkey vultures.  The kids are always fascinated with the scene.  We discuss why it is that the eagle, although a hunter, stole the vultures’ food.  Answers range from “the eagle is lazy” to the eagle is hungry…” One day, a Grade 5 student answered “Bald eagles will also scavenge because it takes less energy to scavenge than it does to hunt.”

That’s one smart student.

Teaching the children is a logical extension from her earlier work in the field: “One of my roles was to collaborate with researchers and experts to create publications, including community guides for schools, employee groups and community groups,” she explains.

In love with the Turkey Vulture

Her expertise and quest for knowledge led her to a fascination with one of nature’s – shall we say less-loved birds – the Turkey Vulture. That eventually led to a book publishing in 2015 entitled Survival Secrets of Turkey Vultures. That publication eventually led to her beginning to make presentations as a Microsoft Educator to advance literacy of wildlife ecosystem services with a focus on vultures. The Microsoft program folded during the pandemic, but Toor had already began using the experience and knowledge gained in the program to start her own business. So, when the program ended, she was able to spend more time working on her own on-line business.

A focus on Monarch butterflies

Much of her focus has been on the fascinating story behind the adventures of Monarch butterflies. But Toor doesn’t just talk about the incredible story behind the Monarch – she lives with it everyday in her backyard.

“My yard is monarch waystation. It’s a challenge because I live in a neighbourhood where manicured lawns are the norm,” she says, explaining that she shares a front yard with a neighbour so is unable to tear out the grass.

“My yard, as far as I know, is the only one in the entire neighbourhood with a front yard milkweed patch,” she explains."

The sign on Toor’s front lawn supporting monarchs has proven to be a great way to meet her neighbours and pass along her enthusiasm for monarchs.

“I love the sign because it educates people.  In the spring, a father and his young daughter approached me to say they love my butterfly garden.”

Toor encourages everyone who is interested to join the Monarch Way Station Program by going to https://www.monarchwatch.org/waystations/

The process is fairly simple, she explains:

  • Fill out a registration form, and agree to grow milkweed and mostly native nectar sources, refrain from using pesticides and herbicides, etc.

  • There is a fee for certification, and registrations get a certificate recognizing their property as a monarch waystation, and a yard sign.

  • There are downloadable resources for beginners.

Monarchs certainly take centre stage in her courses.

Toor’s Nature courses for students

In one of her courses, Monarch Butterfly Expedition, which is available year round, students get to see Monarchs in the fall fuelling up on goldenrod in Ontario as they begin their migration south to Mexico. Students get to see them arrive in Mexico after the long journey where they gather in massive numbers and “hug the branches and trunks of the oyamel trees” to keep warm. The students get to see monarch eggs hatching, forming a chrysalis and eventually emerging from that same chrysalis.

Along the way they learn about monarch habitats, adaptations, life cycle and great migration, how monarch butterflies help the earth (ecological niche), food webs, human impacts as well as conservation and citizen science.

It’s a learning experience not available in most schools.

In addition to the Monarch Butterfly Expedition, teachers and home-schooling parents can pick from a myriad of other educational courses including:

Backyard Animal Expedition, where students are exposed to the often misunderstood Opossum, skunks and racoons and learn about their habitats, adaptations, how they help the earth as well as information on human-wildlife conflicts, wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, and conservation and citizen science.

Monarch Butterfly Adventure, where the class is encouraged to find and hatch their own monarch butterfly.

Vulture Expedition where students investigate vultures in their habitats and meet the conservation scientists who work with them.

Pollinator Expedition where students meet the little things that run the earth from bees to butterflies, moths and bats. Students are able to watch video of bumble bees emerging from their ground nest, Cavity nesting bees emerge in the spring and a leaf-cutter bee build her nest.

There is also a course on the changing seasons and how animals adapt.

Toor operates a website www.conservaction.info  where teachers, homeschooling parents and families can register for the courses or just gather information about what she has to offer.

To see her in action with students check out this YouTube video.

Toor is not alone in her attempt to spread her knowledge to students at home or in the classroom and the more than year-long stay-at-home orders has made on-line education just that much more important for now and into the future.

Acorn Naturalists offer expertise

Acorn Naturalists, a group based in the United States was founded more than three decades ago by teachers to create and distribute high quality, hands-on learning resources for use both inside and outside the classroom.

According to their website, they offer “school supplies, science and nature activity kits, as well as hand-on educational resources for parents, classroom teachers, naturalists, camp leaders, outdoor educators, homeschoolers, preschool and afterschool educators.”

The award winning group, based in California but also serving Canada, offer a fascinating array of nature products including everything from animal skull replicas to very realistic track and scat replicas. Not everything is replicas. Sanitized real owl pellets can also be purchased as well as educational displays and posters, innovative science kits and games, pine cone bird feeder kits, pocket plant presses and an animal tracking kit (ideal for Canadian winter tracking.)

You can check out their website at https://www.acornnaturalists.com/

• For more information on Nature Deficit Disorder among children, check out the Article Why Kids Need to Spend Time in Nature by going to Child Mind Institute

• For more information on Children and nature be sure to check out Children & Nature Network

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