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Reconnecting Calgary's Children to Nature

Is your child at risk for “Nature Deficit Disorder”? Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder, coined this term which describes the growing social phenomenon of spending more time indoors with technology instead of outdoors in nature doing activities. Over the last couple of decades, it has become more challenging to stay connected to nature activities and enjoy healthy living in Calgary. Many in Calgary now choose to live in high-density housing like a condo townhouse or apartment. This may be an economical or a personal lifestyle choice. Whatever the reason, it makes it more difficult to find safe after school activities in Calgary with natural play spaces for children.

Recently, I met with Katie Jewitt and Paxton Bruce, research assistants from the Centre for Child Well-Being at Mount Royal University in Calgary. Our discussion echoed what I’d previously read in Louv’s book, Last Child, about the increased use of technology in children’s lives leading to a more sedentary indoor lifestyle and its effects on the ability to be creative, explorative, and motivated. We also discussed how research has revealed a secondary trend of many Calgary children becoming over- scheduled in structured activities, and how this, too, decreases time for child-initiated outdoor activities and play.

Calgary research has documented for the first time in many years that we may be faced with the possibility of our children having a shorter lifespan than us because of the sedentary indoor lifestyle resulting in the development of chronic disease at a much younger age. The 2015 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth: The Biggest Risk is Keeping Kids Indoors is one of many reports documenting research on the health benefits of child-initiated outdoor play in nature.

Some examples of these health benefits are:

  • Increased physical activities resulting in lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels

  • Improved bone density

  • Improved cardiovascular fitness 

  • Reduction of mental and emotional stress 

  • Improved social and problem-solving skills 

  • Increased ability to think creatively 

  • Improved motor skills

So what can we do to reconnect ourselves and our children to nature here in Calgary? Here are some suggestions to get you started:

  • Start with growing some plants on a window sill, balcony, or a small garden if you have a back yard. This helps children learn about different plants, their growth cycle, and where their food comes from.

  • Allow your child to play and explore in the back yard after school, participate in after school activities or neighborhood playground alone or with their friends. Supervise based on age and maturity of your child.

  • In Calgary, we are fortunate to have several natural environment areas and many City parks, so consider planning a ‘Nature Day’ or after school activities with the kids outdoors.

  • If your schedule is tight, consider trying ‘nature-pooling’ trips with a relative or a friend. They take your child on their trip one time, and you take theirs the next.

  • Try camping. If sleeping in a tent or trailer isn’t 
for you, many Calgary provincial campgrounds have cabin rentals geared for families, and have safe play spaces and hiking trails.

  • Take up fishing. Children may have limited patience for these activities but after will enjoy exploring along the riverbank or lakeshore. Use safety precautions around the water, keeping children close-by. For more information about obtaining a Fishing Licence and fees in Alberta, visit BuyLicences/FishingLicensesFees/Default.aspx.

Further suggestions for activities can be found in a wonderful book, I Love Dirt: 52 Activities to Help You and Your Kids Discover the Wonders of Nature by Jennifer Ward.

If we do not maintain this connection to nature, not only is our health affected, we risk losing our sensitivity to our surroundings and our compassion and respect for living things. This, in turn, affects our ability to care for the environment. Technology is here to stay, but we need to maintain control over it, instead of it controlling us. The welfare of our children and future generations may depend on it.

Susan is married, a mother of four young adult sons, and a former child care provider. Personal experiences have taught her that a balance between the use of technology and opportunities for creative, self-directed free play are essential for the healthy development of children.

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