Connecting children to the outdoors

May 4, Geoff Styles
Formal Advisor, Birds Korea – Canada. 

A common belief held by educators and parents alike is that children just don’t spend much time outside, a thought that has been corroborated through a number of studies both here in North America and in locations around the world. Numbers of hours spent in front of a television screen, computer screen and hand-held gadget are all up, while the average age of members of naturalist groups and conservation groups continues to rise.

Here in Salmon Arm, British Columbia, those beliefs ring true as well. A few years ago, myself and two friends decided to try to reverse that trend by offering more opportunities for children and families to enjoy outdoor experiences. Over the past two years, there have been a number of outdoor learning developments that have culminated to over 1000 students having a chance to experience nature in and around Salmon Arm this school year!

I will share one story from 2012 which illustrated to us how important this movement is at this time. We had hiked a group of 16 Grade 2-3 students to a lovely mountaintop viewpoint, where a broad valley stretched out below us and birds sang in the trees around us. It was the first day of a three-day day camp based on outdoor learning experiences, and both the students and the parents were excited to be there and a part of this pilot camp.

We gathered everyone in a circle, and told them that we were going to name as many chocolate bars as possible, starting with one person and continuing around the circle until we were out of ideas. We went around the circle once with a few more, totaling about 25 named candy bars. We then did the same with types of cereal. Again, brand names were called out around the circle, and we ended up with another 26. Then we asked them to look around themselves and name any living thing they could see or hear. One brave student pointed to a tree beside us and said, “Pine?”. That was it. The parents’ eyes opened as much as the children’s eyes as they saw then what the point of our exercise was. This story gains more weight when you consider these children, for the most part, are part of families that spend weeks at a time outside. They bike, hike, camp, ski, swim and canoe throughout the year, and they could not name one species of living thing around them in an ecosystem they have grown up in.

I am not suggesting that being able to name every species you see around you is the ultimate goal for children in Grades 2-3. However, I am suggesting that without the knowledge of what is around you, the connections you can make to that natural space are limited. Without those connections, why would you want to learn about that space, spend time in that space, or protect that space in the future?

What those students realised is that while they enjoyed spending time outside, they actually understood very little about those outside places. What the parents saw was that their time outside with their children, while extremely valuable for everyone, could be improved by being more curious about what it was that surrounded them in those wild spaces.

The happy second chapter of this story happened this past summer, our second year of summer camps, when we observed those same students hiking along, identifying plants, animal tracks, stopping for bird songs, asking questions and making connections between ecosystems we had visited both in 2012 and this past summer. I had one parent tell me their children and friends were “different in the bush” than before, as they were asking questions, identifying plants, commenting on new species and differences between the areas they were hiking in and the Shuswap watershed around Salmon Arm. She felt they were more present in the moment, more situated in place, than before, and that they were more excited to have outdoor experiences, especially in new places where new things could be found and more comparisons could be made.

Is this what we want for our children? Yes! The question is how do we get there? In our experience so far, the answer seems to be slowly, though we’ve come a long ways in two years, from offering 16 children a chance to see the outdoors in a different way, to over 1000 students getting that chance this year. Our approach has been multi-faceted, offering programs on our own through our camps, directly through the school district, and in working in partnership with the city, regional district and school district together. Here is a list of what I will be writing about:

‘Outdoor Awesome’ days in our district

Free field trips with trained outdoor educator for 15 classes in our district

Shuswap Wild Wonders outdoor education camps 2012-2014

Building an outdoor classroom at your school

Over the course of the next few posts, I would like to describe our experiences in getting students outside, and how the same could be done no matter where you are! I did spend three years in South Korea from 2004 to 2007, and helped organize and run two English Environment camps with Birds Korea while there. I saw first hand the power of nature to change the way children see the world, especially when coming from large cities such as Busan or Seoul.

If this idea of getting students outside resonates with you, I would love to hear from you and start working on how to continue the programs you have in place already, or help create these experiences for your students moving forward. Please email me at Until next time!


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