The Big Picture: Children and Nature

Development of Focus on Nature was inspired in part by Richard Louv’s 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods” and numerous research findings about the long-term consequences of a growing disconnect between young people and their natural surroundings.

As human beings, we need nature. Nature experience is essential to our physical, mental and emotional health. Richard Louv reiterated this at a biodiversity conference in Ontario (Nov. 2010) and research is reinforcing it, including a recent report published by Ontario Nature and the Ontario College of Family Physicians (Greenbelt_MentalHealth.pdf.

Unfortunately this connection, especially in the case of young people, has been lost. For the first time in the history of humanity, kids are spending the majority of their time indoors on screen-related activities.  A recent Healthy Kids report card indicated that Canadian adolescents are spending on average 6.5 hours/day on “screens” (computers, TVs and video games) and 7 hours/day on weekends.

Louv’s book is a powerful argument, backed by an array of research studies, for the link between this indoor sedentary lifestyle and the increases in obesity, depression, anxiety and ADHD among today’s youth.

What we know instinctively, and what health practitioners are now saying, is that nature has a calming effect, helping us to focus, awaken our senses, and feel a sense of balance in our lives. What we need is a cultural shift in all of our systems, (for example educational systems who support outdoor experiential learning, and governments who foster urban forestry and naturalized green spaces) so that nature experiences are part of our daily lives.

We also need innovative tools for facilitating this shift, and for motivating young people (and their parents) to get outside. It’s happening, and Focus on Nature is part of a burgeoning global movement (sparked by Louv’s writings) to make it a priority to provide kids with nature experiences. There’s now legislation in several US states called “No child left inside”, and numerous initiatives and campaigns in the US and Canada to build the connections between young people and nature.

Focus on Nature program organizers see a critical role for the arts in enticing young people to get outside and explore and discover nearby nature.  They’ve also been excited to see the potential for using photography as a means to monitor changes in ecosystems, and the possibilities of collaborating with outdoor education centres.

The particular value of photography in enhancing the child-nature connection is its relevance to today’s digitally savvy youth, its capacity to enhance the excitement of nature experiences, and the opportunities it allows for sharing both nature appreciation and creative expression with others.