How to turn the 9 in 10 kids who don't get enough daily activity into outside kids

Society grows more technologically advanced daily — and human beings more digitally savvy and connected with each generation.

There are benefits to this — faster information flow across distances, advances in health care and other vital support systems — but social and environmental impacts are not always so obvious. 

Where might one look to see the perils of this societal evolution? Try the social development of children. Today’s children spend increasingly less time outside and more inside, their faces often lit by the glow of screens.

A 2016 study showed fewer than one in 10 Canadian children age five to 17 gets the single hour of daily heart-pumping activity they need. More than three-quarters surpass the recommended daily maximum of two hours of recreational screen time. As a result, our children are becoming less healthy. They’re even having problems sleeping.

How to buck this troublesome trend?

Think back to your own childhood. What were some of your happiest, healthiest times?

I reflect fondly on the time I spent fishing with my father and the many days I spent exploring nature, catching insects in swamps, hiking forests and mountains, encountering animals, immersing myself in any natural setting I could.

As time went on and my interest in sciences grew, I developed a deep appreciation for our embeddedness in nature. We are a part of nature, after all. Like other animals, we rely on clean air, soil and water to live. 

Yet I find it remarkable how easy it is for many of us to forget this in a world of paved streets, skyscrapers, computer tablets and desk jobs. In such a world, jobs — and thus, the economy — become our top priority, and we fail to recognize our utter dependence on nature for our health and survival.

The first step in nurturing “eco-friendly” young people is to immerse youth in nature. Provide them with opportunities to discover the wonders of nature daily. Speak of nature as it truly is: Our lifeblood, not some external force that humans “manage.” When it comes to the challenges facing our natural world, like the worsening effects of climate change, explain to them that we are responsible for much of the recent phenomena — and we have the ability to change our ways and create a sustainable world. 

Let’s start with the easy stuff — getting outside.

Over the past two decades, researchers have documented what most of us know intuitively: Access to nature is good for people. It helps with learning, physical health and overall happiness and well-being. Being outdoors can reduce stress and symptoms of attention deficit disorders while boosting immunity, energy levels and creativity. 

Even in built playgrounds, kids spend twice as much time playing, use their imaginations more and engage in more aerobic and strengthening activities when the spaces incorporate natural elements like logs, flowers and small streams, according to research from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Where to start? 

Many children are inherently curious explorers, so you may not need to do much to cultivate a connection. Just take them outside. If you’re having difficulty, you can do many things to introduce children gently to their natural surroundings.

With September and school here, many parents will face the challenge of balancing recreation time with work and school schedules. If you need help, the David Suzuki Foundation’s four-week, back-to-school superhero challenge provides materials to help get kids back outside to learn about critical environmental issues. 

Access to nature means happier, healthier children — and getting kids outside can be easier than you think. What’s most exciting is the longer-term impact of connecting young people with the natural world: Children who spend time in nature are far more likely to care about protecting it later in life. As humanity faces climate change impacts powerful enough to damage our planet irreparably at best — or literally end our species’ time on this planet at worst — what could be more important.

Years ago, I wrote that “A baby nursing at a mother’s breast is an undeniable affirmation of our rootedness in nature.” But soon after that beautiful introductory stage of life, many of us lose sight of that connection. 

Humankind needs to shift the way we see our relationship with nature, to remember this embeddedness within it. It starts with teaching children to do better than we did. 

It may seem as simple as a hike in the forest or a day at the beach, but the survival of humankind depends on it.

Article exclusive to TRNTO