Outdoor experiences forge early connections with nature

Colin Weir of the Alberta Birds of Prey centre in Coaldale, Alta., encourages Luca Blouin of Lethbridge to get nose to beak with Basil the burrowing owl. Basil was one of three birds that were brought to the Prairie Conservation and Endangered Species conference in Red Deer.   |  Mary MacArthur photo

Special places | Conservationists argue that children who lack knowledge about nature grow up to be adults who don’t know it is worth protecting

RED DEER — When Jim Robertson thinks back to a special place from his childhood in Montreal, he remembers climbing through trees to a small natural cavern.

The ground was covered with thick moss and he was completely enclosed in nature, said Robertson, who works with the Kerry Wood Nature Centre in Red Deer.

“It was a wonderful spot and even 55 years later, I remember the softness and being surrounded by green,” he told the recent Prairie Conservation and Endangered Species Conference in Red Deer.

Robertson said it’s those special memories created by playing and being in nature that help children connect with and protect nature.

Worldwide studies have shown that people active in the environmental movement had a special place of some sort when they were young, he added.

“Fewer and fewer kids are getting the chance to connect with a natural spot.”

He said children who don’t know about nature don’t know that it is worth protecting. Children who connect with nature will believe more strongly in protecting the environment.

Robertson said it’s not easy to convince children to unplug their electronic devices and head outside to explore sloughs or grasslands.

“The lure of the screen is hard to compete with.”

Glen Hvenegaard, professor of environmental studies at the University of Alberta’s Augustana campus, said children spend more than 10 hours a day in front of some kind of screen, a far cry from his childhood spent outdoors exploring.

“They can identify more Pokemon characters than birds in their backyards,” he said.

Hvenegaard said it is no different with adults, who often connect with nature through movies and television rather than direct contact.

He blamed a combination of parents’ fear of the outdoors, competition with electronics, lack of familiarity with nature, lack of experience and a lack of time.

Hvenegaard grew up in southern Alberta smelling the silverberry while listening to the western meadowlarks singing on the prairie.

It’s those kinds of memories that young people now must experience, he said.

“If we understand natural systems around us, we can build a different kind of framework: understand where food comes from and gives us an understanding of where food comes from.”

Robertson said the Kerry Wood Nature Centre tries to hold most of its children’s programs outside. The centre offers a range of programs, including a type of nature school day care for three- to five-year-olds.

In an effort to find out if these programs made a difference or were just “happy babysitting,” Robertson interviewed children who had gone through the program five to seven years earlier and those who hadn’t.

He discovered that the children who had been through the program had a much greater connectedness to nature than peers who hadn’t. Robertson knows his program wasn’t the only reason for their connection to nature, but it helped.

He also learned that children enjoy playing outside more than playing inside, and children who played outside were happier and slept better.

However, children don’t want to wander outside the house with no one to play with. Robertson said towns and cities need to park the lawn mowers and leave some parks natural for kids to discover.

Colin Weir of the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre in Coaldale, Alta., said the centre invites children to watch and participate when birds are released back into the wild as a way to connect them with wildlife.

Weir said the goal is to create memorable experiences at the centre. Unlike a zoo, the tours are guided with an interactive experience.

“We want to create memorable moments for our visitors.”

Weir said a local farmer recently brought in a family of short-eared owls he had found in a field. He told Weir the only reason he brought them to the centre was because he toured the facility in Grade 3.

Weir said he has been obsessed with nature and wildlife since he was a child. His bird rescue centre was one of the few centres in Canada when he started it more than 30 years ago.

He said he uses guided tours and interactions with wildlife to give visitors a memorable experience.

Weir brought three birds to the Red Deer conference: Spirit, a golden eagle, blind from a gunshot; Basil, a burrowing owl; and Gordon, a great horned owl.

The birds are just one more connection to nature, said Weir, surrounded by children and adults wanting to take their turn holding the burrowing owl.

“Environmental learning really does work.”

Merna Pearman of the Ellis Bird Farm in Lacombe, Alta., said many programs are available on the Prairies that deal with children and nature, but many are underused.

“There doesn’t seem to be a lack of resources or opportunity,” she said.

“Our challenge is simple, to ensure as many children as possible are able to experience the wonders of nature.”

Her centre has aimed four web cams at a pair of beavers to give everyone a glimpse of nature.

The cameras are underwater, in the lodge and high above. Another web cam is aimed at an owl nest.

“People around the world can have some glimpse into the animals they would never see otherwise,” said Pearman.

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