Forests Ontario

News & Events

Happily Covered Head-to-Toe in Mud: The power of nature connection for our childrens’ health and happiness

Posted: October 10, 2019

The photo was taken in New Brunswick and the river is Musquash River. It is a marine protected area, Musquash Marine Protected Area.

By Lauren Dehens

Lauren Dehens grew up on a farm in Norfolk County. In the summer of 2019 she worked at Nature’s Calling Environmental Education in Simcoe, Ont., running the group’s Explorer Daycamp. She believes that through hands-on, inquiry-based learning we can deepen the connection between youth and the natural world, and that by spreading environmental awareness, we can inspire and excite youth into becoming positive environmental stewards. In this guest column, Dehens explores the importance for children of spending time in nature.

How many hours a day do you spend in nature? Eight? Three? Zero? In a typical household today, I predict that the answer would be closer to zero. Picture this: adults spend eight hours a day in an office hunched over a computer screen, while our children sit under fluorescent lighting in rows of desks completing paperwork. When we get home, we turn to television, video games, or social media. Repeat this, five days a week for 52 weeks a year and we wonder why our society suffers from fatigue, stress, and crippling emotional and physical health. In the modern age of urbanization, gadgets, and high-speed internet, children and families have become completely disconnected from our natural world.

River, 6, a forest school student, shows off a caterpillar at the Explorer Day camp, spring 2019.

Nature-deficit disorder, a term coined by best-selling author and leader of the Children and Nature Movement, Richard Louv, describes the 21st century condition in which children and families experience declining mental and physical health due to an alienation from nature. In his book, Last Child in the Woods, Louv presents a plethora of research demonstrating that a strong connection to nature is vital for a child’s healthy mental, physical and spiritual development. Louv argues that children who spend more time in nature are less likely to suffer from rising childhood trends such as depression, attention-disorders, and obesity. It has been proven that spending time in nature improves mood, creativity, cognitive-functioning and attention-span, and yields people who feel overall healthier and happier in their lives.

As an environmental educator, I have spent hundreds of hours immersed in the wilderness teaching nature camp, forest school, curriculum-linked school programming, and nature play programs in all seasons and with children of all ages. My philosophy towards environmental education is simple: children get to be in the drivers’ seat of their own learning in a classroom without walls. Children are encouraged to follow their inquisitiveness and curiosity to explore and play without boundaries, take risks beyond their comfort zone, and strengthen respectful relationships with themselves, others, and the natural world. Their curiosity creates my lesson plan for the day, and my role is much more as a facilitator and partner in the learning versus a giver of knowledge.

Forest school educator leads children at Ryerson Camp in Turkey Point, Ontario, in spring 2019. Photos by Lauren Dehens

In this role I have experienced first-hand the positive power that nature education has on children’s lives. I have witnessed children who never wanted to get dirty become happily covered head-to-toe in mud. I have witnessed children with various struggles such as emotional management, ADHD, or autism completely blossom and thrive in this non-traditional learning environment. I have also observed children who were once petrified of insects or spiders face their fears, fall in love and show compassion for all of Earth’s beautiful creatures. I am even proud to say I know six-year-olds who can better build flint-and-steel fires and identify more flora and fauna than I can. Impressed yet? In my three years in this field I have watched children of all ages grow confident, brave, skilled, resilient, and genuinely happy thanks to nature-based education and connection. As an educator, bearing witness to this is truly a beautiful thing.

I have no doubt that children who spend more time in nature on a regular basis are healthier, happier, and will grow up to be empowered stewards, protectors and leaders of the environmental movement. Since starting my career as an environmental educator, I have even noticed myself become more humble, energized, and grateful for the natural world and my place in it. The next time you’re feeling under the weather, I encourage you to grab your family, take a break from the concrete jungle. . .  tune out of your screens, and tune into nature.

Lauren Dehens holds a Bachelor of Science (Honors) in biology from Western University, and a master’s degree with a focus on marine conservation and environmental education from Dalhousie University. In September 2018 Dehens began working towards her Masters of Education degree at Western University.