Nature Literacy: Why Children Need to Spend More Time in Nature

Last week was a Family Literacy Week in Canada. Lots of resources and tips were shared about reading and language development. Both are essential skills for every kid, without a doubt, but all those posts made me think about the kind of literacy that doesn’t often get much air – nature literacy.

Recently, I read about Oxford Junior Dictionary taking out 50 nature-related words and replacing them with tech vocabulary. Someone decided that words like acorn and cauliflower weren’t as important for seven-year-olds as say broadband and cut-and-paste. Considering that kids already spend too much time in front of the screen (over 7.5 hours a day for children in Canada according to Participaction), it seems like a dangerous trend. Children nowadays can probably name more computer game characters and social media platforms than types of trees or flowers, let alone identify those trees and flowers when they see them. Apparently, 80% of kids in America will never see the Milky Way in their lifetime (I couldn’t find the figure for Canada but I can’t imagine it would be much different) but I am sure they will have no shortage of space movies and video games. A lot of kids have no idea where their food comes from and consume nature in prepackaged bits at a zoo or aquarium. There is even a term for it now ‘nature deficit disorder,’ coined by Richard Louv, author of The Last Child in the Woods.

We could argue that our technology oriented world demands that kids become tech-savvy at an increasingly earlier age and that being able to identify a tree or a bird isn’t an essential skill unless you are, say, a biologist. Plus, you can always look it up online, right? Well, we often forget that spending time in nature offers a wide range of benefits, including extensive opportunities for learning and creativity, increased physical fitness levels and improved mental health. And it is proven that children that get early exposure to nature grow up to be better stewards of our planet, something we definitely need these days of climate change and resource shortage.

We as a family love all nature-related activities. Our kids have been going camping, canoeing, hiking, biking, skiing and snowshoeing with us since a very early age. We grow herbs and vegetables in our tiny balcony garden and love visiting pick-your-own farms in the summer. So we know firsthand how beneficial nature can be for both children and adults. Here are a few reasons to get outside with your family.

family in a tent

Camping at Pukaskwa National Park

biking at Prince Edward Isalnd

Biking at Prince Edward Island

child paddling

First paddle at Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park


Kayaking at Bay of Fundy


Skiing at Killarney Provincial Park

hiking Abes and Essens

Backpacking at Bon Echo

Endless opportunities for learning

When we think of learning, we immediately imagine a structured school environment with printed and online resources. We often forget that nature is, in fact, one big classroom with limitless opportunities for exploration and learning. Unlike school, this outdoor classroom is inspired by the surroundings and guided by children’s interests. When we hiked at Badlands, we learned about sedimentary rock, buffalo and the tragic history of the Lacota people. We attended a ranger talk about fossils and imagine our excitement when we found one ourselves. Yellowstone and Craters of the Moon were perfect locations for learning more about volcanoes. Our trip to Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick was all about tidal activity. When we headed for the Maritimes, we started reading Anne of Green Gables and the whole book came to life once we arrived to Prince Edward Island. While visiting Algonquin Park, we learn as much about boreal forests and Canadian Shield as we do about the impact of logging and legacy of Tom Thompson. When we stay up at night to watch the stars either at Glacier National Park in Montana or Bruce Peninsula in Ontario, we talk about constellations, celestial bodies, possibilities of space travel and our vulnerability as humans in this vast Universe.



Craters of the Moon


kayaking at Bay of Fundy  patting a manatee

feeding a bird

As you can see, learning topics extend way beyond local flora and fauna (and we do carry plant and bird guides with us to help us identify different species). In addition, because all those learning experiences are so multidimensional and multisensory, kids actually remember them long after the trip is over. A couple of years ago, I volunteered to help with the Scientist in the School session at my son’s school. The topic was “Types of Rocks.” As the kids were doing activities about sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic rocks, my son quickly pointed out that Badlands was a good example of sedimentary rock and igneous rock could be found at the Craters of the Moon. He was referring to the road trip we’d taken the summer before. To him, all those types of rocks were more than just a description or a picture in a book, it was something he saw, touched and climbed.

Imagination and creativity

I’ve often heard parents brag about their kids being able to open programs on a computer or enter a password into an iPad or iPhone. I can see how it may seem fascinating that our children can operate such an impressive piece of technology, something we couldn’t even imagine when we were their age. In reality, it’s about remembering a sequence of operations, something kids are naturally very good at. The sad truth about the plastic abundance of toys and electronic vortex of entertainment is that it takes away kids’ ability to develop their imagination and creativity.

Outdoors, on the other hand, is a magical land where anything can be a tool and material for creation. We’ve seen our kids spend hours building forts out of driftwood and dams out of rocks. The beach is a perfect construction site for castles, cities and, once, a very imaginative cricket course. And a stick is never just a stick!

fundy-46  playing in the sand

Driftwood beech

beach   playing on the beach

writing on the sand

Ability to get mesmerized

We live in the world of 24/7 entertainment and special effects. We now expect to be constantly kept amused and we want the entertainment to be increasingly brighter, more exciting and stimulating. The downside is that we gradually lose our ability to be awed. After all the Disney World rides, a simple hike in the woods may seem less than exciting to children nowadays. And animals in the wild don’t always show up on cue or perform the way they do at Marineland or even at the zoo.

catching snowflakes

Yet, spending a lot of time in nature can help keep this feeling of childlike wonder not only alive but flourishing. During our travels, we get excited when we see a bison crossing the road or a hummingbird fluttering by. Our kids can spend hours watching mountain goats scaling a hillside or snakes weaving their way through the rocks. Sunset colours are more mesmerizing than any electronically produced special effects and a rainbow dancing in a geyser is the best light show ever, according to our son.

Mountain goats at Custer state park



enjoying the view at Cape Breton

Healing through nature

Recently, more and more studies talk about green therapy. People who live near green spaces have fewer physical and mental health problems and spending time in nature helps manage ADHD symptoms in children. To us, all these findings are common sense, practically axiomatic. Of course, you get fitter as you hike, bike and paddle all day. And kids who have problems concentrating will certainly do better after they get an opportunity to run around. As for nature’s effect of mental health, isn’t it constantly exploited by the sellers of ‘soothing sounds of nature’ CDs and natural scents? But why settle for artificial if you can have a real thing for free?

In our family, nature is a go-to happy place. We all believe in the power of a walk in the woods and the miraculous effects of a nature detox.

view from the Sleeping Giant

kids fishing

Acquiring new skills and confidence

Our kids know how to pitch a tent, make a fire and paddle a canoe. They’ve done portaging and backpacking in the backcountry. At fourteen, our older son was able to cook a complete meal in the woods, from chopping wood to clean-up. I know chopping wood is not on the top of must-have skills these days. However, a kid who can do that has no problem making something for dinner in everyday life. Plus learning all these skills gives them a sense of accomplishment, instills confidence and makes them feel more independent and grown-up. Our older son now has his own tent (a present for his 18th birthday) and he loves it, even if it means more work for him with setting it up and then putting it down at the end of the trip.

backpacking in Bon Echo  making fire

cooking  pushing a canoe

When we are camping, everyone has to pitch in and kids don’t complain about having to do chores. In fact, most of the time they are happy to bring water, collect firewood, clean the dishes, and carry their things across portages and on backpacking trips. And they always want to come back!

Time to spend together

The biggest gift of nature is the time we spend together. Away from distractions and schedules, we have time to explore and learn together, play games, sing songs and talk around the campfire. There is also plenty of time to be on your own if you wish to enjoy the view or read a book. The fact that our 18-year-old still wants to go camping with us and gets upset if he misses a trip is my biggest validation if I ever needed one.


kids by the lake

canoeing on a foggy lake

sitting on a dock  reading a book

Lake of the clouds

Connection to nature

According to Robert Macfarlane, “We do not care for what we do not know.” So for me as a parent, the main goal of all our camping trips and adventures is for my kids to get to know nature on a very personal and intimate level, not just something they see in books and on TV or learn about in their science class. I want them to feel part of it and be more mindful of the negative impact we as humans can have. Because they know that stuff doesn’t magically appear in the store but is made of resources that are extracted from the earth, they don’t ask for the latest gadgets or toys. When things break down, their first question is whether we can fix it and not if we can buy a new one. When choosing a university program, our older son picked civil engineering determined to help create more sustainable cities. And our younger son plans nature-themed birthday parties and uses them to fundraise for organizations like World Wildlife Fund.

climate march  we only have 1 planet

Yesterday, after our walk in the neighbourhood park, my 10-year-old son asked, “Do you think there will ever be time with no outdoors, just buildings everywhere, when even parks will be inside in a simulated environment?” I thought for a second and then we both said at the same time, “I hope not.” “We just need more kids like you,” I added.

My Outdoor Classroom

I went on my first hiking trip when I was ten. We just finished grade four, and our homeroom teacher, an avid outdoorsman, decided we were ready for a few days in the woods. To get to our camping destination, we took public transit and then walked for two hours or so. Most of us had never been camping before so our teacher taught us how to pack our backpacks, what to bring with us on a trip, how to set up a tent, collect wood and cook food over the campfire. We stayed there for three days, making short hiking trips into the forest and gathering medicinal herbs, which we later donated to the pharmacy. By the end of the trip I was hooked. Luckily, he remained our homeroom teacher till we graduated from school six years later, and those camping trips became an annual tradition. He would take us backpacking in the Carpathian mountains every summer and skiing in the winter. The trips would get longer, tougher and further away. And every year I would enjoy them more and more.

p2_1The tents we used were old army tents, extremely heavy when dry and weighing about a ton after getting wet. They were hard to set up, especially after we lost or broke all the poles and had to find suitable sticks on every trip. There were no zippers on those tents, just some loops and hooks, so they offered little in terms of protection from cold or mosquitoes. We didn’t have any pads, only sleeping bags, also heavy and big, and we used our backpacks as pillows. The backpacks themselves were nothing like sleek modern contraptions with padded straps and back supports. They were weirdly rounded, bulky and extremely uncomfortable. The straps were narrow, and after a day of lugging the backpack around felt razor-sharp.

Somehow none of those things mattered. When I think of those trips, my most vivid memories are of sitting around the campfire and listening to our teacher’s fascinating stories about his travels. Or one of my classmates playing the guitar and singing the same two songs (I think he only knew two) over and over again. I can still picture breathtaking views from mountain tops, which were even more special because they required so much work. I remember warm summer nights when we would decide to forego sleep altogether and stay up all night waiting for the sunrise. Morning haze over the mountains, the thrilling song of nightingales, and the hot red orb of the sun rolling out from behind the hills. Fresh smell of woods and multicoloured flowery carpets of high mountain meadows. Card games with my classmates on long winter nights. The excitement of flying down a toboggan hill on plastic sheets, and all the pain and aches afterwards because plastic offered little in terms of protection from bumps and gaps.


Most importantly, I remember the growing confidence and satisfaction that came from accomplishing something that hadn’t seemed possible before, the feeling of community and knowing that you can rely on your friends. While we learned a lot of practical camping and survival skills from our teacher, he taught us way more than that. We learned to watch out for each other and provide support when someone was tired or hurt. We learned to share by pulling all our food supplies together to make some weird but always delicious concoction and then distribute it between all of us making sure everyone got enough to eat. We learned that you had to keep walking even when the mountain top seemed too high up or the road way too long. We learned that even the longest routes seemed shorter with your friends around.

My teacher died a few years ago from a heart attack. I never got to tell him how much all those trips meant to me and that they inspired my lifelong passion for the outdoors. I can only hope he knew that while we enjoyed his Ukrainian language and literature classes, the most important lessons he taught us were outside the classroom.

The Nature of Freedom

Nature has always been a big part of my life. Even though I grew up in the city, I used to spend most of my summers at my grandparents’. They lived in a small village encircled by deep woods. Their house backed onto a large garden plot cut off by the narrow ribbon of a crystal-clear, ice-cold stream. On the other side of it was an orchard with apple and pear trees. I loved to spend my Sunday afternoons lying in the tall grass, munching on apples and pears I’d just found on the ground, weaving flower wreaths and watching the clouds floating above.


The orchard gradually melted into the forest. That’s where we roamed with my friends (long before we turned ten), foraging for mushrooms, wild strawberries and hazel nuts. The forest was not scary and unknown. I was a magical place full of life, beauty and tasty surprises. I still remember the sound of twigs  crunching under our feet, the joy of finding mushrooms under last year’s leaves, the sweet taste of wild strawberries and raspberries melting in my mouth, the smell of spearmint that I liked to pick along the stream and rub between my palms.

Some days we would scale cherry trees that grew in a communal orchard, saddle one of the highest branches and spend hours eating cherries and spitting out pits. Or we would find a mulberry tree, pick it clean and come back home all stained and full of juicy goodness.

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In the afternoon, most of the kids in the village would take cows to pasture. We would take turns watching each other’s cattle, start fire and roast apples and corn. We would stay in the meadow late into the evening, sometimes coming back as it was already getting dark, met by our grandparents and parents’ reproachful “Do you know what time it is? We still need to milk the cows.”

That was the thing, though. We never knew the time. Those summer days weren’t measured in minutes and hours. They were fluid, slow, and unhurried. When I think of those summers I spent at my grandparents’, the things that usually come to mind are the warm smell of the earth, the cooling breeze in the woods, not having to wear shoes for weeks in a row, and the feeling of freedom.


Now as I watch my kids grow, I want them to experience the same connection to nature and feeling of freedom I was lucky to have when I was little. I want them to know that it’s not us versus nature and that we don’t need to protect ourselves from it. That nothing they will see on a screen comes close to the fascinating sights, smells and sounds of forests, lakes, mountains and oceans. That mosquito bites and getting soaked in the rain are a small price to pay for all the benefits we receive when we spend time outdoors (plus getting caught in the rain can be quite fun).

I can see it working when they don’t want to go home at the end of each camping trip. When my 17-year-old son keeps asking where we are going next. When our 10-year-old refuses to wear shoes. When they stop to study a flower or listen to a bird. When they pick up berries in the woods and say those taste like nothing we could ever get in a store. When my younger son wants to wake up early and go canoeing with me. When my older son brings pictures of a sunrise from his, now independent of us, travels.

I hope this feeling of fascination and freedom stays with them when they grow up.

P.S. I took the pictures during my trip back home a few years ago. Unfortunately, the beautiful forest of my childhood looked much thinner due to excessive logging. As in other parts of the world, economic development is taking priority over environmental protection.

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