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Outdoor Remedy: Improving health and inspiring the next generation of conservationists

From the Fall 2013/Winter 2014 issue of Canadian Wilderness

Nature-deficit disorder in youth today may mean fewer environmental stewards tomorrow. Or so goes the logic behind CPAWS’ drive to engage Canadian youth with the outdoors, whether it’s with classroom education programs, green-themed youth leadership symposia or inspiring youth to be ambassadors for the outdoors with their own peer groups.

“CPAWS’ focus is really to ensure that the future has wilderness defenders,” says Elyse Curley, Terrestrial and Youth Programs Manager for the CPAWS B.C. chapter.

At a time when research is showing that more time spent outdoors helps combat obesity, ADHD symptoms, and poor test scores, children are outdoors less than ever. Nearly eight out of ten parents report that their children spend less time in parks and green spaces than they themselves did. A David Suzuki Foundation survey reported that 70 per cent of children play outside less than an hour a day. And no wonder: Canadian children and youth today spend an average of 7 hours and 48 minutes a day in front of a TV, computer, smart phone or video game screen.

All of which spells trouble unless we get kids outdoors and fast, says Curley. “If our youth aren’t connecting to nature right now, they’re not going to understand its benefits or why we need to protect nature in the future. We want to connect them to nature so that as they grow older they want to protect nature into their adulthood.”

Alex Mowat, interpretive guide for CPAWS Southern Alberta chapter, delivers hands-on lessons to potential next-generation wilderness defenders from Annie Foote School in Calgary.
Photo: Jennifer Casciani

Hence the drive behind Get Outside BC, a youth leadership project for 14-18-year-olds entering its third year in B.C. and now expanding to CPAWS chapters in New Brunswick and Ontario. The program trains some 40 youth leaders each year at a leadership summit held in Squamish, where they meet mentors who work in the green sector, hike, camp and learn about how to plan and execute their own outdoor events. After returning to their home communities the young leaders, in turn, organize outdoor events that, on average, get an additional 550-600 children and adults into the outdoors themselves. The program is a hit, probably because at the end of the day it’s a tonne of earth-friendly fun.

“That’s what Get Outside does really well. It provides information and awareness and opportunities to engage with the outdoors,” says Kluane Buser-Rivet, a Get Outside alumna who organized an outdoor-themed Amazing Race in her hometown of Victoria in fall
2011 that included challenges such as rolling down a hill or getting to know a tree while blindfolded.

“One of the things I took out of it was that it’s not as difficult as I thought to organize a successful event that gets a lot of people outdoors,” says Buser-Rivet. “Everyone was having a total blast. It’s really awesome to see people having fun outdoors.”

That’s exactly what Anne Marie Syslak’s experience as Executive Director of the Southern Alberta CPAWS chapter has shown her. Something as humble as spotting a bird through the trees or handling a garter snake will get students fired up and excited “about the beauty of nature and things that are alive.” Since the Southern Alberta CPAWS environmental education program started in 1997, it has reached more than 85,000 students and teachers. The program links elementary and high school curricula with environmental
lessons and even gets students out on interpretive hikes, where lessons from the classroom come alive. Syslak recently attended a talk by Richard Louv, the author of Last Child in the Woods who coined the term nature-deficit disorder, in which he urged his audience to “prescribe nature.” That phrase was music to Syslak’s ears.

“I thought, that’s exactly what we’re doing. In these programs we are prescribing nature. We are trying to connect students with nature and we’re teaching them about the values of nature, environmental issues and conservation.”

Grade 4 students at Calgary’s St. Maria Goretti School investigate why leopard frogs are disappearing in Alberta.
Photo: Kate Semrau


Anne Casselman is based in Vancouver and reports on science and nature for Canadian Geographic, The Walrus and

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