One of my favourite childhood memories is of being up at the cottage in the Gatineau Hills, Quebec. Every summer, my grandparents bravely brought me and my two friends up to the cottage for several weeks. We would be set free every day to play without boundaries in the woods around the cottage. We would build lean-to forts, explore rocky crags, and play out extensive and adventurous imaginary games involving all aspects of the landscape. We felt comfortable sitting bare legged on the rough ground, playing with ants and beetles, pretending quietly and sometimes loudly, to the point of being heard across the lake. Once we were judged to be good swimmers and explorers by my grandparents, my friends and I would take our little boat out and go frog hunting, a pursuit that required extreme patience and quick reflexes. The slimy muck along the edge of the lake and the plentiful mosquitoes did not deter us, nor did the deer flies stir us. We were proud “frog hunters.” One summer we caught a number of frogs, which we assumed to be a family, and kept them in our little raft until, of course, they jumped out. As little girls we were in glorious rapture around the capture and naming of frogs. Perhaps we were “tomboys.” I like to think we just were…and that was a very special thing. I thank my grandparents for their non-interventionist approach, allowing us the freedom to explore the natural world on our own.

That said, it wasn’t always a perfect experience. Playing tag or hide-and-go-seek in the woods occasionally led to scrapes and scratches. On one particular occasion I remember running through the woods, jumping onto a fallen log and bounding along it, disturbing a wasp nest in the process. My face was stung badly by a swarm of angry wasps. Yes, injuries will happen to children as they free play in nature.

As a parent now, it is my natural tendency to want to protect my child from harm. My two-year-old son loves to be outside and is only limited by my worries. I am working on relaxing and letting him explore the world a little further than I feel comfortable, as I learn more about his capabilities. In the effort to protect our children we occasionally over-compensate for the unknowns of nature, which can lead to the loss of opportunity for those children to learn from free play.

Each variable that a child works through in nature is a learning event. Each manoeuvre over stumps and logs, each twist and turn in the forest, each bird sighted, is an opportunity. In many cases, children are making multiple intricate hypotheses in order to personally understand the natural world.

Although I have spent the majority of my career working to protect natural areas, I did not carefully consider the benefits of nature for children until I had a child of my own. After feverishly reading Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, I feel a stronger need to encourage my son to independently explore and experience nature, based on what is appropriate for his age and capability. Louv states that direct exposure to nature is crucial for healthy childhood development and for the physical and emotional health of children. More and more, though, we are raising children in an urban environment, with limited access to natural settings. Regardless, small pockets of nature persist in an urban environment. Wherever we live, we can help by bringing our children to nature.

Resources and Reading:

Child Nature Alliance: childnature.ca

Child and Nature Network: web link

Jessica R. Pfeffer, MEM. When she is not playing with her two-year-old son Jasper, Jessica works at the BC Ministry of Environment, writes children’s literature and enjoys nature.