David Suzuki: Healthy kids need time in nature

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Ontario’s Healthy Kids Panel recently proposed a strategy to help kids get onto a path to health. The problem is that the path doesn’t lead them into nature. Though the report quotes parents’ comments and research showing kids spend dramatically less time outside than ever, it doesn’t encourage time in nature.

That said, many of the report’s recommendations should be implemented and supported locally, provincially and nationally to reduce the risks of obesity. Encouraging parents and children to be more critical about dietary choices and requiring more information and labelling from restaurants and food producers is long overdue.

Ontario isn’t the only province working to reduce obesity rates and support parents raising healthy children, particularly in the early years. Alberta released relevant reports in 2011 and Quebec has had a ban on advertising junk food to children since 1980. No one can argue against public awareness and education around the benefits of healthy eating and active living. But a provincial, patchwork approach to addressing these issues isn’t enough. We need a national strategy to get our kids eating healthy foods and being active in nature.

Although it seems logical that much of the time spent being active will take place outside, the Ontario report acknowledges that “many communities are not designed to encourage kids to move or be physically active...and have few safe green spaces.” One parent in a focus group explains that the parks in his community are either gated or locked up once school is closed. So, even when there is green space, it’s not always accessible.

Last year, the David Suzuki Foundation conducted a survey with young Canadians and found that 70 percent spend an hour or less a day outdoors. The 2012 Active Healthy Kids Canada Report Card says they spend almost eight hours a day in front of screens. So it’s not that kids don’t have time to be outside. It’s just not part of their lifestyle.

Much has been reported about a recommendation by the Ontario panel to ban junk food advertising that targets children under 12. This has worked in Quebec and is being discussed in Alberta. But the approach has invited criticism from those who argue that people should have the right to choose. It’s always tempting to focus on making bad things less accessible, but perhaps policy-makers should be more creative and focus on ways to make good things more accessible.

Being in nature is good for all of us. People who get outside regularly are less stressed, have more resilient immune systems and are generally happier. And it’s good for our kids. Studies show spending time in nature or green spaces helps reduce the symptoms of ADHD. Even in built playgrounds, kids spend twice as much time playing, use their imaginations more and engage in more aerobic and strengthening activities when the space incorporates natural elements like logs, flowers and small streams, according to research from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Despite all the obvious health benefits of spending time outside, provincial and federal governments are failing to integrate a daily dose of nature into their policies. It’s also something we as a society are failing to make a priority in the lives of our children. This inexpensive and effective way to make our lives healthier and happier should be an obvious solution.

We need to make sure our neighbourhoods have green spaces where people can explore their connections with nature. We need to ask teachers and school board representatives to take students outside so that nature becomes a classroom. And we need to stop making the outdoors seem like a scary place for children by helping parents understand that the benefits of playing outside outweigh the risks.

It will take public education and awareness-building as well as changes to the way we build cities and live in our communities to bring nature back into our lives. Connecting kids to nature every day needs to be a priority policy objective in any strategy for healthy children and could easily have been integrated into the recommendations from the Ontario Healthy Kids Panel. Taking our kids by the hand and spending time outside with them will have the added benefit of making us healthier and happier adults.

Comments (4) Add New Comment
anonymous
Just finished reading a book called Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. Great book discussing this very subject
Saving our children from nature deficit disorder
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Rating: -2
Capt. Van
Ya. Like I'm going to send my grand kids outside to play with the nice strangers that just want to cuddle them not to mention the drunks driving around.
How many criminals will be released this month to who knows where?
All kinds of crime goes on and more soft gloves to make sure they don't get hurt. How many times have they been returned to prison and released to the public?
I'm ready to take the law into my own hands because I see the 2-3 years will justify my time and I still can look for more. Then I can get the free lawyers and some one to be genteel while protecting my rights.
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Natuare Lover
"the nature of things" should be a mandatory part of school curriculum throughout the entire world. instead of spending money on war, weapons, and defense, the world would be better off teaching people from an early age how the nature of things is necessary in order to sustain all life on Earth, including human beings.

the children and young adults are so distanced from "the nature of things" they have no idea about how to relate to the life of a crow, eagle, canada goose, seagul, or swan, and they lack the basic understanding of how important organic food from farmland is key to living healthy.

there's too much emphasis and focus on how to worship the reverence for man made riches and wealth.

Man's fundamentally fatal error lies in his miscalculation and assumption that the earth will continue to provide sanctuary to his greed driven addiction and selfish self-centered short term thinking by prevailing to take more natural resources without consideration, replacement or compensation to mother nature.

Man exists and survives because of mother nature's life giving environment around the globe. Without fresh air, water, land and sea, all creatures great and small, including man, would cease to be. Man is only part of the environment; not the entire environment. Man must learn to live in harmony with nature and respect life on earth.


if the children and young adults of today had the experience of living and working a farm until they are 19 years old, i'm sure they would have more respect for all life and how we are interconnected and interdependent. i saddens me how acceptable farm factories and fake foods are more accessible to them and they don't know the difference because their parents don't know and so it goes.

i only hope man will wake up on a global realization about how we need to nurture mother nature more so that we can keep our beautiful masterpiece Earth for the treasure Earth is.
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Homeschool mumma
Does anyone realize the damage has already been done? We line the pockets of policy makers who continue to do the opposite of what will make change. But isn't it too late? We're raping the oceans, we consume and destroy. We don't care and haven't cared in way too long. It's a sad state of affairs and people want to stick their heads in the sand and do nothing. And that is what we will be left with - nothing.
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