First published in the February/March 2012 issue of North Simcoe Community News.

When I was just starting kindergarten, we moved to Mississauga. Mom and Dad picked out three houses and gave my slightly older siblings and me the final choice.

It was an easy decision. We picked the house next to a park that backed onto a forest with a creek running through it, and had both a public school and a high school within mere minutes so that we could always come home for lunch. Despite being in a busy suburban setting, it was a blissful place for four nature-loving kids. We knew every inch of that strip of ancient oak forest. We climbed trees, built forts and made dams in the creek, only coming in for dinner when we heard Dad’s piercing family whistle.

In late November of 2011, Robert Bateman, renowned wildlife artist and environmentalist, gave a talk in Barrie to local representatives of environmental organizations. What a thrill it was to meet one of my idols!

He did not disappoint. I felt an immediate connection, as if we were cut from the same cloth. He too grew up in the busy Toronto area, but spent his youth seeking out nature by foot or by bicycle with a pack of his buddies.

His greatest concern for the world today is that this type of childhood is no longer happening: for the first time in history, most children are not playing by themselves in nature. Following his talk, I polled several classes in Orillia about their favourite places outside. The vast majority of children were stumped for an answer. I was shocked.

Why is this such a big deal? Richard Louv, in his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, cites recent research at Harvard and numerous other institutions throughout North America and Europe. The findings: when children play in nature – climbing trees, building forts and dams in creeks, and exploring – they have less obesity, less attention deficit disorder, less depression, less suicide, less alcohol and drug abuse, less bullying and higher marks.

Parents are afraid to let their children outside to play, but Robert Bateman stresses that the real danger to children today lies in the health effects of their sedentary, over-stimulated electronic lifestyle. Moreover, almost all harm done to a child by an adult is by someone the family knows, not by a predator lurking for hours at the edge of a forest waiting for a lone child to walk by. Mr. Bateman would like my nephew Alex’s saying, “Get back to the woods where it’s safe.”

But this nature/child disconnect is not just a personal health issue. According to Richard Louv, the average North American young person can recognize over 1,000 corporate logos, but they don’t know the names of their wild neighbours . . . even 10 common trees and birds. In the words of Robert Bateman, “If you can’t name them, how can you care about them?”

With the increasing amount of pressure that we are putting on the natural world, it is becoming necessary for each and every person to act responsibly. At a recent general meeting of Ladies of the Lake, two experts from the Ministry of Natural Resources gave an update on the health of Lake Simcoe. Last September, the Federal Government announced the final round of funding for the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan, so we were eager to hear the results of all the fabulous projects that have taken place.

There’s good news (with reservations) and bad news. The good news is that phosphorus levels have been reduced, making the lake more habitable for coldwater fish such as whitefish and lake trout. But, . . . further development is planned for Innisfil, which will result in increased phosphorus loads to the lake. Deb Pella Keen of the MNR could only respond that we will all have to do more to keep phosphorus levels in check, never mind reduce them further.

The bad news? Two other serious threats to the health of Lake Simcoe remain largely unaddressed: invasive species and climate change.

I had a boss once that gave me a great piece of advice. He told me to feel free to come to him with any problems, but to never do so without also offering possible solutions.

So, what will I do? I will help all the school children that I meet to learn about their wild neighbours. I will share this message with parents and teachers. I will invite friends, family and neighbours to go for a walk in the woods. If we know nature, then we will care. What will you do?

Nature Websites for Families and Teachers

Robert Bateman “Get to Know” Program: An annual calendar contest and other school-based initiatives to encourage Canadian youth to get outside and get to know their wild neighbours.

Earth Rangers: Partnering with children to bring back the wild.

The Children’s Nature Network: Together we can create a world where every child can play, learn and grow in nature.