Why Schools Need Nature-Based Youth Programs Now More Than Before


The following blog post originally appeared on The Starfish Canada website.

By Jessica Lee

There is no doubt that we spend an unhealthy amount of time on our screens more nowadays. While adults have more freedom to immerse themselves into nature when they’re not working, children and young learners don’t often get the same opportunities as they require supervision.

Learning from home means more time on the screen when studying and outside of school hours if they can’t go outside to play. That’s when nature-based youth programs take the stage. But, what are nature-based youth programs?

Why Nature-Based Youth Programs?

American Institutes for Research, or AIR, says “nature-based youth programs expose young people to outdoor education through a mix of experiential learning, open exploration, and physically or psychologically challenging tasks.” AIR elaborates that nature-based youth programs help “increase awareness and knowledge of environmental issues [with] an intentional focus on character development and social and emotional learning.”

Other nature-based learning programs are sometimes called “forest schools.” According to the State of Canada’s Forests Report, forest schools began in the 1950s in northern Europe, specifically Sweden and Denmark. The forest-based learning approaches are used from preschool to high school and are gaining more popularity across Canada.

While these aspects may make us squint at first, most children and young learners nowadays encounter challenging learning environments since the COVID-19 pandemic.

How do Students Benefit from Nature-Based Learning?

Arranging and coordinating the times to learn outdoors require time and effort from the school, students, and (sometimes) parents. How would a nature-based learning environment help students succeed in school?

Through nature-based learning approaches, students have “a greater sense of purpose and belonging.” The boost in their mood leads to “positive impacts on their physical and mental health,” says AIR. Nature-based youth programs can positively influence young learners because they’re nature-immersed and relationship-based. These features make it possible for students to apply their learning to real-life settings.

If learning outdoors is not an option, spending at least 30 minutes outside each day can still improve the livelihood of children and youth. More time in nature “reduced stress, boosted immunity, more curiosity and problem-solving thinking, improved physical fitness, and less likelihood of needing glasses for nearsightedness,” according to David Suzuki Foundation.

Setting the foundation for healthy habits means children and youth can learn how to cope with stress in the future. We all know that stress, whether good or bad, doesn’t go away. We face challenges in school, work, and life.

As noted in How Nature Affects Our Mental Health, spending time in nature improves our mood and well-being in various ways. The key is to get more exposure to natural elements like the sun and any green space.

A 2016 study on Why We Need More Nature at Work found that more direct, indirect, or representational exposure to natural elements helps “reduce the impact of stress, increase psychological well-being, and support recovery from illness.” In short, the study concludes that having plants in your workspace, a window view in school, or photographs, drawings, or paintings of nature puts people in a better mood than having no natural elements in their settings.

So, are there existing nature-based youth programs in Canada?

Does Canada have Nature-Based Youth Programs?

The Outdoor Council of Canada reports that Canada has 14 established outdoor classrooms. If you’re in search of outdoor classrooms, here are the existing school that offers them in Canada:

While this may sound like a good start, keep in mind that we only have 14 outdoor classrooms out of the 15,500 schools in Canada, according to Statistics Canada.

The obstacle here is how do we as a community teach children and youth the importance of immersing themselves in nature for learning and living purposes?

One of Canada’s nature-based youth programs to check out is Ontario Nature. Ontario Nature’s Nature Guardian’s Youth Program focuses on providing youth with the tools, opportunities, and education to learn, explore, and connect with nature and other individuals at outdoor events. The Nature Guardian’s Youth Program is catered to high-school-age youth while at the same time, specifically providing volunteer and career opportunities to empower youth to make a positive impact.

In addition to formal nature-based programs, there are other ways educators can sneak the outdoors into their day.

In Ontario, it is mandated that child-care centres have a scheduled 2 hours minimum outdoor time. The 2 hours are divided into two sessions: 1 hour in the morning and another in the afternoon. The outdoor space is not limited to what is created. Students and educators can go for walks along with other activities. The time is not limited to the 2 hours mandated if the children are engaged in play or if the weather is nice educators can choose to extend the time spent outside.

Some schools have a gardening program that encourages students to grow various things like herbs, vegetables and the odd fruit trees (with special permission, of course). Kindergarten students also spend 2 hours daily outside. Before and after school are encouraged to spend 30 minutes minimum outside. Again, these suggestions can change depending on the student’s interest and the weather.

Takeaway: How can we incorporate a little more time outdoors today?


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