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MAY THE FORCE OF NATURE BE WITH YOU: Ontario Launches Children's Outdoor Charter, First of Its Kind in Canada

About the Author

Bill Kilburn is the Network Manager for Ontario’s Back to Nature Network. He led a collaborative effort to create Canada’s first charter that states children have the right to explore and play in nature, the Ontario Children’s Outdoor Charter.

My son was recently given a mini lightsaber with a “Dark Side Detector” that glows either red or blue so you know “which side of the Force you belong on.” What a comfort to know that life can hold such certainty, especially for a child: evil packs a red light saber and goodness carries blue.

Unfortunately, the light saber will inexplicably switch from red to blue and back again in the same hand, and therein lies the catch: both the dark side and the light side are mixed in each of us. My son could readily testify to this truth in describing me as a parent.

In the bigger picture, our dark side is readily viewable, particularly in our current digital age. Turn on a computer or switch on the news and you will be exposed to an endless list of human follies, complete with graphic images to confirm it. The advance of climate change, and especially our inadequate response to it, is the most obvious example of the great light of human capability not reaching the surface.

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Another example is the change our children are experiencing in the routines, rituals and opportunities of childhood. Today, children spend more time indoors than at any other time in human history, and it shows. On weekdays, streets are more likely to be filled with a line of vehicles than independent and trusted children accompanying each other to school.

In Canada children spend an average of only 3 hours per week outside playing, including weekends. In contrast, these same children spend an average of more than 7 hours per day in front of screens.

An unavoidable conclusion is that the connection our children have with nature is deeply impaired; like climate change, the widely publicized rise of “nature-deficit disorder,” however one chooses to define it, is a fact.

An equal fact is that we can do something about it. This challenge will require us to foster the awareness of where we are now, be purposeful in plotting a course to where we want to go, and work to blaze a trail defined by the recognition of our need for happiness, health, wonder and inner peace. We must build our connections with nature anew, and we can!

Thankfully, there are numerous people doing just that. Every month, new programs are being launched by organizations to get people outdoors and active, and every day enthusiastic teachers and parents take children into nature to explore and learn. Through these dedicated efforts, our connection to nature is being reimagined and put into action. There are hopeful signs that we are getting it!

One significant contribution, first introduced by the California Roundtable on Recreation, Parks and Tourism in 2004, and created by many other states since, is a Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights.

The name sounds daunting, but the invention is anything but: fall down the hole of your most joyous childhood nature memories and you’ll land happily right in the middle of one of them: Play in the snow; go fishing; harvest something to eat!

The purpose of a Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights is to list the simple things that have connected children to nature for as long as we can remember and write them down in order to provide similar opportunities for children today. More symbolically, it is a sacred trust between adults and children that we will strive to ensure that they have as many opportunities to fall in love with nature in their wondrous days of childhood as we did.

With this motivation, Ontario’s Back to Nature Network and Ministry of Natural Resources joined to lead a group of Ontario organizations to develop a Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights that represented Ontario’s distinct natural and cultural heritage. Broad consultation with Ontarians formed the core of the work, and support was gratefully received from successful American initiatives such as those in California, Ohio and Wyoming who shared their experiences. Of primary importance is the fact that nearly half of the responses that guided the work came from children and young adults, so the Charter is a true meeting place where both children and adults share meaning. It is comforting to know we all want to follow a trail.

An exciting result, the Ontario Children’s Outdoor Charter, is the first of its kind in Canada. It was launched two weeks ago by the Back to Nature Network and Ministry of Natural Resources.

As an indication of the high level of government support it has received, the Minister of Natural Resources, the Honourable David Orazietti, was present to make the announcement on behalf of the Premier and provincial government, and the Minister of Education, the Honourable Liz Sandals, sent a letter to the Director of Education at every Ontario school board to “strongly support all opportunities to get children outside to learn and play.”

Summarized in short, the Ontario Children’s Outdoor Charter is a long-term initiative that:

  1. Raises awareness of the important benefits for children of connecting to nature on a regular basis;
  2. Invites all interested people and organizations to take part in building opportunities for children to connect with nature;
  3. Strongly advocates for direct personal experiences in nature to foster lifelong health and happiness, and the development of a strong conservation ethic.

As Rachel Carson wrote so eloquently, “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”

Star Wars can teach us much about ourselves; star-gazing can teach us more. May the force of nature, and the Ontario Children’s Outdoor Charter, be with you.

More resources and reading

Canada’s Back to Nature Network

Ontario Children’s Outdoor Charter

The Back to Nature Network Teachers’ Guide

Photo © Martin LeBlanc

2 Comments

  1. Well said! Thanks for writing this and using the force to fight the good fight. I love the last line of the article.

    Reply
  2. Was wondering if anybody has had experience (in Ontario and maybe at the federal systems/institution level) or knows the mechanics or specifics of how this charter has any teeth to it. For example, was wondering how providing outdoor time and activities could be equally distributed and made available to children in ON–not only to those who can afford the costs or inconvenience of finding learning opportunities directly with nature–which are typically not the standard in our provincial schools. What is mostly needed is access to nature whereby the neutral and all accepting template or patterns of nature ‘runs the show’ in the sense that it nourishes the child and helps direct her/his interests and keeps them in awe. What is the pivoting or fulcrum aspect of the Ontario Children’s Outdoor Charter which would make the reboot possible because, if it already isn’t plainly obvious by now, we are in grave need of regeneration. Regeneration in a multi-faceted sense. Why and how would/could the Ontario Children’s Outdoor Charter be the mycelium we need for getting more nature into learning.

    Louis Laframboise

    Reply

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