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Back to nature


Are your kids suffering from nature-deficit disorder? Send them outside.


By Sarah Sawler

When Karen McKendry moved to Halifax, she was sure she’d find a young naturalist club to replace the one she’d volunteered with in Ottawa. But when she arrived, she quickly discovered that despite the area’s abundance of natural beauty, there was a serious lack of hands-on nature programs for children.

The self-proclaimed “nature geek” quickly took the situation in hand. “It was unacceptable,” says McKendry. “So I took what I learned from the model in Ottawa and spent a year getting partners to create a nature club for kids here.” In 2006, the team launched the Young Naturalists Club, a non-profit organization that offers free monthly meetings and field trips. There are now eight chapters across Nova Scotia.

According to Statistics Canada, 25 per cent of Canadian youth are overweight or obese, and most of them are spending between six and seven hours a day in front of a screen. A recent Parks Canada report says only seven per cent of Canadian children and youth are getting enough physical activity. The result is nature-deficit disorder, a term coined and popularized by journalist Richard Louv. “The term has been a real catalyst in the environmental education community,” McKendry explains. “When Louv wrote Last Child in the Woods, he pulled together a lot of the research that pointed to the problems caused by kids not getting out into nature as much as they used to.”

According to McKendry, nature-deficit disorder encompasses a host of problems. Not only does a lack of unstructured outdoor play make our kids more prone to physical issues like obesity and diabetes, it’s also linked to mental health problems such as ADHD and depression. She’s also read research that indicates that today’s kids are less likely to take care of the environment. After all, in a society of convenience, where water pours from the tap with a twist of a handle and the fireplace lights up with the flick of a switch, it’s easy to forget where that water and natural gas comes from.

Shannon Johnson, a researcher and associate professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Dalhousie University, is studying the effect all that indoor time is having on our kids. With the help of Daniel Rainham, Dalhousie’s Elizabeth May Chair in Sustainability and Environmental Health, she’s examining the effects of nature on children’s attention spans, ability to learn, and mood. Although her research isn’t complete yet, she hopes that it will ultimately be used to affect school policy.

“In Nova Scotia, when test scores are low, they seem to think more instruction time will help,” says Johnson. “But if you keep kids sitting in class all day long, especially younger kids, it’s not helping. Theory suggests their attention gets fatigued and the best way to restore it is to take them outside.” Johnson also says that creating greener playgrounds could make a difference. “Kids want to hide in the bushes and play around the trees,” she says. “They like the playground equipment, but they really love to interact with the more natural things in their environment. That’s what I’ve observed.”

Sally Trower, Halifax mother of two and outdoors enthusiast, has noticed the same thing. And the effects of nature play are particularly obvious when she watches her son, who has ADHD. “As soon as he’s outside, he’s asking questions, he’s engaged, he’s touching things, he’s running around,” she says. “When he walks with us in the woods, he experiences everything that nature has to offer, and it’s not overwhelming for him.”

Like Johnson, Trower also feels that it’s important for schools to incorporate natural exploration into their curriculum and after-school programs. Inspired by the forest school that her daughter attended when they were living in the U.K., she’ll soon be training to deliver a forest school in Halifax. According to the Forest School Canada website, students attending this kind of school typically spend at least half their day outside, learning in a natural environment.

Halifax has come a long way since McKendry moved here almost 10 years ago, and it still has a long way to go. Luckily, people like McKendry, Johnson, and Trower are making a big effort to speed things up.


Learn more about the Young Naturalists Club at



Need help getting your kids outside? We’ve got it covered.

Limit screen time: Once you unplug your kids, they’ll be more willing to go explore the great outdoors.

Lead the way: You need vitamin D, too. Hike the woods or explore the beach as a family.

Get them started:When you send your kids outside, give them a task—whether it’s collecting leaves or building a fort.

Put that iPad to work: Supplement nature exploration with educational apps. Explore the night sky using Star Walk or go bird watching with the Audubon Birds app for reference.



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