More than 100 children told us the answer in Ontario Nature’s first writing contest for kids

By Caroline Schultz

When I was a child, our summers on Ireland’s Atlantic coast were endless days of exploring and rock-pooling. We netted crabs, shrimps and fish and stored them in bucket-sized habitats of seaweed, stones and shells. Returning to our unmanicured suburban backyard, we tunnelled through the tall grasses of a wild jungle. In our secret hideouts, we built spider farms from bits of wood and dissected flowers. A parent’s call for something as trivial as lunch was the greatest intrusion.

Many of us remember such childhood experiences – running wild physically and imaginatively in the fields, woods or vacant lots finding beetles, frogs and wildflowers. Sadly, today’s children have fewer opportunities to experience nature this way. Most grow up in urbanized environments, where natural areas to explore – the raw material for such adventures – barely exist.

We also structure our kids’ time to an astonishing degree. Families rush to and fro to “do” activities such as soccer, dance lessons, karate. Paradoxically, there is an epidemic of childhood obesity despite all this organized physical activity – partly because kids often spend the little free time they have in front of the television or computer screen.

In his recent book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv documents the alarming consequences of what he calls “nature-deficit disorder,” which include obesity, likely due to the lack of unrestricted free play in nature. He also notes a growing body of evidence indicating that exposure to nature is essential to mental health and may well alleviate symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and can improve children’s cognitive abilities, as well as their resistance to stress and depression.

Louv describes the human costs of alienation from nature: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional illness. These have huge implications for future environmental stewardship. As the collective knowledge of – and familiarity with – our natural surroundings diminishes, so too does the capacity for watchful and caring environmental stewardship.

There is a growing awareness that we are approaching a crisis – that we must stem the tide that is pulling our kids away from nature and recreate the bond between us and the natural world that is so fundamental to the human psyche. Louv describes a budding movement in the United States to reconnect childhood with nature. We need to help such a movement germinate here in Canada. To do so, we must unite a broad spectrum of people who care about children. This would include public health professionals, educators, parents, conservationists, naturalists and, above all, children and youth, like the more than 150 grade 7 and 8 students who wrote about what nature means to them for Ontario Nature’s first nature writing contest for kids. The winning essays appear on the following pages. At Ontario Nature, we believe that as long as we have such passionate and eloquent young people who find beauty, joy and inspiration in nature, there is hope that every child can connect with nature and form an essential life-giving bond.

My two young daughters are lucky to live close to green spaces. We make sure to “book” time to let them explore the great outdoors near our home. Nevertheless, I have to check my impatience with the inevitable complaints when it is time to move on from the frog pond to the grocery store. It takes a conscious effort to ignore perceived time constraints and allow for unstructured time in nature. But it is an effort we all must make, for the benefit of our children and the planet.

Caroline Schultz is the executive director of Ontario Nature.

Honourable Mention WINNERS

“WHY DO WE NEED NATURE?” by David of Kincardine
“BEHIND EVERY TREE …” by Marie-Claude of Roslin
“IN MY BACKYARD” by Rebecca of Alfred
“WHAT WOULD I DO WITHOUT NATURE?” by Ben of Chute a Blondeau

I wonder
Rachel, Grade 7,
Centennial Public School, Elmira

This winter, my class and I went winter camping in MacGregor Point Provincial Park. During the time we spent there, some friends and I would go out into the forest and explore it whenever we had the time.

On the last night I decided to go out into the woods by myself just before the evening’s supper, for the last time before we left. I walked down the dirt path to the area where the path ended and the forest began. The cool air tousled my hair, or what was spilling out of my warm hat. The air smelled of campfire just as it was lit. The night was one I would remember for a long time. The stars shone so brightly, and there was no need for me to use my flashlight for they gave off a bright glow that was most inviting.

I reached the earthy door of the forest and stepped inside. The trees protected me from the cool air and it warmed my insides, making me feel ever so welcome in this peaceful home of nature. I walked through the snow, stepping on footprints my friends and I had already made on our previous adventures through the woods. I came to a small stream that ran through the forest and sat down, gazing into the water. The water slowly moved, resisting the harsh winter’s cold grasp, as it sought to freeze this small wonder. I picked up some sticks and added them to the small bridge we had been building so my friends and I could cross the stream more easily, but now that we were leaving, I decided to finish the bridge so that in the future, others could cross it with ease if they ever came across this place. I finished off and crossed the bridge, hoping some day I might see it again.

I kept walking through the woods and came to a curve in the path. I kept on walking until I saw the most beautiful tree. It was twisted, and had no branches, or leaves, but yet it stood out to me as the most beautiful tree in the whole forest. I continued on the hike and thought to myself, “I hope someone else will be as blessed to see it in the trees’ beautiful state of glory.” I ended in a clearing that was most familiar to me. It was where my friends and I had seen trees poking up from the snow. I laid back and created a sort of disfigured snow angel. I stared up at the sky, and listened to the quiet chirping of some chickadees and nuthatches in the far off distance. I stared at the stars, hoping that this moment would last forever, until I heard a car. I wondered how I could hear a car in the forest and got up and pushed through the trees. Just outside of the clearing I had recently been in was a cement road.

I started to notice how late it was and started on my trip back. I walked past the tree, and the stream, and left the forest and all its little wonders behind me as I walked down the path to supper. I thought of all that the forest held, and how it was a home to so many animals. I also thought of how we were destroying it for our own needs. We ploughed down forests just like the one I had so few moments ago been in, for our roads, for our cities, for our homes. We were killing off nature for our own needs. Not for the needs of the animals but the human race.

I laid down my head at night and wondered: One day, will we ever stop destroying nature? Will someday, children dream of trees, and what they once looked like, felt like? Will someday, that stream, twisted tree, and those newborn trees cease to exist?

I slept that night and I wondered all those things. Even now I wonder. I wonder if nature will someday just be a long lost memory, tales of trees and flowers. I wonder.

Sara, Grade 7,
Centennial Public School, Elmira

They are silent bystanders to our destruction. Quietly they watch as their world gets smaller. Look into their eyes. There you can see distress, sadness, fear, and loss yet still they are silent. Just staring while hoping and praying for better days to come. Not protesting, instead stepping aside as others take over. They are being taken advantage of.

The animals watch in sadness.

They are peaceful watchers of our demolition. Innocently seeing others get cut, picked and pruned. Look at their branches, leaves and flowers. There you can see sadness and hatred as they fall, one by one, yet still no sound comes from them. Falling, drooping, but still crying for mercy. Not crying for us to hear, instead hiding it inside. They are being taken advantage of.

The plants watch in despair.

We are boisterous interruptions to the world of nature. Not caring about the noise and destruction we do to them. Just building bigger, taller, wider. Any space that we find is used for more, more, more. Not thinking, just doing. Not caring, just cutting. Not listening to the silent protests. The voice of the wild is speaking to us but no one is listening. We are the ones taking advantage of the animals and the plants.

Human beings just don’t care.

Determined to answer all of life’s questions, but why? Why do we need to know? Why not just admire the delicacy of nature instead of tearing it apart with questions, weapons, and tools? Why not just live with the way things are, instead of inventing more ways to destruct? Why not connect with nature instead of being foreign? Why not be friends with nature instead of enemies? WHY NOT?

Listen to the voice of the wild, begging, crying, and protesting. Answer their plea for a peaceful connection. Only we can make that difference for a future of friendship.

Nature is…
Kenny, Grade 7,
Pleasant Corners Public School, Vankleek Hill

Explain the difference nature makes to your family’s well-being. Wow, nature has everything to do with my family. We are Ontario dairy farmers.

I have been blessed to grow up in such a rich rural environment and realize that not all children are as lucky as I am. My family owns and operates a small Ayrshire dairy farm just outside of Vankleek Hill. Growing up, I have come to realize that my family’s survival has to do with most aspects of nature, such as climate, landforms, and the ecosystem we are in. As I became more interested in farming, I knew that is what I wanted to do. The atmosphere, the thrill of dealing with animals, and of course, driving tractors.

Yet farming is not all fun and games. It is a career that takes hard work, and of course, some luck with the weather. The fact that it is not sunny all year long makes it hard for us to plan what to do. Whenever the weather comes on, we are silent, for that is what we plan our week on. Will we cut hay on Sunday? Or, wait until Tuesday so we can get those bales of hay picked up before it rains. It is very hard though to plan ahead, because as we all know weather can change quickly.

As I told you before, we are dairy farmers. We milk purebred Ayrshires. Sometimes these animals do not have the right adaptations to survive in our ecosystem. In the summer, we can have very intense heat at times. These conditions are not appropriate for humans or cows to be outdoors, especially when they are due to calve. We could end up losing a calf or even the cow! It is not only summer that takes a toll on the animals in Ontario though. We can get very harsh winters and if your barn is not well insulated, young calves that have not fully adapted to the temperature could get very sick! This is why most farmers, my dad included, breed most of their cows so they will be due in the spring and early fall months.

In addition, we have many other species of animals in our ecosystem and not all are friendly. Animals such as fishes, coyotes, wolves, and of course insects all thrive in our environment. Some of these predators have been known to attack and kill domestic animals. Therefore, certain precautions need to be taken. Wire fences make it hard for large animals to get in and out of our pastures, and newborn calves are brought inside, out of danger. You may ask how insects affect our family’s well-being. Well, insects and other plant-eating bugs love nothing better than to chow down on a nice field of corn or alfalfa. Out west on the prairies, insects have been known to eat entire fields. That could be several hundred acres of hard work, demolished!

The landforms that surround my family also affect our business. We are situated among lowlands and hills, making it difficult to plan where we will plant our crops. Our fields situated in lowlands seem to attract rain, and sometimes too much of it. This means we will have to tile the land to achieve good crop quality. Many of our fields are situated on hills. In most cases, these are the most successful fields because of the amount of sunlight they get. However, these fields also have a great amount of stones and gravel, so there is a bit more work to be done (we must pick stones). So by looking at our fields and where they are situated we find, depending on the year, which fields will be most successful in growing good quality crops.

As you see, nature has a lot to do with my family’s well-being. In fact, it has even more to do with my family’s success!