Bob Peart has devoted his life to conservation and nature education. A biologist, Bob spent over 35 years in parks management, land use planning and public conservation education for Parks Canada, the Canadian Wildlife Service, the BC Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and other agencies.
Now retired from “paying jobs,” Bob contributes his time and expertise to numerous non-profit conservation organizations. In 2009, driven by a passion to reconnect children and families to nature, Bob founded the Child and Nature Alliance of Canada. He continues to serve as a Director with the Alliance, the Young Naturalist Club of BC and Nature Canada; as well as being a Strategic Advisor to the North Vancouver Outdoor School. He also currently serves on the board of The Kesho Trust, the IUCN’s Temperate Grasslands Conservation Initiative and the Elders Council for Parks in BC.
In recognition of his outstanding contributions to conservation and environmental education, Bob was awarded Canada’s prestigious J.B. Harkin Medal for Conservation, and recently was honored to receive the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.
Can you describe the Child & Nature Alliance, and tell us how it came to be?
From the 1970s to the mid-1980s, I was a naturalist. I gave slide talks, led nature hikes and worked at nature centers. I was outside with kids all the time. Then my life took a curve and I did other things more related to conservation advocacy than education.
In 2006, I stumbled on Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods. I was stunned. Gobsmacked. When I was a kid, 75% of people played in the outdoors and now it’s like 5-8%. It’s astonishing. I am who I am because of my experience in nature. I couldn’t believe that there were people who weren’t in the out-of-doors!
I found his book so stunning that I Googled Richard Louv, found his phone number, picked up the phone, called him, and said, “Hi Richard, I’m Bob. If I can get a bunch of people together in Canada, will you come up and speak?” That’s how my relationship with Richard started. He came up a couple of times. Then, in 2009, we had a gathering about children and nature and we were thinking of forming a British Columbia based organization. The people at that gathering said “No, this is a Canada story. We need to have a Canada-wide group, and we need this group to form a relationship with what’s going on in the United States with Richard [who, along with others, founded the Children & Nature Network in 2006].”
That was the evolution of the Child & Nature Alliance. We are the Canada-wide organization that is trying to move the movement and trying to help in that conversation of reconnecting children with nature.
How are you moving the movement?
We are an alliance. We haven’t got a large program with a lot of people on the ground, but we are working with those organizations and those people who do. Our goal is to build up a broad alliance that will collaborate to figure out how we can get this on the agenda in Canada.
Some of the things we are doing include an annual Nature Play Day and two or three gatherings a year to bring people together and have this conversation. A year ago, we had a major gathering in Vancouver with people in the health profession. We work with individuals who are influential. Here in British Columbia, for example, we work with various senior government officials who are very interested in this conversation and have a fair amount of influence in government. Those are good connections. We try to figure out who those people are who can really help us spread the story.
Another important part of the Child & Nature Alliance is its connection with youth: making sure that this is a youth-led conversation, and that youth are involved in getting the story out and it isn’t just a bunch of grey haired, old people. So every time we have a gathering, we make sure we get some kind of grants or something like that to ensure that a minimum number of people in the room are youth. We have youth on our board, and we have a program called the Natural Leaders Alliance, and we are really working hard to play a mentoring role with youth and support them and help them work with their peers.
Can you tell me more about the Natural Leaders Alliance?
The Natural Leaders Alliance is a youth-led initiative that strives to let Canadian youth know about the importance of spending time outdoors, and empower them to engage in their communities in nature.
We received some funding and we’re now into our third year of what we call “Get Outside.” We select 30-40 kids who have very little experience in the out-of-doors. We take them to an outdoor school and spend time with them. It’s very moving for many of the kids. The other part of the program, and the condition on which they attend, is they then have to go back to the community in which they live and lead two or three outdoor programs in their community. A key element [of the Natural Leaders Alliance] is that people like me are showing these kids our love of the outdoors and sharing with them how important nature is to who we are, so they can have the same kind of love and enjoyment that we have.
Again, the whole idea is to move and grow the movement.
What do you think is the level of awareness (among the general public and, particularly, among kids) of “nature-deficit disorder?”
The average child cannot name five species of animals or plants that are in their backyard.
But I find something encouraging. When I first got involved in this in 2006-2007, you didn’t read about it in the paper. It wasn’t even on the radar. Today, only six years later, I’m finding that very seldom does a week go by that there isn’t a major article or something in the paper or a magazine about this. For example, one of Canada’s major newspapers is the Globe and Mail. Our Saturday Globe and Mail is like [the U.S.’s] Sunday New York Times. Everybody buys it. There was a major spread on the importance of natural playgrounds and kids playing in this weekend’s Globe and Mail.
How long has Nature Play Day been going on?
We have had it for two years, and we are now preparing for our third. It is community-based. There were activities in something like 45 communities across the country and those activities took place because the Nature Play Day idea really caught them. In Red Deer, Alberta, for example, a large group of parents who made the effort to go outside and spend time in the out-of-doors with their children. They likely wouldn’t have done that without the effort of Nature Play Day. It’s just starting out, but we hope that ten years from now, it’s a really big deal.
When is Nature Play Day?
This year, it was in early June, but it may move to October. One of our board members [Colin Harris] recently ran across Canada to celebrate [and raise awareness of] the importance of reconnecting to nature. He wants to move the day to coincide with the day he completed his run.
You recently attended the IUCN’s World Conservation Congress in Jeju, Korea. During the event, the Member’s Assembly adopted “Child’s Right to Connect with Nature and to a Healthy Environment” which calls upon members and NGOs to “promote and actively contribute to the international acknowledgement and codification of this right within the framework of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. “What is the Child & Nature Alliance doing to contribute toward that codification?
I’m a member of the IUCN’s Commission on Education and Communication, which helped bring this motion to the Member’s Assembly, so I’m very involved that way. Richard Louv and Cheryl Charles of the Children & Nature Network were instrumental in getting Obviously, I support it. Children should have the right to have access to the outdoors.
It’s very good to have global statements like this, but they’re only as successful as they are delivered at the community level. The first thing we’re trying to do here in Canada is support everything that Richard Louv and Cheryl Charles of the Children & Nature Network have done. Cheryl was instrumental in getting this motion on the floor, and we are very supportive of her. What we now need to do is make it real and translate it to the community level.
We’re trying to find groups that will make it real. For example, there is a group in the city of Kamloops, British Columbia that is working with their mayor and council to get the official community plan for Kamloops to have a statement in it about youth and nature.
An English organization called Natural England has started an interesting conversation. They are saying, “If we want this to be real for children, we should set some standards.” A standard might be that every child has a right to grow up and have, say a two-acre piece of green space, within one block of his or her house. We need to start to develop those kinds of standards.
In an article you wrote about your experience attending the Congress, you mention another important item, the Jeju Declaration, which was adopted by CEOs and senior executives of national parks and protected areas around the world. Tell us about this declaration and its significance.
The sub-phrase of that declaration was “connecting people with nature.” The significance is that for the first time (to my knowledge, and according to people in the parks movement that I know) that at the very senior level acknowledging that parks not only have a role in protecting the environment and providing jobs, but they also have an extremely important role to play in connecting people with nature.
Again, the challenge, then, is “So what? How do you make it real?” We’re now starting to have conversations with Parks Canada’s CEO Alan Latourelle, who signed the Jeju Declaration for Canada. We’re saying, “OK, Alan, what do we do now?” Well, six weeks ago, Parks Canada announced a new national park, and its right within the city of Toronto. It was done purposely to have the values of national parks in a large, urban center.
Much of the research suggests that parents value childhood experiences in nature (their own and those of their children) as well of knowledge of nature. It also suggests that parents are among the strongest influences in getting younger children to participate in outdoor recreation. Why then, are parents not effectively addressing nature deficit disorder? (Are parents not modeling? Are we waiting for others to fix the problem?)
The literature also shows that the value parents have for childhood experiences outdoors is declining. Parents’ knowledge of nature is certainly declining. There is quite a lot of literature that shows that with each generation, the amount of knowledge about science decreases by about ten percent.
A lot of this is related to inactivity and the way peoples’ lives are becoming around screens rather than the out of doors. Their experiences are becoming vicarious, and they think they’ve seen everything. But there’s a difference between seeing things and experiencing things.
What has happened has been unintentional. It isn’t as if 30 years ago, 100 people got together and said, “Let’s screw up our kids.” But now we need to be intentional about changing it back. We need to get our kids–and ourselves–outdoors.
How big a factor is safety (or the perception of safety) on the part of children and parents, with regard to the children’s disconnection from nature and outdoor play?
“Stranger danger” is a huge thing, but statistics actually show that it is safer [to play outside now] than when I was a kid. You would not believe that, but if you look at actual statistics, rather than read the media, it’s true. If anyone is going to harm your child, it’s much more likely going to be a friend or relative than some kind of weirdo who steps out from behind a bush.
There’s also liability. A city builds a playground and says, “If Johnny falls and breaks his arm, the parents will sue us.” So safety and liability have had a huge influence on this conversation.
How do we combat that?
As I said earlier, over the last five to seven years, I have seen a real shift in the media regarding the value and importance of being outside and the recognition that free play is important. Now, we read articles about such things as a young child shouldn’t be put in front of a screen until they are at least five or six because it changes the formation of the brain. This kind of information is starting to come out, and it is slowly, but surely, having an influence.
We need to think about the role of grandparents, aunts, uncles and the extended family. Parents are so busy right now. It’s different from when I was a child. We used to have the one income family. One parent was home. You knew everyone on the street. If anything happened, you’d just walk up to any house and get help. The whole culture was different. Now, with the way families are, with tight incomes, grandparents, aunts, and uncles have a very important role. When I visit my sisters and brothers, I just grab my nephews, nieces, grand-nephews and grand-nieces by the hand and take them outside. I have had a number of them say, “Uncle Bob, because you did that, it was really important to me.” I wasn’t a parent; I was a mentor.
The Kaiser Family Foundation’s multi-year study of American children’s media use shows that children’s use of media has increased substantially. (From 6.21 hrs. daily in 2004 to 7.38 hrs. daily in 2009). Is media the real foe here?
I’m not a fan of the word “foe” or “enemy,” but technology is a huge factor. The amount of time spent in front of screens is astounding.
What do the numbers look like in areas where there is limited access to technology?
A lot of the research is around the U.S., Australia, and England, where people have the ‘privilege’ of being able to have this conversation. There are so many people in the world who wake up in the morning and wonder where they’re going to get their water or food for the day. I’m sure they are in a totally different situation. But in the ‘modern’ world, this is an issue whether you live in rural environment or deep in the city.
How important is unstructured (vs. structured) play in nature?
My understanding of the literature is that the play needs to be intentional to ensure the interaction happens, but once you’re there, the unstructured, roaming, free-ranging nature of the activity, the accidental stuff that happens when you’re just fooling around is fundamental. I’m no brain scientist, but my understanding [of literature related to the formation of the senses] is that sight and sound become so strong in children who grow up in front of screens, that the other senses get lost, and that is harmful to the formation of the brain. The best place to have all of those senses interacting, and playing with each other in an unstructured way is in the out of doors.
Does research suggest the need to approach nature deficit disorder differently, depending on the age of the child?
My experience is that the first step is just making sure children get outside, whether they are five or 25. The next step is to continue reinforcing that value. My hope for the third step is that these children will become so fond of and attached to the environment, they’ll become its advocates for the future.
I’m an advocate for nature. I spend my life doing advocacy work, and I do it because I’m in love with nature and it’s sad to see her being harmed. My hope is that that people who are being raised today will end up with the same kind of values and behavior.
What do you think should be the role of architects, landscape architects, engineers and environmental scientists in reconnecting children to nature? How powerful could people in these disciplines be the movement?
There is a very strong connection between the children and nature conversation and what you and your readers do. A lot of the principles around ecological restoration and resilience apply totally to human life. You need a healthy environment, but you also need healthy people. Healthy people come from a healthy environment.
Architects design urban areas. Landscape architects think about what the green spaces are going to look like. Engineers can build biophilic buildings. There is a very strong connection to the professions of your readers.
Moving this movement is not just about making sure there are good stories in the Globe and Mail. The only way we are really going to be successful is through a broader collaboration with people who are speaking to its values.
You have devoted a good deal of your career to public service. What do you think the role of government (at various levels) should be in this movement to connect children with nature?
Government has a very important role. On the national level, having messages and policies come out that encourage people to get outside are very important. People who work in the regional and local levels of government can really influence urban planning and ensure that our parks and protected landscapes are connected and functional. There is so much that people in government can do. I know that for many of my colleagues who work in government, this is a tough time. But find those one or two things you can do and plug away at them.
When I first started my career, someone said to me, “Your job as a government employee is to break the limestone so that things happen.” The way limestone breaks is to have a drop of water fall on it continuously. So when you walk to work every day, say to yourself, “What’s the one drop of water I’m going to drop on the limestone today?”
Any final words of advice for Leaf Litter readers?
This may sound simple, but it’s very important that your readers continue to do their work. The restoration and connectivity of the landscape is fundamental to the future. But it’s also important that in their day-to-day life, they grab their children by the hand and show them what nature is all about. Turn over rocks and leaves, and share with children your inner thinking and emotions about why you do what you do. What this world is desperately searching for is hope.
Before I read Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, as a biologist, I was in a pretty sad place about what was happening to the earth. I read that book and I said, “My God, that is what I can do!” Not only is it important to reconnect children to nature; it was fundamental to me because it gave me the opportunity to find hope again.