Helping city kids rediscover nature

Photo: Photography © Toronto and Region Conservation

For five days in July the meadows, woods, lake and wetlands at Lake St. George Field School were the outdoor classroom for 21 inner-city kids from the Toronto region.

For five days in July the meadows, woods, lake and wetlands at Lake St. George Field School were the outdoor classroom for 21 inner-city kids from the Toronto region.

Getting nature to help
The 14 girls and 7 boys were part of the Research and Innovation Technology Camp, a new project between the Toronto District School Board and the Toronto Regional Conservation Authority (TRCA). The camp was designed to connect academically "at risk" city kids in a nature setting and give them an opportunity to work alongside environmental researchers and scientists.

Lake St George is one of three residential field schools run by the TRCA and is just one of their schools registered as part of Ontario's Certified EcoSchools. The 120-hectare property, about 40-minutes drive from Toronto, is part of the ecologically significant Oak Ridges Moraine.

Aquatic friendships

On a Tuesday morning, TRCA instructor Nancy McGee explained the importance of monitoring the health of the lake. Before doing chemical tests of the surface and bottom water, the students must net fish to count and identify the species.

Together the kids stretch out the 80-foot net and after carefully folding it, help set it in the lake. Two girls in hip waders hold one end while Nancy and an assistant take the boat out, drawing the net back to the dock in an arc while other kids on the dock help to pull it in. The net is gathered with the fish trapped inside.

The bucket brigade carries the fish to tanks set up on the dock and the excited students collect around them, exclaiming, videoing, counting and generally marveling at the fish. Nancy shows the students how to identify the different species. When someone spots a carp leaping in the lake it becomes an opportunity to talk about issues of adaptation and invasive species.

Finally the students collect the fish in nets and carefully return them to the water. Nancy urges a couple of the more squeamish ones to hold a fish. "You want to do this," she encourages. "This is a moment". When they get the courage to cradle the slippery fish in their hands she snaps their pictures. For these students getting close to a fish and over their anxiety is a first step to experiencing nature.

Losing a vital connection
As children spend less and less time outside, educators around the world are increasingly concerned about the growing "nature deficit disorder," a term coined by author Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.

"We're in danger of having a whole generation disassociate from nature. We know what kids do: 44 hours a week plugged into electronic media, more time in the car, organized sports, all of that. Kids today can tell you lots of things about the Amazon rain forest; they can't usually tell you the last time they lay out in the woods and watched the leaves move," said Louv.

Variety of nature activities
The TRCA has been a long-time advocate for nature learning. For over 50 years it's been delivering programs designed to connect learners to their environment through fun and meaningful, hands-on exploration of local systems.

Scheduled activities at the camp range from getting a lesson from a University of Western Ontario graduate student on bat ecology and bat house to watching the stars at the David Dunlap Observatory. Children also take part in the daily routines for energy conservation, recycling, waste reduction and composting.

Whether it's spotting a toad on the path up to the dining room, identifying a plant on a walk through the woods, or looking through binoculars there's always somebody knowledgeable around to offer help and information. The organizers hope that, through a new awareness of their natural surroundings and by seeing how science and technology can be applied, the students will stick with science at school.

To understand the natural world is to care about its preservation.