A Glimpse from the Children & Nature Network International Conference

As Co-Leader of NatureKids BC’s Vancouver Club with Leslie Bol, I feel fortunate to have attended a day of the Children and Nature Network conference in Vancouver last week.  We had a great presence from NatureKids, with Executive Director Louise Pedersen, Board member and Vancouver Club Co-Leader Leslie Bol, and former Executive Director Kristine Webber (Kristine was a panel member of a session on addressing age-appropriate engagement in family nature clubs, see picture).

As a parent and as a club organizer, I love being outdoors and supporting families to get outside and have new experiences.  Before attending this conference, however, I hadn’t been aware of my role as part of a broader movement focused on strengthening the relationship of children to nature.  The conference deepened my own personal commitment, gave me food for thought, and inspired with many new ideas and connections!  This blog is a great way of sharing a few of my conference highlights and reflections with you. The full conference program is online at the Children and Nature Network website.

As I child, I spent a lot of time tracking amphibians with neighborhood friends in the wetland and bird sanctuary near our homes. We spent summer weekends walking in the trails around town or camping and fishing.  What motivates me is to make sure my children to have the time outdoors that I did, and more: more direct teachings on environmental values, a calling to environmental citizenship, a respect for and sensitivity to the Indigenous worldviews that sustained the land we conferenced on for thousands of years before colonization and industrialization.  The conference provided inspiration on all these levels.  A highlight was meeting Indigenous Knowledge Keeper, Hwiemtun, Fred Roland, who held a workshop on Xwaaqw’um, a Coast Salish cultural learning hub for children on Salt Spring Island.  He invited conference attendees, as Canada celebrates its 150th anniversary, to pause and reflect on the relationship-based principles and practices that have sustained Indigenous cultures since time out of mind.  I am awakening to the opportunity for a creative convergence between this movement and the reconciliation movement sweeping across Canada.  A big vision—but one that I hope can begin by sparking some conversations with our neighbours, with the people sharing the goals of this movement.

Importance of family rituals

One of my favorite presenters in the conference was play therapist and professor Anne Stewart of James Madison University. She invited us to awaken our hearts and consider our love for the places close to our homes, our need to feel safe and our need to explore—dynamics that continue for ourselves as adults while we strive to bring these experiences to our children in our roles as parents.  She encouraged us to create routines and rituals in and about nature with our families.  I am reminded of how at bedtime, my seven-year old daughter likes to ask me, “Who is your favorite animal?”  I always pause, smile mysteriously, and then announce with pride, “YOU!” She giggles in mock frustration, but this little ritual allows me to remind her that we are interconnected with and part of nature.  In these small acts the beauty and strength of a spiritual connection to our natural home can flourish.

Different models for facilitating the nature connection

It was great to learn that the NatureKids model of connecting children to nature through family-based learning is right on track with international best practices!  The presentations I took in shared that the program models that worked best were those that had positioned themselves as “convenors” or “facilitators” of getting people to enjoy the outdoors as social groups—families, friends, classes, clubs. Lots of time for unstructured exploration, lots of recognition for the relationship work we do with each other in nature, how inseparable this is with our experience of enjoying time outside. There’s learning and education too, but it seems to happen best when the program emphasizes facilitation rather than instruction.  I was excited about how this convening role could be scaled from the individual club level up to broader-based coalitions, and how this opened up exciting opportunities for collaboration—the Go Outside Colorado model is one inspiring example.  Another wonderful model was presented by Lais Fleury of the Alana Institute in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  She shared with us a creative collaboration with the Firefly Association that paired school children in urban Sao Paulo with Indigenous children in the Amazon rainforest for a year of distance learning based on building relationships and exploring nature-based themes.  It culminated in a wonderful event where the children were able to meet and celebrate together, enter into each other’s lives through friendship and shake off the othering that leads to alienation and stereotypes.  This struck me as a practical model that could work very well at any scale and is something I’d like to explore in the future.

Green time and screen time

Over lunch, I talked to Brittany, an Indigenous educator and mother living in the West Kootenays, and my friend Susan, a health professional and educator about screen time.  We had stopped by Dr. Mari Swingle’s table showcasing her new book, iMinds.  We had chatted with Mari about the influence of technology on children and families, and new research on the effect of technology on our attachments.  I admitted the guilt I feel about how my eight-year-old son gravitates to screens in his spare time.  We all commiserated.  It seems like something many of us are struggling with. We see that when our children are “connecting” to wireless, they are missing opportunities to connect with us, and connect with the natural world.  Yet technology is here to stay.  As parents, educators and health professionals, we have an important role to play in setting boundaries and facilitating meaningful conversations about how to use technology skilfully.  Susan and I made a commitment to read iMinds and discuss it together.

And finally, an invitation to belonging

There was a new tone to this conference compared to other environmental or nature-focused gatherings I’ve attended. A real emphasis on connection and experience, not simply knowledge, an invitation to the heart and the spirit, an inclusiveness that values our many individual ways of connecting to nature in the ways that feel right. As I left the conference, I reflected on how important it was to live from the place of belonging so intimately to the natural world we live in and to each other. It’s something I love best about NatureKids—everyone is welcome to be a part of the Club. A heartfelt thank you to the Children & Nature Network and all the conference organizers for convening this gathering, and warm thanks to Nature Vancouver for making it possible for Leslie Bol and I to attend.

Written by Barb Everdene.

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