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Will increasingly indoorsy Canadians answer the call of the wild?

Why We Wrote This

Nature seems to be playing a decreasing role in many people's lives. But research suggests that our need to connect with the natural world is no less important today than it was for our forebears.

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
Young children climb up a hill at Forks of the Credit Provincial Park in Caledon, Ontario, and slide down as if they were sledding.

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Canada is a country defined by its natural beauty, be it rolling rivers and falls, snow-topped mountains, or vast forests. But while Canadians highly value that nature, they also are finding themselves increasingly removed from it. A recent survey published by the Nature Conservancy of Canada shows that the nation is actually staying inside more than ever. In the survey, 94 percent of Canadians say they are aware of the benefits that time in nature brings. Yet 74 percent say it’s easier to stay indoors, and 66 percent say they spend less time outside than in their youth. That mirrors the results of a study published last year which looked at nearly 12,000 adults and children in the United States to understand the profound changes in the American public’s connections to nature and wildlife. “From a sociological standpoint, it’s becoming normal not to have contact with nature. Even when people say it’s really important, and those same people express how little time they spend outdoors, when you ask how satisfied they are, many are satisfied,” says David Case, whose firm coauthored the report. “We don’t have time to interact with nature, and we’ve kind of gotten used to it.”

A recent weekend at Forks of the Credit Provincial Park, 45 minutes north of Toronto, is a picture of autumnal bliss. Children inspect caterpillars on the hiking path and chase after the tufts of fiber attached to milkweed seed as families trek through the woods.

No one needs to tell them about the rejuvenating benefits of spending time outdoors, and yet even this crowd says they don’t get outside as much as they want or should.

“I think it becomes more of a hassle to get outside,” says Daniel Kouto, who lives in Toronto. He and his wife work full-time, so once a weekend they make a purposeful effort to take their dog and 1-year-old son out of the city to a forest, lake, or trail to “try to get some air.” But it’s often easier to just stay home.

That disconnect sits at the heart of a study published by the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) this fall, which shows that the nation that identifies deeply with the “Great Canadian Outdoors” is actually staying inside more than ever.

In the survey, carried out in partnership with polling firm Ipsos, Canadians say they feel happier, healthier, and more productive when they are connected to nature, with 94 percent saying they are aware of the benefits that time in nature brings. Yet 74 percent say it’s easier to stay indoors, and 66 percent say they spend less time outside than in their youth.

That mirrors the results of a study published last year which looked at nearly 12,000 American adults and children to understand the profound changes in the American public’s connections to nature and wildlife.

Researchers concluded that humans have the same innate affinity to nature and the living world (a theory known as biophilia, popularized by American biologist E.O. Wilson in the 1980s) as they’ve always had. But they’ve come to accept their looser bond with it, says David Case, whose firm, DJ Case & Associates, co-authored the report.

“From a sociological standpoint, it’s becoming normal not to have contact with nature. Even when people say it’s really important, and those same people express how little time they spend outdoors, when you ask how satisfied they are, many are satisfied,” he says. “That is a really dangerous signal ... We don’t have time to interact with nature, and we’ve kind of gotten used to it.”

He says only a shift in thought and expectations can restore that essential connection.

That nature is good for you is no surprise. We grow restless as youngsters cooped up inside. We can actually feel the calming effect during a quiet walk in the woods. This summer, the University of East Anglia in England gathered evidence from 140 studies involving more than 290 million people across 20 countries, from Britain to the US, Spain, France, Germany, Australia, and Japan (where shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” is popular) and confirmed a slew of health benefits, like stress and anxiety reduction, associated with being outside.

In Canada, the NCC kicked off a talk series at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto this month. The inaugural one was appropriately titled “Nature & Me, Relationship status: ‘It’s complicated.’ ” Dan Kraus, senior conservation biologist at the NCC, spoke about the incongruity of a population that prides itself on its pristine lakes, rugged mountains, and vast expanses, but is increasingly sitting behind desks and staring at computer screens.

The danger, he said, is that if modern society can feel disconnected from nature, in reality we are just as dependent on it today as our ancestors. We feel withdrawal symptoms without it, because there is no substitute for the smell of a forest, the sound of a rushing stream.

Many parents worry their children aren’t as in touch with the outdoors as they once were. Even though Nelson Reis and Ilda Coimbra grew up in downtown Toronto, they describe a childhood spent outside. “We didn’t have iPads. We had to entertain ourselves outside,” says Mr. Reis.

Now they have to be more intentional about it – like their Sunday outing to Forks of the Credit. “It’s not as spontaneous as it once was,” says Ms. Coimbra, as their 6-year-old son collects leaves around them. “Parents have to push their kids outside more.”

But like so many other facets of life, parents might be wise to take cues from their kids too – and recognize that nature doesn’t have to be associated with solitude or remoteness, but can be as easy as “out the door.”

During one of the interviews carried out in the “Nature of Americans” survey, a social scientist from the project was asked whether there was a time outdoors she’ll never forget. She said “yes” and her mind raced – to the time she spent with her family in the Florida Keys, at Everglades National Park, and the eagle viewing they did.

When the scientist’s 10-year-old daughter was asked the same question, she answered “yes” too. “And then she goes on to describe a time that she and her brother and a friend went out in the backyard and made this little city with sticks and leaves,” Mr. Case says.

“We define nature and contact with nature as this faraway place,” he says. “And yes, vast areas of wilderness are important for a variety of reasons but just as important is what’s out the back door, what’s down the street.... Kids already understand it. They don’t think of it as far away.”

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