“Let Nature be Your Teacher”

“Come forth into the light of things. Let nature be your teacher.”

– William Wordsworth (from The Tables Turned)

It’s no secret that the “connecting children to nature” movement is strong and growing quickly. There are wonderful examples of schools and preschools that are embracing it fully. Forest Schools have actually been around a long time, starting in the mid 1900s in Sweden and Denmark. (And frankly, wasn’t the forest our first school, as a species? But I digress…)

While this is a more recent development here (the first opened in 2008), we do have them now in Canada.

Forest School Canada

These schools aren’t everywhere, but educators are increasingly recognizing the value of IMG_20150917_113925749nature-based, hands-on learning experiences for children.  If you need convincing of the benefits of nature, check out the rest of my blog.

As a completely immersive forest school isn’t always possible, practical, or even desirable in some cases, many schools are starting to incorporate natural play spaces and elements into their existing grounds.

For example, at one Early Childhood Education Centre, the staff just introduced a whole series of natural elements into their playground, including logs and stumps to balance and climb on, a “fire pit,” plenty of mulch, sticks to build with, and pine cones, stones, and other loose materials to manipulate. Staff asked for donations of hostas and phlox to plant around the edges.

IMG_20150917_113950899 IMG_20150917_114008226 IMG_20150917_114110154 IMG_20150917_114117898 IMG_20150917_113935083

Not only do the children get hands-on contact with natural elements, but the design also employs the theory of “Loose Parts” which proposes that creative play is greatly enhanced when children have a variety of materials to manipulate.

Here is a post that explains the theory of Loose Parts (first introduced by architect Simon Nicholson) and their importance in creative play.

Loose Parts

As the play area IMG_20150917_114125230_HDRat this particular preschool was already in a location with beautiful tall trees and plenty of shade, this was a natural transition. While there is a new industry that revolves around designing and building sophisticated and expensive “natural playgrounds,” many smaller changes take relatively little time and money (when compared to traditional equipment). Professional consultations or installations are not always necessary and many of the materials can be donated or collected for free.

“The most effective kind of education is that a child should play amongst lovely things.”


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The other day (the other day), I met a bear (I met a bear).

The best way, they say, to see large wildlife in Algonquin Park, is to look for a long line of DPP_0066cars parked on Highway 60. This has been my experience in 30-plus years of camping in Ontario. The line of cars will almost always lead you to a photogenic moose. Moose often hang out in the lower marshy areas beside highways.

While there are always warning signs about bears in the campground, and clear instructions about food storage, I have never seen one up close, until now.

Our family was camping at Pog Lake a few weekends ago, and we saw a total of three black bears. (No, they weren’t in a cottage, and they weren’t indignantly commenting over
broken chairs and consumed porridge. However, one WAS a baby bear.)

One swam across the Madawaska River 30 meters in front of us (this where I learned to paddle, and where we are now teaching our own little ones). He didn’t seem affected by our presence, just climbed onto shore, shook himself like a giant dog, and proceeded on to his grocery trip at the campground.

We saw two others by the side of the road. One was pulling a harvest from roadside bear cropbushes. It didn’t seem to mind us, and just kept plucking. The other (the baby) was just running across a footbridge. My pictures had to be taken with my phone through the window of the car. (You don’t mess with bears.) (Picture to the right…not bad, considering!) Unfortunately, my husband’s camera was in the trunk.

It was really exciting to see these animals in the wild (from a safe location of course). I feel fortunate that my kids are still able to experience this sort of thing. However, the reasons the bears are in the campgrounds are not so positive.

We found out from some other paddlers that the bears are suffering this year from a lack of berries. The late frost in spring killed off the buds, leaving the bears to venture closer and closer to people, roads, and campgrounds in search of “Pic-a-nic baskets” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cyEFNQFWBtY).

The fact that bears (even black bears) are increasingly spending time in campgrounds is less than ideal both for them and for campers. People are sometimes irresponsible with their food and garbage while camping, making their campsites very attractive to hungry bears. Human food isn’t good for bears (heck, most of it isn’t good for humans), and they can form a dependency on it. Bears can become aggressive if they feel threatened, and “nuisance bears” sometimes must be relocated (or worse).

Over the past few years, I have also noticed the absence of the squirrels that typically chatter loudly and indignantly throw pine cones at our tarps. Apparently their food sources have been altered this year as well.

I confirmed both of these changes (more bears, fewer squirrels) with the people at “Friends of Algonquin Park” and they told me that both animal populations have been affected by food availability.

As we tear down more habitats, build new roads and mess with the climate, it is clear that animal patterns are going to change. Perhaps the changes this year are just a part of natural fluctuations. Perhaps not. Perhaps they are part of a bigger pattern of change.  I just don’t know.

I’d love to believe that Algonquin Park is immune to these sorts of things, a place where nothing changes year after year. Of all the places I know, Algonquin Park is the one that has changed the least since I was a child. But, change is inevitable.

It was still pretty amazing to see the bears.

Please see my other articles on camping at Algonquin:




Oh, and if you don’t know the song, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fMzmSnQjEdY

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Run, Run, As Fast As You Can!

I used to hate running. No, I mean, really, really HATE running. I hated gym class generally (being a nerd, I was always picked last for teams), but the running unit was particularly bad. In high school, I remember one day, we were forced to run laps around a muddy track, in the rain, when I was feeling less than well. If teenage resentment alone could kill a gym teacher, it would have happened that day.

In those days, if you saw me running, you probably should have started running too, as something big and scary was probably chasing me. I even disliked people who ran, with their perky little ponytails, and perfectly coordinated stretchy outfits.

If you had told me back then that I would take up running, I would have wondered, first, where you got your nifty time machine, and second, who you had me confused with.

Then I had kids, and something invisible inside me switched on. It told me to run, as fast and as far as I could, away from the ear-splitting tantrums, the pee-soaked bathroom floor, and the battery-operated toy piano with the demo-mode that only plays Christmas carols all year round.

Fortunately for my husband, the switch in my brain also contains an override function which is activated by some sort of motherly instinct and love for my family. So, I come back.

I really enjoy it now. I get quiet time to myself. I don my stretchyshoes outfit, pull my hair up in a ponytail, grab my earbuds, and take to the streets with the masses of identical moms. I suspect many of them share the same motivation.

Exercise is one of the best ways to combat anxiety and depression. Most people know that exercise releases endorphins, which trigger positive feelings. It improves sleep, battles countless physical ailments, including some cancers, heart disease, and even some infectious diseases, and hey, look what I just found: it can even improve memory and concentration. Who couldn’t use more of that?

And, of course, I’d be willing to wager that most moms would like to lose a few around the middle. I also get to run through a lovely greenbelt, and take advantage of all the additional benefits of greenspaces (you can find half a dozen other blog posts by me on this topic, like this one.).

I have never been healthier. People change, habits change, abilities change. I’m not a fast runner, and I don’t go very far. People often pass me, (people pushing strollers, 80-year-olds, particularly ambitious turtles), but I don’t mind. I have no ambitions to run a marathon, or even a half marathon for now. However, a casual 5K at this point is quite manageable, and that’s 5K more than I could run 20 years ago.

So, take that, 15-year-old self!  I’m more than twice your age, and look what I can do that you couldn’t!

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Simply Messing About

One day, Mole, fed up with spring cleaning, ditches his dust rag and heads out to the river bank. There, he encounters Water Rat, and they head out on their famous adventure. As Water Rat proclaims: “There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats” (Grahame, 1908).IMG_20130625_184218

Kenneth Grahame, inspired by the English countryside, and particularly the riverbank of the River Thames, published his bestselling classic “Wind in the Willows” in 1908. Yesterday, my son happened to pick up my copy (beautifully illustrated by Robert Ingpen) off the shelf for me to read as a bedtime story.


….now for a detour across the pond….

My husbandBig Ben Close and I returned this week from a tour of the UK and Ireland. We were blown away by the beauty of the architecture, and heard the echoes of centuries and centuries of history in the stone walls. We visited castles, cathedrals, pubs, universities, ancient graveyards and museums. We listened to Scottish bagpipes, Irish whistles, and British accents, and loved every minute of it. Beautiful countries indeed, but I wish we had been able to Big Benspend more time in the countryside, and less in the big cities. For example, the part of the River Thames we saw was that which runs under the Tower Bridge, past new skyscrapers, and over to the parliament buildings and Big Ben (or maybe the reverse direction,  I’m not sure). There were spectacular views, but the boat that took us through this stretch was crowded and noisy.  Tower Bridge

It can’t be compared in any way to Mole and Rat’s experience “messing about in boats” on the Thames. On the other hand, in Cambridge (UK), it was green and quiet, and there were dozens of students offering punting tours on the River Cam. I would have loved to go on one of those boats but we didn’t have time. They looked much more my speed though and were probably close to Grahame’s vision. (Unfortunately we didn’t get any good pictures there.)

…and back to Canada…

Today, I took my little ones on one of our favourite excursions. I grabbed my tour’s complimentary daypack, threw in 3 pairs of crocs, a few apples and water bottles, and we headed out to a small stream in a forest nearby.IMG_20150730_152900056

“All was a-shake and a-shiver – glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated” (Grahame, 1908).

We had a lovely time, splashing our way up and down the stream, slipping on rocks, dislodging ourselves from thick mud, and pointing out minnows and frogs. Then, I sat on the bank and watched the boys get entirely soaked, much to the amusement of passersby. I was told that not all parents allow their kids to do these things anymore. But, I feel very lucky to live in a place where it is still possible. No boat to mess about in this time though.

There is someIMG_20150730_154246793_HDRthing very magical about moving water, isn’t there?

One day, I would love to return to the UK, take one of the punting tours in Cambridge, and really see the countryside and riverbanks that Grahame was writing about.


Grahame, K. (2007 edition, first published 1908). The Wind in the Willows. Blue Heron Books, Vancouver, B.C.

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Groundhogs are my 14th favourite animal

My two sons got into a heated debate.

The younger pronounced that his favourite flower was a dandelion. The older son disdainfully pointed out that dandelions were everywhere, and weren’t worth liking. Little brother passionately defended his choice, and this was answered with eye-rolling. Youngest has also declared a consistent love for robins, an ever-present bird in the spring and summer here. Again, not an older-brother approved choice.

IMG_20140523_154112A number of years back, big brother decided that groundhogs were his 14th favourite animal. When asked to list the first 13, he got to three or so before giving up. Fourteen may have (and I’m just guessing here) been an arbitrary number. This particular son also has a strong affinity for turtles (ranked #1), and this was more than definitely brought on by a much-adored family member and his rather large collection of amphibious figurines. Turtles have appeared in more than one school project, and countless artistic renderings in our house.

“Favourites” are very important among young children. Questions about favourite colours, animals, foods, games and TV shows are at the heart of early experiments in conversation (and practice for the dating scene?). But, one son appreciates plants and animals for their ubiquity and the other for their relative rarity. This made me wonder about preferences and how we form them.

As adults, do we show any particular trends? What draws people to nature in the first place? Does forming early bonds with nature, and increasing familiarity with particular species increase our affinity for the natural world as a whole?

The idea of “Biophilia” was developed by Dr. E.O. Wilson, and generally describes an innate human love for living things. However, this love varies drastically, and the variations may be due to experiences with nature.

Many researchers have demonstrated that people prefer familiar landscapes, and that increased exposure to landscapes leads to increased preferences (Balling and Falk 1982; Bixler, Floyd et al. 2002). Children also tend to define their “ideal” places by what they know (Machemer, Bruch et al. 2008). Indeed, my own doctoral research also pointed to the idea that children prefer spaces that they understand, and that look familiar.

But, those are landscapes.

I wasn’t able to quickly find much research on “favourite animals.” One Australian study pointed out the fact that companion animals often rank as favourites (cats, dogs and horses are common favourites), and that this IMG_20130504_170059preference is based on perceived intelligence, attractiveness and lack of threat (Woods 2000). This would confirm the idea that familiarity breeds preference. The study also pointed out that this information (knowledge about people’s animal preferences), can have implications for tourism and wildlife planning, and public perception. (For example, we want you to think bears are important and interesting creatures, but please do not feed them!)

In my own experience, I find the effect of familiarity breeding preference to be strong. That is the primary reason I started the “Featured Species” blog.  Identifying new local wild species is like making new friends.

So, little brother, you go ahead and love your dandelions and your robins. You’re supposed to.  Big brother, I can understand your perspective too. There are merits to both. I also find joy in unusual new discoveries, and the sight of the occasional groundhog popping up from a hole.

(I tried to get a picture of a groundhog, but they can be surprisingly quick!).

What’s your favourite animal?


Balling, J. D. and J. H. Falk (1982). “Development of visual preference for natural environments.” Environment and Behavior 14(1): 5-28.

Bixler, R. D., M. F. Floyd, et al. (2002). “Environmental socialization: Quantitative tests of the childhood play hypothesis.” Environment and Behavior 34(6): 795-818.

Machemer, P. L., S. P. Bruch, et al. (2008). “Comparing rural and urban children’s perceptions of an ideal community.” Journal of Planning Education and Research 28: 143-160.

Woods, B. (2000). “Beauty and the beast: preferences for animals in Australia.” Journal of Tourism Studies 11(2): 25-35.

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Lawnmower Man 3:  A Suburban Horror Story

IMG_20140616_192533After I finally convince my toddler to settle for his nap, I step out to my garden at the back of my suburban home. The flowers are in full bloom, the sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and the wind is gently rustling the trees in my sanctuary. I take a deep breath and catch a whiff of Linden blossom. Ahhh… perfect. I will meditate outside toda…


Of course. Our backyard neighbour, who we have (not so affectionately) labelled “Lawnmower Man,” is partaking in his favourite daily pastime.  He is promptly joined by:




Three doors down from Lawn Mower Man live the people whose backyard has been under extensive renovation, complete with big trucks, earth moving equipment, and every imaginable power tool, for the past 3 months, 9-5, every day.

True story.

“Noise Pollution. “ The term sounds somewhat untangible, rather non-existent, as if it were invented by cranky people like me.

But it turns out that noise pollution has real health consequences. The effects are wide-ranging and vary from increased stress, to hearing loss, to sleep deprivation, to (believe it or not) things as serious as heart disease and increased blood pressure http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/1307272/.

Children may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of excessive noise. Fetuses, premature babies, and children with particular disabilities can suffer irreversible harm when exposed, and noise has even been linked to cognitive impairment in children. Children are also unable to distinguish harmful volumes, and their behaviours (concerts, headphones) can contribute to excessive exposures.



Research on the health effects of noise pollution have led to rules, regulations and guidelines around the amount and timing of loud noise. The WHO published guidelines on this topic. http://whqlibdoc.who.int/hq/1999/a68672.pdf

But, one can only limit noise so far. City life goes on. Streets must be paved, and buildings, built. For those of us who choose to live in the busy world of lawn mowers and renovations, construction, and road work, we simply can’t avoid these things. When all of this noise is a regular occurrence in a “quiet” suburban neighbourhood, I can’t even imagine living in a busy urban area. Downtown Toronto? No thanks!

Now, some noise isn’t necessary. Things like incessant lawn mowing, and idling vehicles can easily be controlled. Frustrated by the noise, smell and pollution produced by gas-powered mowers, my husband and I got a manual push mower, and never looked back. They’re not difficult to use, and we’re not sure why more people don’t. I really wish Lawnmower Man would invest in one.

Every rumble or buzz of a machine is a loud reminder of the necessity of finding quiet, green places.  So, I use every opportunity to grab my children, my husband, and my rattled nerves and escape to local conservation areas. We can usually still hear traffic from a distance, but it is IMG_3778substantially muted. And, every year, when we take a camping trip to Algonquin park, we bask in the splendid silence, punctuated only by rustling leaves, chirping birds, and the occasional squirrel scolding us for disturbing HIS peace and quiet.

Peace Out!






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The Other Blog

For those of you who haven’t yet (yes, that’s you), please consider subscribing to my other blog “Featured Species”:  featuredspecies.wordpress.com

I just wrote a new post, and I’m not going to keep putting them up here!




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