“Go outside and play!” How many of us grew up hearing that from our parents? This phrase is wrapped up in nostalgia. New Westminster, like childhood, has evolved. What was once row upon row of single family homes is now a patchwork of busy streets with high rises and mixed commercial spaces alongside quiet, tree-lined streets with those single-family homes. Our children still hear this command, as they grow old enough to leave our condos and townhouses and hit the neighbourhood park. “Go outside and play” is as much about growing up in a single-family home, as it is about plain old growing up.
What did we do out there? I roamed the neighbourhood on foot and by bike, and explored the bush near my house. I built tents and forts in the yard. One glorious week, my cousin Wendy and I transformed our picnic table into a river boat and spent hours cruising the canals of England without leaving the backyard. My brother hunted “bad guys” in the woods and built terrible wooden cars.
In our modern cities how do we get our kids to engage in this style of free play? After all, condos don’t come with yards, sheds, basements, or attics. How do we let our children create and be messy without having the space to keep scrap wood and paint around just for the purpose of playing with it?
The solution can be challenging, but is not impossible, and 99% of the solutions don’t involve moving to a community where you need a car. In fact, many of the solutions can be found right here in transit-friendly New Westminster.
A major no-cost way to get outside is to go to the park! New Westminster has more than 40 parks suitable for play. Thirty minutes of outside time surrounded by trees and plants are all that’s needed. At the park, you can play in dirt, splash in puddles, climb rocks or trees, hide in bushes, or hunt for bugs—activities will help your kid connect with nature in a way that’s guaranteed to make them happy and dirty.
One great activity we’ve done to help connect our daughter with nature is borrowing tree identification books from the library and learning the trees in our local parks. Did you know there are over 30 kinds of cherry tree? We’ve learned the names of many flowers, and stopped to observe bees, bats, squirrels, coyotes, and birds in the city. We’ve taken the long way home and picked up enough sticks and flower petals to build a small house. Buckets of water and small objects such as leaves, rocks, flowers, and feathers are entertaining whether in the middle of a lush lawn or a small apartment balcony. We’ve planted flowers in small pots and raised mason bees. We’ve gone for lots of walks. We’ve made boats from peapods and sailed them in birdbaths, although a puddle would have worked just as well.
One great place for a nature walk is Sapperton Landing Park. While there, you can go on the dock to look for fish, herons, or check out the restored marsh areas. Lower Hume Park has great trails where you can learn to identify both native and invasive species. You can watch for fish here too—many an elementary school child has released salmon fry into our rivers. Glenbrook Ravine Park is a sheltered, hidden gem with a little creek running through it. Put on your boots and enjoy hours tramping through mud. Bring a book and relax while the kids explore on their own.
New Westminster Parks and Recreation offer programs to get out and explore such as Club Royale, Junior Club Royale, and Tot Explorers programs. Girl Guides of Canada and Scouts Canada is a great way for your child to connect with nature and the environment. You can take your kids to numerous free play and engaging activities. Recently, we’ve attended Spare Parts Adventures, Young Makers at River Market, and Arts to Go workshops. In the summer, playground leaders are at most of the major playgrounds in New Westminster, offering drop-in outdoor crafts and games.
More fun activities on our to-do list include building a bug hotel, going berry picking, painting rocks, carving spoons from chunks of wood (indoor friendly!), and creating art inspired by Andy Goldsworthy, a nature artist from Scotland. On rainy days, small thieves can steal pillows and blankets and turn them into forts almost anywhere.
The important thing is to let your child lead and make mistakes. Yes, they may slip on the steep hill, split their pea pod, cry when their boat sinks, or get frustrated when their blanket fort falls down for the eleventh time, but these moments inspire perseverance, imagination, and problem-solving skills. It can be hard to hang back and let your child be out of sight at a busy park, but this is when growth occurs.
You may have heard of ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’, a term coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods. Louv himself has said since publishing his book that he hesitated to use the term as “our culture is overwrought with jargon.”
Louv’s intention with publishing his book was to give parents a wake-up call that things needed to change and that children needed to get outside again in their most vulnerable developmental years. He argued that a child who does not get enough exposure to nature may become more anxious, less able to self-regulate, and lack an understanding of their place in our surrounding environment.
But the book—and the concept—are not without criticism.
Dr. Elizabeth Dickinson, a faculty member at the University of North Carolina, argues that it is a ‘misdiagnosis’. She suggests that modern culture’s disassociation with nature has occurred gradually over time, rather than very recently, and warns that the “cure” is not simply being immersed in nature, rather to examine one’s relationship with nature.
Regardless of semantics, free play opportunities and outside time can go a long way for both adults and children. It can be hard to make time, but added together, even brief moments will help us establish a stronger relationship with nature.
So, yes, give your child a bucket of water knowing they will likely spill it. Let them create for the purpose of creating, and don’t worry about the finished product. Neither of you need the pressure of doing everything right. Let your kids get dirty, break things, and shed some tears while you grow with your child as they learn they can do things on their own. Ultimately, everyone will be better for it.