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His eyes are bright and alive with amazement as he holds the now still creature cupped in the palm of his hand. My 9-year-old nephew, Myles, looks up at me and shouts: "I did it!? He is staring at a motionless (and still very much alive) frog that he has just 'hypnotized'. This is a trick I taught him to do, while out exploring in the woods on a mostly sunny afternoon. Watching his delight, I wondered to myself: Do kids still do this stuff anymore?

I think this gets at the question of where kids are spending most of their free time today. The answer, unfortunately, is not outside. Sure, you can still find plenty of kids on the soccer pitch, or fielding balls on the baseball diamond, and even hanging off the jungle gym in the schoolyard. But unstructured time spent exploring in nature, creating your own adventures, is no longer the norm. Why is this happening?

Many are quick to point the finger at video games. And to be sure, too many sunny afternoons have been lost to Minecraft and Mario and his colourful friends, but I think blaming video games is misguided. I grew up with video games, loved playing with them, and still spent plenty of time messing about in the forest near home, following the creek just to see where it would take me. I think the real culprit is fear.

Parents today seem to be afraid to let their kids get dirty and explore their neighbourhoods, whether supervised or not. There are legitimate and reasonable concerns that parents may have when children are playing out-of-sight, but the reality is that adventures in nature are remarkably safe. And as far as dirt goes, it washes right out at the end of the day, with any remaining stains happily ignored by your kid.

While exploring outside, my nephew came alive with a sense of wonder for this world and appreciation for mystery, and yes, even magic. He couldn't wait to share his new skill with his friends at school.

Think about where and how you played as a kid. Bare feet dangling in the quick and cold rush of a creek, or standing in a meadow amongst blades of emerald grass as tall or taller than you are, while dragonflies dance about your head, or seeing (and hearing) for the first time a woodpecker doing its work, are all experiences that ignite the imagination of children and lead to so many discoveries, both inside and out. This is what some in the nature education movement call 'learning without learning'.

Being mesmerized by a spider as it tries to hide from your gaze as you move in, as close as you dare, to its web, can spark questions hours and days later: Where does a spider go in the winter? And then there are the stories that your child will just be bursting to tell anyone who will listen. Time out in nature will give your kid the detailed and magical (there?s that word again) content they need to engage in the beautiful and necessary art of storytelling. This is a cool thing to watch. The back and forth between kids when one has a great story to tell. The excited rush of words is often met with a smile and, I've done that too-its so fun!

Make no mistake, your children will encounter things that they are certain they are afraid of, and they will collect a few scrapes and bruises along the trails, but this is life. Time spent in nature is beautiful and dirty, boisterous and quiet, colourful and plain. It is always many different things at once, and it is always real. And in a world that is immersed in and worships the virtual, this is something for which we can all be grateful.

Mark Yearwood is the founder and Executive Director of Kids In the Woods Initiative-K.I.W.I., a nonprofit organization dedicated to reconnecting kids to nature, through adventure-play and mentoring in Toronto's Rouge Park. (www.kidsinthewoodsinitiative.org)



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