Something wonderful happened in Regina this summer. And COVID was largely to blame.
It’s a mid-September morning, and I am having a socially distanced visit with Shannon Chernick and her sons Graham (10) and Damon (12) in my Regina backyard. As soon as they arrive, their entire clan is drawn to the Giant Hyssop in the garden and its requisite swarm of happily foraging bumblebees. We chat about bees and plants and strawberries bearing fruit in September, before sitting at the patio table and getting down to the real reason for our gathering. I want to learn more about this amazing family and the local nature-loving phenomenon they have created: Wandering Wednesdays and the “Get Outside” Outdoor Adventure Guides.
Over the past several months, Shannon and the boys developed a series of self-guided, family-friendly hike guides to encourage area residents to explore green spaces in and around Regina. New guides were released each Wednesday, creating just enough anticipation week to week to keep their fans clamoring for more. These Wandering Wednesdays were delivered through Nature Regina, an organization that aims to foster a greater appreciation of all aspects of the natural environment. And they were a hit.
When asked how the Outdoor Adventure Guides came to be, Shannon laughs. “Well, it was Damon’s idea but he doesn’t remember!” Damon grins and nods in agreement.
As it turns out, early in COVID, and after some restrictions were lifted, Shannon and Damon needed a mood boost and headed off on a “Mom and Son Hike” at Regina’s A.E. Wilson Park. Damon had such a great time, he asked if they could take pictures of the things they were seeing and share them with other families. As part-time Youth Engagement Coordinator with Nature Regina, Shannon was wrestling with how to increase involvement of young people in their organization… and during a global pandemic no less. “This was a definite light bulb moment for me,” she confesses. Pictures were taken and the very first Outdoor Adventure Guides were developed: Spring Neighbourhood BINGO and Explore an Island in the City.
While Chernick and her kids spearheaded the program, and produced all 20 guides, they are quick to share credit for the success it’s become. As her kids asked questions about the things they were seeing, Shannon needed information, and fast. “I didn’t know what anything was!” Thankfully there were capable Nature Regina members happy to help Shannon and the boys identify the wildflowers, birds, and insects of water, land and sky they were observing.
There’s a certain brilliance to the guides, as Shannon anticipates barriers to outdoor adventure that families may perceive. Some of this comes from her own experience: “As a young mom, when I looked into visiting local trails with a baby in a stroller and a two-year-old, it was important to know what we were getting into”. Guides spell out all those logistical details often overlooked, things like stroller accessibility and restrooms (most closed now due to COVID). For those who haven’t grown up exploring wild spaces, first forays into nature can be intimidating. Shannon helps put minds at ease.
Some of the guides begin with “It just looks like a big grassy field”, as though Shannon can already hear the voices of uncertain kids and parents as they pull up to a new location, and a new-to-them experience. She’s quick to follow this with instruction to “Look closer!” Sure enough, once families start exploring and making use of the adventure guides, a simple hike or visit to a greenspace is transformed into a scavenger hunt. And it turns out, there’s lots to see. As ten-year-old Graham beams, “there’s always something different”!
In this time of COVID, when families are together and many activities cancelled, this series of Outdoor Adventure Guides has clearly filled a need with Regina residents, and this reconnection of families to the outdoors is a pattern that’s been observed across the continent. Says Richard Louv, journalist and author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder: “Ironically, the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, as tragic as it is, has dramatically increased public awareness of the deep human need for nature connection, and is adding a greater sense of urgency to the movement to connect children, families and communities to nature”.
Standing as proof of this, uptake of the Outdoor Adventure Guides has far surpassed anyone’s expectations. Nature Regina Facebook views soared from a few hundred per post to over 6000, almost overnight. Public support for the program and the overall mission of Nature Regina has manifested itself in other tangible ways, with marked increases in donations and new memberships.
And oh my, the volunteers.
Tapping into the decades of collective naturalist knowledge of Nature Regina members was just the beginning of the volunteer support Shannon and the boys received. Following a series of exploratory visits to the McKell Wascana Conservation Park, Shannon was so excited about the possibilities at the site, she decided to offer a live in-person event “Get Outside! Outdoor Adventures: McKell Wascana Conservation Park Edition”. To make this happen, she needed volunteers to lead small, socially-distanced family groupings. Ten individuals immediately came forward. In the end, the event was attended by 48 individuals in 18 family groups, a success by all measures.
The approaching school year brought with it another quandary… and a possible opportunity. Due to concerns over COVID, an estimated 10% of Regina students have enrolled in remote e-learning programs this fall. Nature Regina, in partnership with Nature Saskatchewan and Sask Outdoors, counted on e-learner and homeschooling families finding value in a weekly, in-person outdoor education program. The resulting Wednesday morning Kids’ Club teaches kids about science through hands-on nature activities and is delivered in both English and French. Each session has filled* within hours of online registration opening; families are responding well to outdoor education offerings.
And once again, from the midst of the downsides of COVID appears a possible upside: nature is good for kids, and in particular, their learning. Richard Louv is far from the only one hailing the many benefits of “Vitamin N” to children. Several studies have demonstrated the role of unstructured outdoor play in physical, emotional, social, and cognitive well-being, and there is a suggested benefit in the management of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
Nature helps kids learn in a surprising variety of ways. Restoring attention, relieving stress, increasing concentration, student engagement and interest, and promoting social connection and creativity; these are just some of the benefits shown to follow children from outdoor to classroom environments.
Spending time in nature has even been found to improve children’s confidence, and Shannon has witnessed some of this transformation in her own kids. During the first Kids’ Club program, she, Graham and Damon were leading a family through the Royal Saskatchewan Museum’s Native Prairie Garden, a place they have volunteered and know well. Damon interrupted at one point “Do you mind if I add something, Mom?” and proceeded to deliver a series of botanical facts Shannon didn’t even know he possessed, with confidence and enthusiasm.
As well as the observed psychological, physical and cognitive benefits of children’s connection to nature, for conservationists there is another upside, and possibly one with greater urgency. Ecologists, environmental educators, and nature writers have long stressed the importance of individuals’ connection to nature in fostering an environmental ethic. Efforts to conserve habitats and species are unlikely to succeed unless people care, and those who no longer experience nature directly, are unlikely to care enough. By providing children with opportunities to explore and learn in nature, we are inspiring the future stewards of our natural world.
When asked about favourite moments from their summer outdoors, Graham is quick to respond. “Seeing the robin’s nest on the Secret Path to a Bird Habitat hike!” In this dense, understory community along the north shore of Wascana Lake, a robin had built her nest at eye level. The Chernicks were able to quietly slip by her on their walk out, and when she was off the nest on their way back, spied the four characteristic blue-green eggs. Damon excitedly tells about a visit to Condie Nature Refuge north of Regina, when he and his brother spotted a fawn lying in the grass nearby. These are the experiences that stay with a kid for life.
During this unusual and unprecedented summer, the Chernick family and their Outdoor Adventure Guides shone a light on the value of family time in nature, but also on the critical importance of having access to wild places for us all to explore. For health, well-being and enjoyment, and for our continued and collective belief that these places are important, we need not only urban parks and playgrounds, but also preserved natural environments that attract children to play and explore.
And that’s something all families, both human and wild, are sure to benefit from.
*All Public Health recommendations around COVID safety are followed during these programs. Family groups participate in different sessions with a maximum of 15 people in each session. Social distancing, hand sanitizer and masking when 6 feet cannot be maintained are all measures implemented to allow Nature Regina to balance safety with having fun outside with others.