Nature Deficit Disorder: How the Outdoors can Change Your Life

I will not take credit for the title of this article; for those of you unaware, there was a book by Richard Louv published in 2005 called “Last Child in the Woods” which talks about Nature Deficit Disorder and how it’s affecting society today. For the purpose of this article, I would like to discuss my opinions on the matter and how you can use the outdoors to benefit your life in almost every aspect.

This idea first came to me when I decided to give a presentation for a group of high school students at a conference here in London. The premise of the conference was to talk about environmental issues and outdoor education. Originally I was going to do a presentation of various life hacks that I may have come across that could be applied to an outdoorsy setting (and also because life hacks are a poor way of approaching life). As I began designing the presentation, I decided to change my focus completely and start to focus on the benefits that the outdoors can offer people, based largely off of my own experiences. Here is what I came up with.

I was fortunate enough to attend Lakefield College School, a school built on Lake Katchewanooka, which is about 2 hours northeast of Toronto. The school placed a huge emphasis on education of the whole person, and the underlying basis for this was a curriculum heavily invested in the outdoors. Instead of running laps for gym class, I went canoeing, snowshoeing, camping, cross-country skiing, and even got to experience a high ropes course. These experiences trained students not only in the physical rigours of these activities, but they also helped to develop numerous soft skills including leadership, teamwork, and pushing your comfort zone.

Overview of the LCS campus. Lots of lake and forest to explore!
Overview of the LCS campus. Lots of lake and forest to explore!

I came to the school in grade 9, and, like many of my fellow students, I knew essentially no one at the school. It was the one very difficult thing about starting high school fresh. You were tasked with making friends in one of the most intimidating social environments in existence, and all the while getting used to a whole new way of learning subjects. It also didn’t help that I was short, scrawny, and had glasses. Since the hierarchical structure of the male social system is determined largely through the physical make-up of it’s participants, I wasn’t exactly going to be team captain any time soon. Over time, I settled in and remained patient, and just did what I do best: learn. I learned a great deal from my three years of outdoor education at Lakefield. Once my body caught up with my mind, I underwent a major transformation, and by our Grade 12 trip to Algonquin Park, I was leading my group. I could definitely elaborate a lot more on the exact nature of how I personally underwent a major growth and transformation, but everyone in high school does, so that hardly makes for a unique article. My purpose is to illustrate how the outdoors specifically will change your life for the better.

For me, this was high school gym class

1) The outdoors challenges you to be better. A lot of the skills you learn in the outdoors will be new experiences to you, so it reinforces that sense of effort and learning you experienced way back when you were little. It reinforces that you should never stop learning, and how enjoyable it is to learn new skills. One of these new skills may just become a new passion of yours.

2) The outdoors provides the opportunity for experiences, which are the best way to learn and to encourage personal growth. Instead of spending your money entirely on possessions, why not invest a little in a canoe, or camping equipment, or a trip to hike the Adirondack Mountains? Much research has been done on the benefit of purchasing experiences versus purchasing products, and the untamed, raw nature of many outdoor experiences has a lot more staying power than a new TV or new car ever will. A new car or new TV also can’t change who you are for the better.

This is a hell of a lot better than going to the grocery store
This is a hell of a lot better than going to the grocery store

3) The outdoors introduces novel risk on an increasingly safe and predictable world. This is why we are so obsessed with news stories of death and destruction. This is why TV shows and movies who have protagonists that are messed up or “bad” are so popular (Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, and The Walking Dead, to name a few). We need an escape from our dull world, but unfortunately, the TV only gives us a temporary sense of that since we didn’t experience these events first hand. Get outside and experience some real risk for yourself. Scrape your knee climbing a tree. Jam your thumb hammering down your tent pegs. Get covered in mud when you’re spelunking. To quote the Miss Frizzle: “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!”

4) The outdoors teaches independence. Many people my age are still incredibly reliant on their parents or other friends for basic things in life. They can’t read a map, they can’t cook, and they can’t do basic functional tasks. When I see this, all I think back to is everything I learned when I was camping with my parents as a child, or when I went camping with groups at Lakefield. Yes, I had parents or teachers around in case something went horribly wrong, but for the most part, the honus was on us to take care of ourselves. If you didn’t, there was that sense of risk and danger that helped balance things out and keep you focused. The best way to learn is by doing it for yourself, and nothing teaches that better than the outdoors does.

5) The outdoors introduces how a novel appreciation for nature can transcend barriers. I did an undergraduate degree in biology, but some of the people I know with the greatest passion for outdoors have no scientific background whatsoever. Don’t think that you have to be a science nerd in order to gain an appreciation for nature. I’m by no means a hippie, but I will always preach that a simple appreciation for how to identify different species of plants and animals, how they interact, and what impact we can have on them will go a long way and serve you well throughout your life. It could even save your life one day; you never know.

6) The outdoors can fashion you into a totally new person with the soft skills it teaches. Leadership, respect, responsibility, openness to new experiences; indeed all of these can help you become a better person. I wouldn’t be the same person today without these skills and values. I was a very shy and quiet kid in high school; now I’m the exact opposite. I love taking the lead with groups now, where I would never have been comfortable with any such thing before grade 11. You also have to respect the different values and opinions of your group when faced with difficult decisions that could potentially endanger someone in the outdoors, and these can be extrapolated to decisions you will have to make in the workforce one day. Many great leaders attribute their time in the outdoors to shaping their character.

7) The outdoors unites you with many like-minded people and offers you common ground on which to connect. Some of the more “outdoorsy” teachers I knew at Lakefield often brought their spouses along on trips, who were quite outdoorsy themselves. Relationships are built and strengthened upon shared experiences and philosophies, and if the outdoors is your thing, you’ll probably be happier with someone who shares that viewpoint. You both appreciate a challenge, you aren’t afraid to get messy, and you’re open to new things. This isn’t limited to relationships, either. Outdoorsy trips are a great place to meet like-minded people.

Camping brings people together
Camping brings people together

As more and more students are pursuing post-secondary education, their futures will usually lead them to settle in an urban area. This is causing a major disconnect from the outdoors and all of the benefits it offers. Instead of getting wrapped up in the trivial matters of city living, why not commit to improving your life and start investing more of your time pursuing outdoors-related ventures? I am by no means advocating that you have to become the next Bear Grylls, but instead of doing something boring and predictable, make your life a little more exciting by experiencing something in the great outdoors. Your life will be better because of it. Make sure you come back with a few bumps and scrapes, too; no one said it had to be glamourous.

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