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Photography, Our Children, and the Nature Crisis

Some of Dennis Minty’s fondest memories are of camping trips with his children, but lately he’s noticed the alarming trend of youth spending far less time outside. In this thoughtful piece, Dennis reflects upon what will happen to our world and our health if we aren’t connected to nature.
Young girl watching ducks

© Dennis Minty

Dennis’s granddaughter Lucy, 2008

In my sixty or so years of practicing photography (I hope to be good at it soon), it has always been a part of my family life. That’s because, in addition to being a photographer and biologist, I am also a father and a grandfather.

Dennis Minty and granddaughter Jessie

© Antje Springmann

Dennis and his granddaughter Jessie, 2008

Starting when our kids were toddlers, we took them camping and boating for weeks at a time. In our twenty-foot, seaworthy wooden boat made by my cousin Max, we would load all our needs for three weeks or so, and then find an uninhabited island or empty cove in coastal Newfoundland where we could set up camp.

Children woman tent by water Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

Camp on Swan Island, Notre Dame Bay, Newfoundland, circa 1980

Much of our protein on those trips came from the sea—fresh codfish, mackerel, mussels, and whatever else made an appearance in the local waters. The kids built forts in their imagined worlds, hiked, sang, caught crabs and sticklebacks, read books, built campfires, helped cook, combed beaches, played games on rainy days, and basically ran free. Boredom was never an issue.

Children playing in water Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

Dennis’s son Adam and daughter Sarah playing in the shallows

Our kids are grown now and have their own youngsters with whom they do similar things. When we talk of these days, they say that these experiences were among the most fundamental in their growing lives. Raising my children this way, with a healthy dose of wild nature, is the most important thing I have ever done.

Young girl driving motorboat Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

Dennis’s daughter Sarah learning to drive the boat, circa 1985

An Alarming Trend

If you are a parent, a grandparent, a teacher, or are otherwise engaged with young ones, you will likely have noticed a change in children’s behaviour over the past generation or two. There is a marked and continuing decline in the amount of time children spend outdoors. One American study found that children between the ages of eight and eighteen spend about 7.5 hours per day in front of screens.

In another, the researchers reported that American children under twelve spend 97% of their time indoors. A boy who was involved with the study said, “I like to play indoors better, ‘cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” Based on my time as a youth, which was about 97% outdoors, I find this shocking. Yet the trends for adults are similar.

Many will say, “Get over it! That’s the new normal.” True, no doubt, but that does not necessarily mean the new normal is a healthy one.

Stock photo children using laptop computer

© jooinn.com

Vitamin N

The intuitive idea that exposure to nature helps sustain good health has been around forever, but only in the last decade or so has it been supported by evidence-based research. And there is plenty of it.

For example, a 2019 study found that children who were raised surrounded by nature had a 55% lower incidence of developing mental health issues as adults. The positive connection between mental health and nature experiences appears to be as strong as its negative connection with poverty or a family history of mental health disorders. Think about that! If a new pharmaceutical medicine brought this type of result, it would be headline news!

Young girl climbing tree red rainboots

© Dennis Minty

Dennis’s granddaughter Jessie climbing a tree, 2011

Based on a range of studies I’ve read, here are some of the evidence-based benefits of spending time in nature (also known as Vitamin N):

  • improved emotional wellbeing and stress relief
  • reduced depression and anxiety
  • lower blood pressure
  • improved sense of well-being
  • reduced mental fatigue and increased concentration
  • reduced ADHD symptoms
  • improved child development
  • reduced aggressive behaviour
  • improved self-confidence
  • improved social connection
  • improved cardiovascular health
  • reduced dementia
  • reduced obesity
  • improved sleep
  • faster healing
Hiker admiring waterfall trees stream

© Dennis Minty

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature officially designated connecting children with nature as an international priority. It says, “the child-nature connection and environmental literacy should be considered as fundamental elements of children’s cognitive development, as well as their psychological and physical health.”

Yet we are moving in the very opposite direction! Our collective tech addiction is a huge factor in what is described as the “Nature-Deficit Disorder,” a phrase coined by author and journalist Richard Louv. It is not an official psychological diagnosis, but rather a way of describing the trend that we are witnessing and its impact on the minds of young people.

The more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we need to achieve balance. Nature gets us out of our heads and into our hearts. When we get out, our senses are active, we’re breathing fresh air. We stop the negative ruminating machine.

As summarized by one academic paper on the topic:

“A growing body of research from disciplines such as psychiatry, ecology, psychology, planning, medicine, health, leisure, and recreation is demonstrating that the natural world is essential for human health.”

Experience in nature encourages the idea that we are part of something larger. We desperately need to subdue the arrogance of dominance and instead show humility, understanding that bees and spiders, elephants and rhinos have a claim to this earth too. Time spent in the natural world has transformative power. It can shift people away from anthropocentric attitudes, towards the realization that humans are simply one part of nature.

Hiker mountain rocks water clouds

© Dennis Minty

The Role of Youth

The trend that we are spending less time in nature, not more, contributes significantly to eco-anxiety: anxiety about what we are doing to our planet. It may not be in the psychology manuals yet, but it is real. I feel eco-anxiety personally and when I think of the world of my grandkids, I am truly worried. I cannot imagine the anxiety that today’s youth might feel. Eco-anxiety is likely to spiral upward as the effects of global climate change continue, along with the decline of biodiversity.

Polar bear mother cub Churchill Manitoba

© Dennis Minty

The anxiety of youth is personified by my most recent hero, Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish woman who spoke so clearly and eloquently at many important gatherings of world leaders and elsewhere. In 2018, when she was sixteen, she said:

“For twenty-five years countless people have stood in front of the United Nations climate conferences, asking our nation’s leaders to stop the emissions. But, clearly, this has not worked since the emissions just continue to rise. So I will not ask them anything. Instead, I will ask the media to start treating the crisis as a crisis. Instead, I will ask the people around the world to realize that our political leaders have failed us. Because we are facing an existential threat and there is no time to continue down this road of madness.”

We have to change.

Individuals and families can and must do a lot, but it’s going to take governments at all levels to make very tough, top-down decisions too. To do that, they must find the political will. Political will is generated by the people, even by our children and our youth. I say, “Bravo!” to all those who are raising their voices. We need you.

School strike Nain Labrador

© Dennis Minty

Adventure Canada guests and staff participated in a Fridays for Future school climate strike with community members in Nain, Nunatsiavut, Newfoundland and Labrador, 2019.

The Photography Connection

For me, nature and photography are inseparable. I immerse myself in nature through photography. With my camera, I experience my strongest way of seeing because I'm more observant, I see more deeply, and I become more actively engaged with my surroundings.

I’m in my seventy-fourth journey around the sun, but when I am out making pictures in nature, I feel the same as I did when I was twelve. I’m excited, filled with wonder and curiosity. I’m amazed at the patterns, absorbed by the light. I am ageless for a few hours at least.

Dennis Minty with camera

© Antje Springmann

I am convinced that staying connected to nature can help with the aging process, if not slowing it down, then at least causing it to matter less. If I’m unable to tackle the same physical challenges as I once did, that’s alright. It gives me more time to ponder and experience things with less action and more savouring. When I’m not out shooting, I have a rich storehouse of memories all because of my direct experience.

Inevitably I see myself as a tiny, new part of the bigger, ancient system. I feel in my bones that we are part of something larger and I am humbled by it. Whenever I show my work, it is my strongest hope that people will feel a bit of wonder, connection, respect, and yes, love for our world.

Birds soaring sunset cliffs Cape Spear

© Dennis Minty

Cape Spear, Newfoundland, the most easterly point of North America

But here’s the reality check. We photographers and film makers are failing to make much difference. All the fabulous nature series, like the great works of David Attenborough or Edward Burtynsky, as wonderful as they are, are not doing it. Awareness is not doing it. We are long past the need for awareness. Individual actions like recycling and changing light bulbs will not change the system. Now we require courageous, determined, and forthright political leadership, as scarce as that is.

Together, we also wield important economic power that influences corporations and shareholders. For example, major financial investors like banks, influenced by the prevalent concerns about climate change, are shifting away from supporting the fossil fuel industry. As they should!

I have hope in our kids. They don’t have to be old enough to vote to make a difference. They can, and do, influence their parents. When the media displays their concerns and their courage, our children can and do affect politicians, institutions, and corporations.

young girl grassy field Islay

© Dennis Minty

Islay, daughter of Adventure Canada CEO Cedar Swan and Expedition Leader Jason Edmunds, 2018

A Rallying Cry to Get Outside

So, here’s the call to action: get outdoors with your children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and other young people in your life. It will do you a world of good, and them too. If you do this enough, you can affect a very necessary and beneficial cultural change. Both you and they will care more about the one world we have.

Woman and boy grassy field

You will grow to love nature. You will be appropriately disturbed when anything threatens it. Our young people will be smarter, happier, and healthier. They will value family, relationships, free time, fair play, food, forests, water, clean air, and wildlife. They will become better citizens and decent human beings.

Lastly, a camera in the hands of a young person can create a link between their tech interest and their natural surroundings. It will improve their observation, engage them more deeply, make them more curious and creative, help them grow a sense of wonder, and help them truly feel that they are part of nature, not separate from it. You could make this happen.

About the Author

Dennis Minty

Dennis Minty

Photographer, Wildlife Biologist

Dennis has been working with Adventure Canada since 2002. Dennis’s path—from his small island roots in Twillingate, Newfoundland to his current career as a photographer and eco-tour leader—has taken him through more than three decades of local and international work.

For him, nature and photography are inseparable. Dennis immerses himself in nature through photography and seeks to inspire in the viewer a deeper connection with the natural world. Dennis has authored nine books on subjects such as environmental science, his home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and his photography.

To see more of Dennis' work, visit his website.