Interacting with nature boosts mental health, and School District 47 (Powell River) is investing in getting students in the woods, on the water and in the garden. 

This summer, when he’s not teaching, you’ll find Ryan Barfoot hanging out in the woods with his own kids, age 4 and 6. They’ll be at the beach, or paddling on a lake, fishing on the shoreline, or making bows and arrows. Barfoot, the school district’s coordinator of outdoor and ecological learning hopes to see you out there, too. It’s not just about fun – it’s about mental health.

“So many youth are living with depression and anxiety, it’s chronic,” Ryan says, noting that local teachers see the impacts of these challenges at school – as they impact behaviour and learning. “Not to be simplistic, but when you get outside, get some exercise, breathe fresh air, and shake hands with your neighbours, it can do amazing things for your mind. I think connecting with nature is a big part of fixing what ails us.”

Certainly, research backs up Ryan’s points. Most North American children are outdoors for fewer than 30 minutes per day – and spend nearly seven hours in front of screens. Nature Deficit Disorder, as identified by American writer Richard Louv, is a shorthand for human disconnect from the natural world; it manifests as depression, focus problems, and stunted creativity. His book, Last Child in the Woods (2008) blames concerns about safety for removing children from the woods. Instead, he said, we place children in constantly-structured programs in school and after school. His research shows it’s making them sick.

Ryan’s own background makes him confident in the positive connection between nature and learning. A wilderness guide since he was 16, he has brought youth into nature in Alaska, Mississippi, Hawaii and throughout Canada. At Queens University, he took a certificate in experiential learning alongside his teaching degree. He also holds a Master’s in ecological learning. Ryan has worked for Parks Canada, and nature non-profits around the world; he sits on the Boards of the Outdoor Council of Canada and Classrooms to Communities.

With Ryan’s help, School District 47 has risen to the challenge of getting students outside and in to nature as part of their school day.

Parents and caregivers can help their children and teens prepare for the academic year ahead by boosting their mental health. “Take them to wild places and reconnect with each other in the context of the lakes and forest,” advises Ryan. “Spend quality time as families in nature.”

Some of the Nature Programs Offered by the District Include:

  • LEAP
  • Coast Mountain Academy Powell Lake
  • Outdoor Learning Center School Gardens
  • Eco-Immersion
  • Grade 7 Eco-Adventure Camps Food Literacy Program Classrooms to Communities
  • Marine Debris Project
  • Kelly Creek Outdoor Adventure Program (KCOAP)
  • Outdoor Classrooms
  • Mountain Bike Clubs
  • Teacher Professional Development
  • K-12 Scope and Sequence in
  • Outdoor Learning

Want to learn more? Contact SD 47 (Powell River)
4351 Ontario Ave, Powell River | 604 485-6271 |

This story has been reproduced with permission from SD47 (Powell River)