Gavan Watson, ‘nature guy’, looks at kids’ sense of wonder about the outdoors

The kids at Camp Arowhon got more than they bargained for when Gavan Watson, “the nature guy”, returned to work at the Algonquin Park summer camp two years ago: they became research subjects in his master’s thesis for York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES).

Gavan WatsonThe camp hires university students who are outdoor experts to teach its custom-designed programs in outdoor education, experiential learning and camp activities for families. Watson, who had worked at the camp for five years, is an experienced birder and former outdoor education staff person with the Toronto District School Board and comes from a family of naturalists. He jumped at the chance to return to camp, which he loved as a kid, to teach and do research.

Right: FES graduate student Gavan Watson

Watson, now an FES doctoral candidate, says his love of nature is in his genes: his father is a biologist at the University of Guelph and his mother is a teacher, artist and gardener whose father opened the first outdoor education centre in London, Ont. After spending a year teaching at the Toronto school board’s Scarborough Outdoor Education School in Kearney, Ont., working at nearby Camp Arohwon was a perfect opportunity to get outside for the summer to research children’s perceptions of nature and wild “animal others.”

His interests also led him to a conference on animal rights at Brock University in February where he gave a presentation on his work and was quoted in a newspaper story explaining why the more inclusive term “animal others” is preferred to just plain “animals’. “It’s a nice way of saying human and non-human,” he told the reporter.

Watson’s interest in children’s experience of the outdoors is more than academic. It comes from his own cherished experiences of learning about nature from his parents and moves by the former provincial government to close outdoor education centres as a cost-saving exercise. His work is intended to demonstrate the power of the outdoor experience to create a sense of wonder that can’t be found in traditional classrooms and the importance of campers being able to build a relationship with place.

“It wasn’t necessarily information the campers needed,” he says. “It was experiences.”

For their daily trips to explore the forest, Watson encouraged his campers to take along bug nets, turn things over (and back again), even to gently touch snakes and salamanders and, of course, release them. As he observed the children’s reactions and interviewed them about their experiences, he found that most, especially the younger ones, keyed into the animals. “It was their entrance into the whole natural world,” says Watson. “There was an identification with the fact that this was ‘something that was living and other than myself’.”

And it wasn’t only the “cute” Disney-fied chipmunks or squirrels that caught their attention. One young explorer told Watson how excited he was to see a frog, which he knew only from a book, living in its place of lily pads and wetland. “It’s a way for them to start engaging in larger ideas of ‘otherness’ and the importance of the natural world,” he says.

Watson hopes to mount a public education project with his supervisor Professor Leesa Fawcett, PhD coordinator for FES, and her colleague Bridget Stutchbury, Canada Research Chair in Ecology and Conservation Biology, whose study of endangered forest song birds was featured in the Nov. 1, 2004 issue of YFile. The project, aimed at adults and children who watch birds on Toronto’s Leslie Street Spit, will help Watson gather information for planned research on how people become birders and, through an interest in bird-watching, come to appreciate the environment.