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Why Kids Should Be Allowed to Run Wild in Nature

Why Kids Should Be Allowed to Run Wild in Nature

Do you have childhood memories of playing outside? Did you leave home on summer mornings and stay out until dinner time? Or perhaps you and your friends had a special outdoor place where you played and explored.

Kids now are much less likely to have such a personal connection with nature. That’s because these days their outdoor time is, generally speaking, sporadic and highly supervised.

Some adults, wanting children today to have the same outdoors experience that they had as kids, are working to change that. “Nature play areas“ are still a new idea in the U.S., but they are increasingly common in Europe: set-aside areas where kids can go off trail, climb trees, create sculptures from natural materials, play with water and mud, indulge in all kinds of creative play, with minimal adult supervision.

In other words, these are places that, unlike parks and playgrounds, offer opportunities to interact with the environment rather than leaving it untouched.

Last summer, I was lucky enough to see a so-called “Wild Zone” in action at an open space near my home.

I was especially intrigued by the creation of a teepee (see above). With no adult direction, a group of boys and one girl worked together to collect the wood, erect the teepee, and finally decorate the inside of their structure with carefully placed grasses and leaves.

Matthew Browning, a graduate student at Virginia Tech, wants to take this idea a step further, into the U.S. National Parks.

He doesn’t like it that in many parks and other public lands, kids are told by rangers, parents or teachers what not to do: don’t leave the trail, don’t climb trees or rocks, don’t move any rocks around, don’t pick any flowers, don’t build any forts or dig holes. Sometimes they are instructed not to yell or even talk too loudly.

Instead of this negative approach, Browning wants every National Park to have its own nature play area.

As Emma Marris writes in Slate:

Browning imagines this shift as even more than the creation of roped-off venues for independent childhood experience with nature. He imagines rangers trusting visitors with a message a bit more complex than a blanket “Don’t touch!” Imagine a prominent sign or a notice on park maps that would give kids and parents a little context, he says: “Here are some really common flowers that we don’t want in our park. Your kids can pick bouquets of these. Here are some pine cones that you can collect in the park.”

As he points out, there are 640 million acres of public land in the U.S. Surely we can spare of few of them?

An added benefit is that children who spend lots of unstructured time in nature before age 11 are much more likely to grow up to be environmentally minded adults than kids who don’t.

This has been documented in several pieces of research, including a 2010 study in the journal Children, Youth and Environments, which found that most people who ended up dedicated to nature and conservation had a childhood filled with unstructured play in nature, some of which “was not environmentally sensitive by adult standards; rather, it included manipulation of the environment through war games, fort building, role playing of stories in popular children’s adventure books and movies, and the like.”

This makes perfect sense. If children don’t actually have that kind of hands-on connection to nature, how can they possibly care about it?

What do you think? Should children be free to run wild in nature?

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Photo Credit: Judy Molland

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119 comments

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11:24AM PDT on Jun 14, 2014

Gosh, Yes! I'd love to see more children playing in nature rather than playing inside video games.
I read an article just the other day that most cases of ADHD are misdiagnosed. The actual cause is a lack of exercise. Kids definitely need play areas like what's been described.

3:03PM PDT on Jun 10, 2014

thank you for this informatiion

11:54AM PDT on Jun 8, 2014

Thank you for sharing.

8:42PM PDT on Jun 7, 2014

I spent my morning at a park where the visitors didn't use the park so much as abuse it. It doesn't take much to destroy wildlife - riverbanks with no plants because they've all be trampled, broken tree branches, no wildlife to speak of, trash everywhere.

There are plenty of reasons to respect natural areas in every respect. It only takes one person going "off trail" to make other people think that it is acceptable to do so as well, ruining it for everyone else. And I might point out that this park also had more than one playground area specifically designed for climbing and playing. I'd guess that at least 50% of the parks I've ever visited already include play areas in all sorts of sizes, shapes, and styles.

Just because this post's author doesn't like the rules at her local park doesn't mean that we should stop protecting wildlife, including the plants and trees that this author thinks her children have a right to kill.

4:19PM PDT on Jun 6, 2014

Thank you.

11:42AM PDT on Jun 6, 2014

Thanks for sharing!

9:28AM PDT on Jun 6, 2014

I love this idea. I grew up with a wooded area close by. We spent all our time in there fighting the Brittish and searching for Lions, Tigers and Bears. Then there was the brook where we built dams and little swimming holes for our dolls. My dolls were not frilly girly girls but adventurers. No adult supervision, and no pervs. I wish all kids could experienced this kind of play.

Laughed at Joseph's comment and never realized that yes, of course with that kind of natural setting how could we have become anything else.

6:02AM PDT on Jun 6, 2014

When I was a kid I was running wild in nature, and You better believe me!

5:54AM PDT on Jun 6, 2014

Absolutely - kids should be able to run around in nature!

1:33AM PDT on Jun 6, 2014

Seems to be a possible task - fence in 2 or 3 acres near a campground, provided it has a variety of areas, and let the kids loose! If dogs can have their own playgrounds, there is no reason kids can't have theirs, too.

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