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.
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?
Photo Credit: Judy Molland