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  • November 08, 2018

Nature: Infusing the natural world into the everyday spaces of childhood

A recent study detailed how children's independent mobility decreased through four generations of a family living in England. As a child in the 1920s, the great-grandfather regularly walked unaccompanied up to six miles from home. Today, the great-grandson travels primarily by car, and does not roam more than 300 yards from home. This family typifies the experiences over the last century of many families living in industrialized countries where children in general have lost contact with the natural world.

In Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, author Richard Louv uses the term nature deficit disorder as a description of the consequences of disengagement with nature. The book's powerful arguments have galvanized an international children and nature movement.

Free play as a critical dimension of healthy childhood is a long-held axiom of progressive educators but has only recently been recognized by the scientific/medical community. At the same a slew of books has appeared restating the value specifically of outdoor play.

Outdoors is where children can really move enough to stay physically fit, keep calories in balance, and engage with nature. Vitamin G ("green") is the essential, compelling ingredient according to environmental psychologist, Frances Ming Kuo. Kuo reviews the rapidly  growing, international body of research, and argues that a strong relationship exists between daily exposure to nature and healthy human development - throughout life, and for different cultures and socioeconomic levels. Outdoor play and informal learning in nature can now be seen as crucial to children's preventative health factors and as a self-motivating means of assimilating knowledge about the natural world. Engaging with nature supports the development of all children, regardless of their level of ability, and helps them discover themselves, physically, socially, and emotionally. Kuo underscores two built environment design strategies: bringing nature to people and bringing people to nature. 

As described in the NatureGrounds program, with a little ingenuity, "planting pockets" can add play value and be created around and between play equipment  large enough for shade trees, shrubs, decorative grasses, and perennial plants. Arbors of climbing vines and comfortable seating can add shady, social nooks. The growing trend towards school parks requires the space to be designed for family use after school hours. Using hardy, native species, this type of naturalized playground is not difficult to design or to manage. It just requires a commitment to something different. Kids Together Playground in Cary, NC, is a prime example of combining built equipment with planting pockets. Behavior mapping studies at this universally designed 3/4 acre family recreation facility show that naturalized areas combining nature and manufactured  equipment enjoy the highest use by children and families, and curving, sinuous pathways, seating areas, grassy settings, and hillside mounds also provide destinations for the multigenerational, multi-cultural users who seek satisfying family-centered experiences.

Pedestrian and bicycle pathway networks (sidewalks, alleyways, greenways, urban trails, etc.) have huge potential for bringing children to nature as part of daily routines. However, historically the needs of children and families were not addressed, so that use of most greenways and trails by these groups is low - an issue now being acted on by American Trails, PlayCore, and the Natural Learning Initiative. Through the Pathways for Play program, which addresses the need to design playful pockets along a pathway to engage children and families, we can help them learn to love, appreciate, and therefore conserve nature in the future.

The natural world must be integrated back into children's everyday free play environments, while maintaining common sense safety norms. It is crucial not only for the health and well being of children and families, but for the very preservation and conservation of our natural resources.

It is clear that there is no other choice but to discover new ways to deliver high-quality outdoor environments for children compelling enough to motivate them to acquire healthy, fearless, outdoors-in-nature, active lifestyle habits.

"If we are going to solve the problem of sedentary childhood, we have no choice but to refocus intense professional attention on design for outdoor free play in everyday naturalized settings."
-Robin Moore

This article was written for Words on Play®: A treatise on its value by leading play scholars™ by Robin Moore, Dipl.Arch, MCP, ASLA, Director, Natural Learning Initiative, College of Design, North Carolina State University  Visit Robin Moore's bio.

Sources for this article can be found on pages 26-27 in Words on Play®.

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