A few years back, I had the opportunity to take a nature walk with a group of preteen boys and was completely unprepared for their reaction. As a girl who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, the woods behind our house was our playground, with crossed log see saws, “mile high” tree houses, imagined native encampments, treasure dig sites, we did it all. Imagine my surprise when these kids complained the entire time about how “Dumb, boring, and stupid” the walk was, and how they “really wish they could have brought their electronic devices to make it more fun.“
The juxtaposition of my childhood feelings toward nature and theirs is frightening. With the US Census bureau showing 82% of the population living in urbanized areas, (compared to 50.5% worldwide) and population growing to 316,225,000, with a .75% growth rate over the last 12 months, it is not difficult to imagine the nature spaces that I loved as a child, and that are in our lives today being squeezed out in the future to make room for growth. We recently witnessed the discord caused in Turkey when the last green space in Istanbul, Taksim Square, was slated to be replaced by a shopping mall. What a sad loss for nature.
We’ve all heard the axiom, “The best defense is a good offense.” In the case of preserving nature, our best defense is ensuring that today’s children love and value it, and therefor grow up wanting to protect and preserve it. The boys on my nature walk could have cared less if the trees they saw were on the forest or on their screen. After all, if you need to know what an oak leaf looks like, isn’t that what we use Google for? A survey done by BBC wildlife magazine showed how 700 children surveyed were unable to identify natural items as common as an oak leaf or daddy long legs. Less than 12% could identify a frog. This to me is nothing short of mind blowing. I guess I’ve always just assumed that children value nature as a play space as much as I did. I think it’s a common assumption of many as we build nature play spaces that become havens for adults , but remain widely unused by the children they are intended to attract, unless a playworker is involved. If you build it, they will NOT necessarily come.
So how do we create nature experiences that children find enjoyable, and in doing so, help reverse the desensitization? I firmly believe that kids who don’t enjoy being in nature have never had the opportunity to do much outdoors. If simply taking them there isn’t going to work, what else can we do?
Family Game day in the out of doors! - Kids love family outings and games, and taking binoculars, maps, magnifying glasses, compasses, and collection boxes to the woods is a great way to create a family adventure. Ask the kids to play “I spy” with the binoculars, teach them to navigate the map with the compass. If there’s an opportunity, go to the site early and hide something the family has to find. Create adventure. Keep a journal. I can remember my grandfather telling me a “pirate fort” used to be in his backwoods and he’d send me off with a small trowel to dig for treasure. He hid pieces of colored glass, old costume jewelry, small coins, etc. before my visits (which I didn’t know until I was 14) and I would spend hours playing pirate with my sister, digging for the “lost treasure” they had left behind. It’s still one of my fondest memories of childhood. If you own a public nature space, consider employing a naturalist and/or playworker to lead adventures in the space.
Mixing nature into environments they use - If you build a playground, incorporate nature, and if you create a nature area, be sure there are opportunities for play. Sounds simple enough, but its still amazing to me how many playgrounds are built under the “cat box conundrum” namely removing all vegetation around the area, erecting a playground, surrounding it with a square box of surfacing, and voila, looks just like a playground set in the center of a cat box! There is no reason to cut down healthy trees that can provide natural shade, and no reason that natural elements can not be chosen and added to complement the area in the same way that slides and climbers do. Think of tall grass mazes, trees with cones to provide loose parts, natural elements to attract butterflies and birds. Play and nature together are powerful tools for creating a fondness for the outdoors.
The same hold true when you reverse the model. Nature trails can benefit from playful stops along the way to break the journey into smaller parts for children, to add intriguing stops and activities, and to create an air of mystery as children and families wonder what is coming up next!
There are several resources to assist with maximizing play experiences in nature. For design, I highly recommend NatureGrounds, Designing Play Environments that Integrate Manufactured Play Equipment with the Living Landscape, which illustrates in text, imagery, and model environments, ways that we can integrate both elements into a play environment that promotes higher use, along with greater appreciation for the outdoors. The photography is stunning, and the references to the online database that shows zone specific plants for their play value is invaluable.
For infusing pathway networks with play and creating trails that children love, check out Pathways for Play: Infusing play into pathway networks to encourage active lifestyles for children, families, and communities. The section on trail typology that addresses designing paths that stimulate play through a sense of adventure, exploration, and discovery is fascinating, as is the entire book.
Both guidebooks were completed with the research, documentation and manuscript preparation of the Natural Learning initiative, College of Design, NC State University, and Pathways for Play also featured the input of a robust advisory committee from a variety of trails disciplines. Both books are complimentary to anyone who requests them.