Playing It Smart!—Land&People

Twelve-year-old Izzy Miller spends three hours every Saturday volunteering for a native-plant restoration program in San Francisco’s Presidio National Park. One of his favorite things about this activity is watching the lizards that inhabit one of the work sites. “It’s funny to be planting and see the lizards scuttle around when you pull out a plant they were hiding under,” he says.

Lizards and kids used to go together like plants and soil. But these days few children get outdoors as often as Izzy and his sister, seven-year-old Clara Bean, do. Their parents, Jennifer Durand and Steve Miller, have taken them outside every day since they were born, and both kids play outside during much of their free time, in their backyard or in neighborhood parks.

To most people over thirty, this may seem unremarkable. At one time, most American childhoods were spent running around backyards, streets, vacant lots, pastures, woods, or nearby wild places. Chris Giorni, executive director of Tree Frog Treks, a nature and science enrichment program, recalls his own childhood in San Francisco: “In the old days—and I mean the old days, like the seventies—you’d leave the house, you’d go roaming around in the neighborhood or the park, and you just had to be home before the streetlights came on. In just one generation the way kids spend their free time has completely shifted.”

Today many factors conspire to keep kids indoors, yet a growing body of research indicates that the shift away from unstructured outdoor play is detrimental to healthy child development. Free play—especially in nature or at creative playgrounds—is essential to cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development.

Many experts have called attention to the issue, most notably author Richard Louv, whose best-selling 2005 book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (recently reissued in a revised edition) has been translated into six languages. “Passionate memories of a childhood spent in nature are nearly universal,” Louv says. “It doesn’t seem to matter what somebody’s politics are or religion is. These memories are something we share in common. Except for younger people.”

Stuart Brown, a neuroscientist and president of the National Institute for Play, says that various factors have contributed to the demise of childhood play in nature. One is the perceived risk to children who are outside without adults, a perception derived from high-profile media stories about child abductions, which in fact are relatively rare. Another trend is that “free time” has become an oxymoron for many children, whose nonschool hours are packed with organized, achievement-oriented activities. Other contributing factors include the shift from rural to urban living, an increase in single-parent households or households in which both parents are employed, and a drop in multigenerational households, which leaves fewer adults around to keep an eye on kids as they explore nature.

At the same time, land development is claiming more and more of the close-to-home natural places where children used to play, and many urban kids simply do not have access to a natural park or playground.

“You have kids now who are consuming the indoor world of video games, Internet, and television for an average of four to five hours a day, and spending on average just four to five minutes each day outside in unstructured play,” says U.S. Representative John Sarbanes of Maryland. With Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Sarbanes has co-sponsored the Reed-Sarbanes No Child Left Inside Act, which would invest $500 million to strengthen environmental education nationwide.

The Reed-Sarbanes bill is only one example of the momentum building to get more kids outdoors more of the time. From nonprofit organizations to state, regional, and federal programs, a wide range of players are trying to reconnect children with nature and hold back the detrimental affects of nature-deficit disorder. Among nonprofits, the Children & Nature Network—chaired by Richard Louv—is spearheading education on the topic, offering practical advice to parents, teachers, and group leaders. The Trust for Public Land’s Parks for People initiative is supporting the effort by working to build close-to-home parks and playgrounds, especially in cities, so that every child has a place to play.

Nature, The Best Place to Play

Underlying all this activity is the growing understanding that play is not just fun but is also profoundly important to raising children who are physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy. “Research on the brain demonstrates that play is a scaffold for development, a vehicle for increasing neural structures, and a means by which all children practice skills they will need in later life,” assert the authors of a 2002 report by the Association for Childhood Education International.

Psychologists use the terms “free” and “unstructured” to refer to play that is not part of an adult-directed organized game or activity. During free play, children determine the agenda, moving from activity to activity as external stimuli or their imaginations dictate. This kind of play is more likely to occur in nature, which offers infinite combinations of what play theorists describe as “loose parts.” Architect Simon Nicholson coined this term in the early 1970s, writing, “In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.”

Research has shown that free play in nature increases children’s cognitive flexibility, emotional capacity, critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, use of imagination, self-esteem, and self-discipline. It makes them smarter, more cooperative, happier, and healthier.

“Nature is the most complex, information-rich system we’ll ever encounter,” says Stephen Kellert, a professor of social ecology at Yale, who with the Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson helped popularize the notion of “biophilia”—the instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems. “When children or anybody interacts with nature. . . there’s adaptation, response to different conditions, challenge, mastery, uncertainty, surprise,” Kellert adds. Nature also increases the opportunities for kids to come together and interact. Part of becoming a critical thinker is sharing ideas with and learning from others, which teaches one that there are multiple solutions to problems. “In natural places, kids tend to play more cooperatively,” says Richard Louv. “That comes as no news to those of us who built a tree house with our buddies or built a dam in the ravine in front of our houses.”

Nature also introduces children to small, calculated risks, like jumping on rocks, crossing a creek on a log, or climbing a tree. These activities teach kids their physical limitations and abilities and promote feelings of independence and accomplishment. They also demonstrate that behavior has consequences: if young adventurers miss a rock and step in the water, they will get wet.

“You won’t succeed without taking risks,” says Jacob Gilchrist, a landscape architect who helps create playgrounds and parks for TPL’s Parks for People-Bay Area initiative. The program works to create or renew parks and playgrounds in San Francisco and other Bay Area communities, always with design help from neighborhood children and other community members. “Kids begin to learn about risks in the physical sense, whether it’s learning to walk, running around, or falling and getting back up.”

Contact with nature has been shown to have beneficial effects even on children with attention deficit disorder (ADD). More than two million U.S. children suffer from this inability to sustain attention, which can interfere with learning, interpersonal relationships, and personal growth. In the 1990s, researchers from the University of Illinois concluded that such children “function better than usual after activities in green settings.” One parent reported that his ordinarily distractible kid “could hit golf balls with me for two hours at a time.” Another said of a son: “He fishes for hours at a time alone.”

Close-To-Home-Parks And Playgrounds

More generally, relaxing activity in the outdoors helps reduce stress levels in both children and adults. Chris Giorni says that during the nature walks for children he leads, kids often lie down in a ring of redwoods and look up at the trees. “I think one of the most important things we can teach our kids is just to chill out and slow down. Because nature’s so much bigger than all of us, we feel that our problems aren’t as big as we thought they were,” he says. “You have faith that things can change, and that not everything depends on this one test or one interview.”

Of course, not all children have the opportunity to visit Yellowstone National Park or even a huge urban park like San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, where Giorni takes kids. But access to “big nature” isn’t necessary. Urban kids can find nearby nature to enrich their lives in small parks or creative playgrounds.

“Feeling that you have to go camping or go on a daylong hike can be really intimidating,” says Jennifer Durand. “It can be small-scale, like taking a walk around the block, looking at street trees, noticing the leaves on the ground, turning over a brick to see what’s living underneath it.”

Many urban natural areas are abused and overlooked as sources of nature for children, says Representative Sarbanes, whose district includes a depressed area of west Baltimore. “We have streams that run right through those neighborhoods and right near schools that need to be cleaned up, and that could offer tremendous lessons to kids about how to care for the environment,” he says.

Well-designed parks and playgrounds can mimic opportunities for exploration and risk-taking in nature, says landscape architect Jennifer Worth of TPL’s Parks for People-Bay Area initiative. Playground designers are moving away from the old, prescriptive, post-and-platform structures that implicitly tell kids what to do on them: climb here, slide there. And despite their small size, many new playgrounds contain a natural component, such as a grassy field, trees, or a landscaped border.

For example, a ring of boulders is included in the design of a newly refurbished playground in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood, and every time Worth visits, she sees at least one kid jumping from boulder to boulder.

“Often a natural feature will be the kids’ favorite place in a playground,” she says, “because it’s different from the standard play equipment they see at every other park.” A good playground offers lots of choices for kids, Worth explains. “It has different colors, textures, surfaces, and encourages a variety of activities,” she says. “Just like nature, a good playground presents many opportunities for kids to engage physically, socially, and cognitively.”

Playground designers are seeking various ways to incorporate natural features into playgrounds, says Tom Norquist, senior vice president of marketing for GameTime/PlayCore, a leading manufacturer of play systems and an important supporter of TPL’s effort to help transform New York City schoolyards into beneficial playgrounds. “Each site has its own natural amenities that you want to build around,” Norquist notes. “We’ve recently installed several playgrounds around large trees. A beautiful, natural tree is a feature in the environment, a place for shade, a place for all the birds and squirrels and things that live in it—and we’ve incorporated playing in the tree as part of the playground.”

Healthy Children, Healthy Planet

As the movement to reconnect children with nature gains momentum, federal, state, and local governments, along with grassroots organizations, are rising to the challenge. The federal No Child Left Inside Act would create environmental literacy plans in each state, provide teacher training in environmental education, and provide opportunities to teach children outdoors.

Other federal programs include the Department of Health and Human Services’ public service campaign “Get Out and Play an Hour a Day,” the Bureau of Land Management’s “Take It Outside,” the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s “Connecting Kids and Nature,” the National Park Service’s “Kids and Parks,” and the U.S. Forest Service’s “Kids in the Woods,” which reached 23,000 children last year.

Kristen Nelson, an interpretive services manager for the Forest Service, is taking the lead on the Kids in the Woods project, and she hopes that her program will encourage participants to become environmental stewards. Nelson and others point out that enrollment in natural-resources programs at colleges and universities is falling nationwide, and one reason might be that today’s college-age generation has been less exposed to nature. If future generations lack experiences in nature, the motivation to support environmental and conservation programs could falter. As biologist Robert Michael Pyle has written: “What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never seen a wren?”

Similarly, Richard Louv points out that land preservation agreements are only as strong as people’s will to maintain them. “Future generations can change agreements.. . . If they have not had close contact with nature and therefore have never come to value and love it, why should they protect it?”

As for 12-year-old Izzy Miller, although it is a little early for him to be choosing a career, he says, “I’ve always wanted to be a naturalist.” But even if he takes another path, he will likely grow into a well-rounded adult who cares about the future of the natural world.

“The most important thing is just to try to get kids outdoors a little bit each day,” says Izzy’s mom, Jennifer Durand. “Slowly you’ll find that that time increases, because the kids will want to be outdoors.”

Erica Gies is a freelance environmental reporter who lives in San Francisco.