Get back over here! Stay on the trail! Don’t touch that! Don’t climb on that! Don’t look under that! Don’t hurt that! Stay out of that!”
This is what many kids today hear ringing in their ears when they are trying to connect to nature. Are you a nature lover, wanting to protect what’s around you? Think back…do these sounds echo in your memories? I doubt it. When we grew up, our parents generally weren’t even around when we were enjoying our time in nature. Maybe when we were visiting the national parks or going camping, but even then we were often left to roam while the parents did camp chores.
Helicopter parents today don’t just try to protect their kids from nature. They also try to protect nature from their kids. Both motivations are well intentioned. But I will argue that these intentions are misguided. The verbal restraint doesn’t just end with parents. Sometimes it seems as if all of society is ganging up on kids, making sure they don’t get to enjoy nature the same we did.
I’m a long-leash parent, and I hear it from others when I am out there. Coming out of a local park recently, we met a ranger. She took a look at my boys’ muddy shoes and said curtly, “Please keep them on the trail next time.”
The other day in my local canyon one of my sons was climbing on a fallen dead tree and a branch went crack! Seconds later a lady appeared from nearby and lectured me to keep my kids on the trail and protect “this fragile canyon.” Signs—written and unwritten— everywhere say “keep out!” No wonder kids don’t want to play outside anymore.
One day my wife and I took our family nature club to a local playground for a “think outside the park” play date. After a good romp on the built playground, we ventured out for an exploration into the local habitat. Later one of the parents told us, “I’ve been coming to this playground for years but always thought I shouldn’t let the kids play on the hill, that it wasn’t allowed. Now I know it is!” We need to extend our concept of playground out into nature.
We have to come to understand this: kids don’t experience the world visually. They crave interaction. They need to touch, feel, climb, dig, and…yes, destroy. Destruction is sometimes the natural byproduct of nature play. Keeping kids on the trail all the time is a death sentence to their nature connection.
I’m a conservation biologist, so I get that people can love nature to death. I understand that sensitive areas need to be off limits. I know that too much foot traffic can tip nature’s delicate balance. But I also know in my heart of hearts that if we put a wall between kids and nature, we will not have another generation of conservation biologists or environmental champions.
Our local canyon is the equivalent of the vacant woodlots I grew up playing in. Not pristine nature. A mix of exotic grasses, eucalyptus, and other non-natives along with a healthy native chaparral community of chemise, black sage, monkey flower, mission manzanita, and scrub oak. A small stream runs through, mostly the result of runoff from thirsty lawns rimming the canyon. Pacific chorus frogs can be heard calling on spring afternoons, warblers flit through the willows, and the occasional red-shouldered hawk files overhead. A nice postage stamp of imperfect nature. Here of all places, a few extra kids-sized footprints should not be a problem in the big scheme of things.
Everyday we bulldoze the native shrublands to put in housing developments—the price we have to pay to have a place to live. We cut large swaths through woodlands to put in a new road—the price we have to pay to get where we want to go. We fill wetlands to bring another Walmart to town—the price we have to pay to get those things we need.
Movie theaters, parking lots, grocery stores, camping stores, schools, playgrounds, soccer fields, even visitor centers, lodges and campgrounds in parks. Just about everything we do damages nature. So, what price are we willing to pay—or let nature pay—to allow kids access to nature? Rich Louv says access to nature is a human right. I have to agree. Nature play makes children happier, healthier, smarter and more creative. Who has the right to come between a child and this brighter future fostered by nature play?
My view is that these self-appointed guardians of nature are well-intentioned bullies. How would you respond if someone came up and yelled at your kid for hurting that sliding board or digging in that sandbox? And, I would encourage even those valid guardians of natures—employees whose job it is to protect our parks—to find the right balance. Give kids a little free reign. Let them climb that tree, ford that creek, peer under that log.
Consider posting signs inviting kids to play in kid play zones, if it is unwise to let them run amok everywhere. They will pay you back one day by paying that entrance fee or voting not to shrink your budget or close down your park.
We must acknowledge that letting kids play in nature—following their own lead with some gentle guidance—will increase the footprint. That boulder 10 feet off the trail will have the vegetation around it trampled. But the one 100 feet away will likely be intact. Where the path crosses the stream, again the vegetation may be impacted 50 feet to either side, but continue upstream another 100 feet and it will be as it should be.
There is a time and a place where we must tread lightly or not tread at all. But equally, we must still have those places to go where kids can run free and be kids. This is one gift we were given that we must pass on to our children. If we don’t, we are shooting ourselves in the foot. For the future of all nature depends on us fostering this generation’s connection to nature.