With the leadership of Richard Louv and the Children & Nature Network, and the hard work of many people across the country, the word is spreading about the critical importance of unstructured play in nature for children and adults. Energy is now being focused on solutions – the cure, if you will, to “nature-deficit disorder.”
In my conversations with parents I hear the same comments that Rich reports:
I learn about special places they remember from their childhood. Their eyes light up and their voices rise as they describe the times they spent outside as children. When I ask if they let their children have the freedom they had to play outside, they say no. They state that it is not safe for their children. And they are not persuaded otherwise by statistics that indicate the incidence of stranger danger/abduction is lower today than it was 30 years ago. Their fear is real! (And there are three other obstacles we must overcome to get children out in nature: competition from electronic media, reduced access to natural areas due to increased urbanization, and the belief that academic readiness requires children to have frequent structured activities.)
But, parents do listen eagerly to the research that indicates experiences in nature are critical to the healthy development of their children. When they learn of the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual benefits, they want to know how they can safely provide such opportunities for their children – they want the best for their children!
So, we must be more intentional in providing spaces for nature play. We have to create places in nature that parents feel are safe, but will allow their children to explore and discover on their own.
One strategy is to create Nature PlayScapes – which the Cincinnati Nature PlayScape Initiative defines as “play environments intentionally designed to engage children in nature.“
At Cincinnati Nature Center, we have had an incredible response to our dedication of 1.6 acres for the creation of The Marge & Charles Schott Nature PlayScape. It is intentionally designed for children to climb, build, dig, splash, discover, and explore the natural world. Ironically, the perimeter fence which has only one entrance may be the most important feature to facilitate children’s unstructured play in nature.
The Schott Nature PlayScape was dedicated in August – over 1,000 children and adults came to the opening. We have had over 8,000 visits in the first three months! Families are coming repeatedly, meeting other families, and then making arrangements to meet on a future visit. We have received numerous unsolicited expressions of gratitude for creating the Nature PlayScape!
A second Nature Playscape is under construction in Cincinnati on the campus of the University of Cincinnati. It is a project of the Cincinnati Arlitt Child and Family Research and Development Center in the College of Criminal Justice, Education and Human Services.
The Cincinnati Nature PlayScape Initiative (NPI) is a collaboration of Cincinnati Nature Center and the University of Cincinnati Arlitt Child and Family Research and Development Center, to promote the importance of nature play and facilitate the creation of Nature PlayScapes. NPI will provide educational programs, training for adults, and tours of our two Nature PlayScapes to encourage people to “PlayScape” their backyards, neighborhoods, parks, and school grounds.
Bill Hopple is the Executive Director of the Cincinnati Nature Center.
Photos: Cincinnati Nature Center