NATURE BULLIES: A conservation biologist’s perspective on children in nature

About the Author

Ron Swaisgood, Ph.D., is the Brown Chair/Director of Applied Animal Ecology at the Institute for Conservation Research, San Diego Zoo Global and General Scientific Director, Cocha Cashu Biological Station in the Peruvian Amazon. He is best known for his work with the giant panda and chairs the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Giant Panda Expert Team. Ron and his wife Janice have created a family nature club in San Diego with over 1000 member families. Janice leads C&NN’s Natural Families Network.

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.

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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.

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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.


The Gift of Nature, Shared: How We Launched Our Family Nature Club

Needed: A National Conference on Children, Nature & the Law

On Being a Biologist: From “Living Alone in the World of Wounds” to the Joy of Connecting Children to Nature


  1. Hi Ron,
    I’m so happy you as conservation biologist’s write this post. Thank you !

  2. Thank you!!! My sentiments exactly.

  3. Jessica Groenendijk

    You surpassed yourself with this one, Ron. Once again, I couldn’t agree more. Three days ago, I watched a bunch of kids throwing larger and larger stones into a river, just for the satisfaction of seeing and feeling the splash, and I caught myself thinking: Is this OK? Should I say something? But then I thought: Well, why not? Kids have to interact with nature to truly experience it. We can’t expect them to always look, but don’t touch! In the end, even the parents joined in the rock-throwing! The kids made us feel young again…

  4. Wonderful article. thank you for the reminder!! i work at a nature Center and I often tell the kids to stay on the trail due to the fact that we have sooo many kids come to a small space. we have recently opened a new area and have no trails yet. I have asked that we not have trails in this area. there are fallen trees to climb and room to explore. I hope this to be our area of just wandering play. thanks again, I definitely did my share of ‘destroying’ as a kid and have grown up to teach others about nature. I sure do not want to be a bully or turn anyone off and the reminder is much needed. thanks again!

  5. Ron Swaisgood

    Karen, I appreciate the sentiments. Yes, we have to be guardians of nature too. It’s about finding the right balance and a time and place where children are free to be kids in nature, but also a time and place where we need to keep people out of nature, or very gently experiencing it. Staying on the trail is important in many places. You seem to already understand intuitively–too many kids in a small place is a recipe for destruction. Not enough kids in nature, period, is a recipe for the end of environmentalism.

  6. Excellent. As backpacking, hiking, fishing, canoeing, canoe-camping, camping, outdoor playing parents of children who do the same, I thank you. We model teach our children reasonable respect for the environment. Some people think the ROCK will be damaged! My stars. Or they are worried the children will get hurt. Why are we so worried about skinned knees? Reasonable respect takes everyone into account. It allows nature exploration which creates love for nature. If we didn’t have our kids out in nature, actually experiencing … they wouldn’t truly love it. I wouldn’t either. My 10 year old can hear the rustling of a snake in the grass next to him and have that snake out in a second (we do live where it’s safe to do so!). My 8 year old can identify birds and copy their calls. He loves our backyard quail. My children climb trees and rocks, dry flowers (just one, please), touch and learn about plants in moderation (no, they don’t obliterate fiels of wildflowers), collect a pine cone, ….

    My kids experience nature. Because they experience nature, they understand it, respect it, love it. They are tomorrow’s naturalists and will protect what they truly love. We seek to pass this on through friends and mostly through Scouts where we lead other children.

  7. Thank you Ron for your voice of reason and balance! Allowing more grace for children to explore and engage with the natural world is key to healthy children and healthy communities. And, when we not only give permission to romp, but guide kids as to “how to engage” with nature, then there is hope that kids will also feel connected to our more-than-human world as they would their own family and friends. Teaching kids how to harvest wild edibles so as to share a snack with their bird and deer friends; how to walk through the forest as gently and quietly as a fox so as to not disturb the animals (and get to sneak close to them!); how to find the trees that provide the best shelter from the rain…. brings nature alive in the spirit of companionship. What an amazing world this would be if all children, and their grown-ups, felt a trust in nature to provide for them, and how empowering to also feel that each of us can actually make a difference by caring for the earth.

  8. I totally agree. We need to make nature fun again for kids. And I think going beyond just letting them have more freedom, but giving them more places that are kid-interesting is also important. There is nothing more boring to a kid than a plain mowed lawn. Give them tall grasses, fallen logs, rocks, mud…and they will go wild!

  9. Hi Ron, as always you continue to do a wonderful job with this topic and I am so happy that FAN is helping to spread the joy.Thanks for doing what you do! As a free ranging kid nature was a very important part of my life and I struggle with the societal changes around us. I have been on the receiving end of some nasty looks when I let my son run amuck (pun intended), but unfortunately he does not do it as much as I would like. As an ecologist and wetland scientist I share your concern about where the next generation of environmental stewards will come from and locally have begun to build momentum for free-range play areas within our community open spaces. Part of this initiative has included organizing community habitat enhancement projects with the schools and the scouts in which I hope to introduce the free-ranging concept in a “safe environment” so that parents may learn that it is ok to let children experience nature on their own terms.

  10. Thank you so much for a well-written message on exactly what all of us, including our kids, need. We live in Alaska, and I hear from so many parents that they’re afraid to go out and explore with their kids. This amazing wilderness, just outside our doors, does include bears, moose, and wolves. They are peaceful animals, though, and we give them space when we encounter them. Kids, and their parents, need time in the wild, even if it’s the stream behind their home. If my parents had not let me “run wild” and explore as a young girl, I would not have had the passion to become an environmental educator. Thanks to them, and a fantastic Outdoor School program in Oregon, thousands of kids and teachers have re-connected to the wild. We all can reach out to local programs and stewards of wild places to keep them open to exploration and imagination. We have to. Our little “Wild Things” and our need for nature as a salve to our weary souls depends on it.

  11. Hi, I publish the Poughkeepsie, NY edition of an e-newsletter/website called Macaroni Kid. I loved your article and was wondering if I could have permission to print it in my and other Mac Kid publishers newsletters.
    thank you very much,

    • Richard Louv

      Alicia, if I didn’t answer this before, yes you may reprint the piece – only requirement is that you include the ID and links that are at the bottom of the C&NN post. Thanks!

  12. I would like to make a distinction between Nature Exploration and Nature Education when discussing Nature Bullies. Nature Centers are educational, designed to work with heavy volumes of children and families. Nature Centers protect the areas close to the center for “look but don’t touch education” This is designed to “show” frogs in a natural habitat. That real habitat with live animals is why people come. The second tier (5 – 10 min walk) is the “Hands on Education” areas. We loosely protect these areas with signs and daily rotations of habitats so that there is something for kids to “catch” during a program. Exploration and “kids being kids” is encouraged anywhere “Out Back” on the property or your own local stream. The problem lies more with issues of convienance and a unwillingness to walk 20 minutes before you unleash your little explorer on Nature.

  13. Ron Swaisgood

    Thanks for the comment, Mark, and I agree. As I stated, there is a time and place when we must tread lightly or not tread at all. You’ve rightly identified one of those. Any time the human traffic is too high, getting off trail can be devastating. My argument is that too often our society seems to extend this protectionism to all of nature, or that we leave little for kid play. I’m talking about restoring balance, not opening parks up for toddler ATVs.

    While we’re on the subject of “nature bullies” I should point out that some have misinterpreted the label I used. If you read the blog, I refer to the self-appointed and well-intentioned citizen protectors of natures as “bullies.” By contrast, I refer to park employees as “valid guardians of nature.” I did not, and would not, refer to park employees as nature bullies. More generally, I think our society has come to “bully” kids out of nature. And that is a shame.

  14. Hi, Ron. Thank you for this thought-provoking article. I echo what Denise said above, that we also need to provide more places where kids can explore nature. Let’s swap out some of that pristine lawn for more natural yards that might look less tidy but would create the kind of environments that promote healthy minds and bodies in our children (and adults too!). Our own yards could be much more stimulating play spaces. Then kids’ interactions with nature wouldn’t just happen when they take a trip or go to a wilder place (like a nature center or park) but could permeate their lives and be part of their daily learning and growth. As you point out, we will all benefit in the future.



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