On a recent family hike in San Diego, one of the first things we came across was a sign, in front of an old, majestic oak tree near a cluster of big boulders. The sign said:
STAY ON DESIGNATED TRAILS
“Stay on designated trails?” my son asked. “But this is a cow pasture, Mama. Why can’t we go climb the rocks?” And to be honest, in this situation I had a hard time arguing with them. Yes, we were in a county preserve, so we were obligated to stay on the trail, per County Ordinance 41.130. But this was no ordinary wildlife preserve. This was also a cow pasture. Literally. Full of invasive grasses too. Kids can’t get off the manicured dirt road to climb the rocks or trees. Heck, we weren’t even supposed to move off the trail in order to have a picnic under a tree.
A ranger drove by as we walked along the dirt road in the full sun. I flagged him down to ask about the rule and why it had to be so, even in a cow pasture.
He kindly suggested we visit the county park playground in Julian, Ca., (another half hour drive from where we were) and proposed I let my two boys run up and down the dirt road we were on. This was, after all, a protected, designated wilderness area, he said. And there were rattlesnakes there too – he just saw one last week! So it was really for our own safety too, I suppose, as snakes never come close to dirt roads and trails, right?
He told me “we get it,” referring to the importance of connecting kids and nature, but I’m not so sure. I don’t even know for sure who the “we” was that he was including. His division of rangers? All of the county rangers? The “higher ups”? Again, I’m not so sure. The only thing I am convinced of was that he was doing his job by enforcing County Ordinance 41.130. STAY ON DESIGNATED TRAILS. As he drove off, my son beckoned me to come a few feet off the trail, where he had been entertaining himself while we were talking by watching a bee struggle in a spider web…
I was secretly glad that we didn’t have our Family Nature Club with us. After all, we likely wouldn’t have been in a line meandering along the road, and also wouldn’t have notified the rangers of our adventure ahead of time. I often tense up when I see rangers when we’re out and about, for fear of being chastised for not following the rules and in some cases for not getting a permit ahead of time. We’ve been chased out of local creeks and asked to get down from trees and boulders that are even on the trail “for our own safety.” That’s not the type of relationship I want to have with park rangers.
More and more, as we have these types of experiences both with our Family Nature Club and on our own, I have come to realize the need for policy change, an adjustment to county ordinances and more. One can’t blame the park rangers for doing their jobs, and we don’t. We’re just asking for a fair change.
This must be true in other areas of our country too. We need to designate areas for nature play, just as we do for mountain biking and BMXers, off road vehicles, and dogs, and even cows. We raze plenty of natural areas to put in soccer, football and baseball fields. Why can’t we have, and advertise for, nature play areas — areas where kids and families are actually connect with and in nature? And I’m talking about in natural areas, not just playgrounds.
In the movement to reconnect children and nature, we invite kids and families and young adults to experience nature and bring back the so-called old-fashioned childhood. I wonder just where they’re allowed to do so. If kids can’t run and play and roam free in a cow pasture under oak trees and on boulders, where can they? Is the beach next? No sandcastles or digging in the sand for fear of disturbing the wave and tidal patterns?
The attitude of “look but don’t touch” and “nature is too fragile and dangerous” does have its time and place. I get it. I do. We do need to have protected areas. But kids need to have their time and place in nature too. Why can’t there be designated areas for nature play, even within protected regions when and where it makes sense? Local, regional, city, county and even National Parks could have specific areas where not only is it okay to engage with nature, but we actually make signs that invite kids to climb the rocks and trees there, protecting the rest of the designated wilderness.
How can we effectively change the attitudes of those in charge of our wild places? In order to initiate policy change, we’ve got to work to change understanding and attitudes too. Ordinances may follow. People need to understand the importance of kids really being able to play in and with nature. If people, kids in particular, are only connecting to the natural world virtually, through screens and pictures, how will they come to love and protect it?
Where will the future stewards, biologists, conservationists, naturalists, and even park rangers come from if we can’t cultivate a true love for the world we live in?
A short film about C&NN’s family nature clubs,
donated by Gear-6 Productions, narrated by Janice Swaisgood.
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