IF DOGS GET THEIR OWN PARKS TO RUN FREE, WHY CAN'T KIDS? Too many look-don't-touch rules can harm children and nature

About the Author

Janice Swaisgood is the former Children & Nature Network's National Coordinator for Family Nature Clubs. A native San Diegan, she co-founded her community's club, Family Adventures in Nature San Diego, with her husband and two young boys. A teacher by training, with 15 years in the classroom, she is passionate about connecting families and children to nature in San Diego and far beyond — while always advocating for plenty of unstructured time for children's independent play and exploration.

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?” 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.

Photo by David N. Lee
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Photo by David N. Lee

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.

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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.

More Reading and Resources


  1. What a compelling video! Well done!

  2. I have been giving quite alot of thought to this lately. When I was a child, I picked flowers, roamed the woods alone, climbed trees, and yep, even got hurt every once in awhile. As a park ranger, I do have to talk to kids about picking up stuff and staying on trails here at our natural area. I understand that, too, as this area was set aside to protect what’s in it. If we let people go off trail it is likely it would suffer. But, it does make me think about what I did as a kid, and how all that nature play and exploration shaped my view of the world and made me want to protect those things, even if way back then I might have “killed” a few flowers. I love your idea of natural “free-play” areas, wonderful idea to allow for kids to interact with nature on their own terms in a personal way and develop their own relationship with it.

  3. As a naturalist, I agree 100% with the ideas behind this. I would love to see nature play areas in all of our city parks. However, state/city funded parks have a tendency to err on the side of caution; they have to protect themselves from liability. A child climbs on a rock, falls off and cracks his head open? Potential lawsuit. A child plays in the woods and stumbles across a bee/horsefly den and is stung upwards of 100 times? Potential lawsuit. There are reasons why playgrounds have morphed even since I was a child (20 years ago!); they all need to be “standard” and “safe.” I was in one of our city’s many parks a few days ago when the weather was nice, and I was amazed that there was no one on the path through the trees, but all the parents parents were hovering near their child on the playground. It was like they wanted to protect their kids from any kind of damage, when childhood is all about scraped knees, risk-taking (within reason) and new discoveries. The idea of “safety” is just so complicated nowadays, like if the child falls and gets a scraped knee, the parent is automatically a bad parent. It has to be a really sucky feeling.

  4. We are fortunate here in Cincinnati to have the Cincinnati Nature Center which opened a Nature Playscape to encourage kids to climb, build, play in the creek, dam up the water, etc. (You can read more about it at My kids love going over and exploring.

    While it would be great to go off trail and explore natural areas, sometimes the natural areas are too fragile and get too much traffic to handle people going off trail.

    When I was young, I was one of maybe 10 kids who explored the woods near my grandparents house. Now, I would expect at least a couple of thousand people explore those same woods. If they all went off trail, the results would be horrible for the ecosystem. Meaning the invasion of non-natives brought in as seeds on shoes and pants, trampling of wildflowers and saplings, and the removal of some awesome rocks.

    I think it is a balancing act between enough and too much access.

    Tammy York
    Author of 60 Hikes within 60 Miles Cincinnati

  5. Thanks for the post! We all need to meander and take risks in natural environments. Our school has run into a similar problem with our neighbors, who insist that the arboretum is a museum, not a place to climb trees. I agree that we need zones to be wild within our wildernesses.
    You and your readers might enjoy this video about nature play:

  6. Wow! This is exactly how I feel when we take our Nature club out and about too! I feel like we are on a covert operation! I am an Ex NPS Park Ranger and I have been on the other side of the fence. Now, with a 5 year old daughter I feel like I have been converted to this awesome way of connecting her to nature, not the ridged rule follower I once was! Find a old wasp nest? Sure take it home, a fallen epiphyte or smooth stick? Add it to your treasure trove little hunters! Run, Play, Seek Joy, and connect on that deeper level. The Universal Concepts and Intangible Meanings that we are instructed as Naturalist to teach but struggle to do. Go forth and NATURE PLAY!

  7. It will continue to be a challenge — free play vs. stay on the trail play. Where I live, In Bozeman, MT I have seen over the last five or so years a loss of wildflowers on what are being called “social trails” around our city. When I first moved here the local trails were well used, but the masses of wildflowers did not seem to be impacted, except in a few cases where trails zig-zagged. Now every almost every zig-zag has been cut across, erosion is taking place and the wildflowers that grew there are gone. Soil is more compacted too.

    Here in Bozeman there are many many dogs and it is often the dogs that cut across to trails, but folks walking and mountain bikes do too.

    So the conundrum is – get outside, take you children, splash in the creek, notice flowers, birds and animals…but do what you can to make sure others get to see and enjoy what you do. There are plenty of wildflowers to pick, but don’t throw them along the trail, please, is what I often say.

    It’s okay in the woods to go off trail to gather interesting specimens. Okay for your dog to use the woods as his “bathroom”,
    but think of others too, is what I wish to say. And there is a great camp and education facility here “Montana Outdoor Science School.”

    Every time I go out I find myself being the little girl who would love to, and did, pick wildflowers and splash in the creek and hang upside down from tree branches.

    Cities, even an great outdoor place like Bozeman, are going to find it challenging to balance ‘get engaged ” and save some for tomorrow.
    Not an easy task.

  8. Great post. This is not a reality just in the United States. I live in the Galapagos Islands (Ecuador) where national park is 97% of the total area and 3% are urban areas where people live. The challenge is that even though local people live in one of world´s most valuable natural paradaises, urban areas have the lowest percentaje of green areas in the country and locals can not access the great treasure that they are surrounded with. How are locals supposed to defend nature if they do not know it and can not access it?

    Rules and restrictions are, most of the times, born from the lack of capacity to manage.

    In this side of the Earth we are also fighting for access to nature. It is world battle to make sure we can mantain the status of humans conected with mother earth.

  9. Good points. I am a park ranger and happen to work in an environment where off-trail activity is not permitted. It is not the first such environment I have worked in. In both cases, I understand and support the reasons for the restrictions in those situations. As land managers, we need to communicate better to our visitors the reasons that such access is restricted. There is no better lesson that we can give our children than to teach them the reasons we restrict activies. It is typically because of the sensitivity of the particular environment and because past use was damaging to the land. I have seen great recoveries of natural areas once people were kept out. I don’t enforce these restrictions to keep children out. I enforce them to protect the land for the children and their childrens children.

    That being said, I do think it is important to provide places that can be open to explore. This must be a priority wherever possible. I know of many such places in our local area, but that may not be the case in other parts of the country. Many of the people I contact are aware of open locations they could go with their children, but they would rather I just let them do what they want on the land I protect.

    I can do a pretty good job of explaining my position, if I am given the chance. However, it is important that those wno know my mission, and ultimately support what I am trying to do, work with me and not against me.


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