GET BACK TO WHERE IT ALL BEGAN: Recognizing One of Biology’s Essential Ingredients — Play

About the Author

John Davis is the Wildlife Diversity Program Director for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. He has worked for TPWD for over 20 years as a biologist, and now manages programs responsible for citizen science, rare and endangered species, urban wildlife management, environmental review, backyard wildlife habitats, and the Texas Master Naturalist Program.

In April, 2015, John Davis attended the Children and Nature Conference in Bastrop, Texas, co-hosted by the Children & Nature Network and Texas Children in Nature. Here, he shares his thoughts about what he learned.

As a career biologist, I consider myself someone who is pretty aware of what’s going on in the natural resource field. As a grown man who thought he still experienced nature with a child-like wonder, I thought I had a handle on how to connect kids to the outdoors.

Then I met Rusty Keeler at the Children & Nature Network’s recent international conference.

For those who may not be familiar with Mr. Keeler’s work, he is a sought-after designer of “natural playscapes” or “adventure playgrounds” that seek to connect kids (and families) to the outdoors through unstructured experiential play in natural environments.

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The impact of Mr. Keeler’s session and the lunch conversation that followed reframed my perspective on both a professional and personal level.

Professionally, my career has been dedicated to connecting the public to nature, or more specifically, wildlife. As a result, I have spent 20 years working with communities to restore city parks to their original habitats so the community can enjoy native wildlife and natural areas around them. I have worked with schools to create natural areas on school grounds for nature study.

Until then, I didn’t realize I was missing a critical component…allowing kids to PLAY in and MANIPULATE those environments.

Sadly, I had been operating from the perspective that natural areas were to be enjoyed by walking through them, observing them, studying them.

I had forgotten that when I was a kid, I didn’t just observe nature, I dammed creeks, dug in the dirt, made forts out of branches, and more. What a gift of play to give kids today!

This Children and Nature movement provides biologists like me a platform to blend the disciplines of creating nature around people while letting people participate in nature and truly experience it.

As great a shift has occurred in my professional perspective, an even greater one happened in my personal perspective. You see, I have a son toddling behind me at home. I have been dutifully creating a native landscape full of bugs, butterflies, lizards and birds for him to experience.

However, I’ve been designing it from my perspective. I am guilty of creating a landscape meant for him to enjoy and study, but not one into which he can immerse himself. I allowed him to dabble in “my” landscape, but not pull anything up or step on plants, etc. I have repented. I am now designing sections of our landscape for him to dig, create, and destroy as he immerses himself in dirt, water, logs, stones and plants. It’s a work in progress, but we have already begun

I am not stopping with our landscape. I have already opened conversations with candidates running for City Council in our town about spreading this concept into local city parks so all kids in the neighborhood can experience this kind of fun.

I love wildlife. I love the outdoors. I want everyone to love those things as much as I do. C&NN’s Children and Nature conference opened my eyes to different ways to make that connection happen and to instill a love for nature into others at a young age. I am energized. To borrow a phrase from Richard Louv, I am committed to ensuring that I am not “the last child in the woods.”

And by the way, my little toddling boy and I have gotten muddy outside most every day since that conference, and he goes to the back door and points outside when I come in from work every evening. I love it!


More Reading and Resources

Register Early for the Next C&NN International Conference on Children and Nature, to be held in Saint Paul, MN, May 25th-27th.

THE CONSERVATION OF CONSERVATION — and the Rejuvenation of Conservationists

CONSERVATION EXHAUSTION and the Children and Nature Movement

RESTORING PEACE: Six Ways Nature in Our Lives Can Reduce the Violence in Our World


The Green Schoolyard Movement: Gaining Ground Around the World

C&NN’s Green Schoolyards for Healthy Communities initiative

C&NN’s Natural Libraries Initiative

This post can also be found at the Texas Children in Nature website.  

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