Izaak Walton League Publications

Nature Playscapes: Bringing the wild back to the child

By Julie Dieguez

As children, my sister and I would spend happy hours hiding out in our “cave” in the heart of a massive forsythia bush and conduct death-defying crossings on rickety logs over streams full of “ravenous crocodiles.” When my third grade teacher instructed the class to describe our pets, I turned in a page filled with drawings of squirrels, rabbits, birds, and other critters that were as much a part of my daily life as my dog.

When asked about childhood memories of time spent outdoors, most of us wax nostalgic about splashing wildly in streams, climbing to dizzying heights in trees, and defending shaky stick forts from the onslaught of villains – not about climbing monkey bars and plastic slides.

Sadly, the once-common practice of mothers waving children out the door into the sunlight, telling them simply to “come back when the streetlights come on,” is virtually unheard of these days. It is an anomaly to see a child perched in the branches of a tall tree or playing anywhere outdoors other than on a ball field or designated playground equipment. In fact, many kids have been led away from outdoor experiences completely by the lure of online entertainment.

A Changing Landscape
In “The Landscapes of Childhood,” published in the journal Environment and Behavior, psychologist Rachel Sebba poetically suggests that the natural landscapes of childhood become the inner landscapes of adulthood. As the world undergoes the largest wave of urban growth in history, the landscapes of neighborhoods are changing drastically, dominated by cement, mowed lawns, and manufactured playground equipment. Any natural areas are often governed by covenants and homeowner agreements limiting activities like fort building and unstructured play. The creativity and imagination sparked and nurtured through free play and exploration has been replaced by “packaged imagination” handed to kids in the form of mass-produced plastic play sets and entertainment flickering through computer and television screens.

Today’s children engage in exponentially more screen time than green time. According to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation report, children and teens spend more than seven hours a day in front of “entertainment media” – television, computers, video games, cell phones, and iPads. That’s more than 50 hours each week that youth are “plugged in” – an increase of more than one hour per day since a similar survey in 2004.

Author Richard Louv spoke of the impact of all this screen time in his groundbreaking book, Last Child in the Woods: “Society is telling kids unconsciously that nature’s in the past, it really doesn’t count anymore, that the future is in electronics and, besides, the bogeyman is in the woods.”

Yet the true value of learning about one’s world through hands-on discovery cannot be duplicated by sitting indoors in front of a screen or by engaging in unimaginative, repetitive play on manufactured equipment. A 2011 article in The Atlantic entitled “The Creativity Crisis” notes that organizations such as NASA and Boeing already sense a growing deficiency in creativity among the incoming workforce. Recent graduates are incapable of thinking in three dimensions, and companies now consider ideal candidates those who can “think with their hands” instead of simply creating things on a screen. Stanford University recently refocused on hands-on learning partly due to the frustration of engineering, architecture, and design professors who realized their best students had never taken apart a bicycle or built a model airplane. There is simply no substitute for hands-on exploration, and the multifaceted setting of nature is the perfect vehicle to encourage the development of critical creative skills and reconnect youth to the “real world.”

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Nature Playscapes: Bringing the wild back to the child
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