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If you’re reading this, you likely know first-hand the restorative benefits of an afternoon spent outside. In fact, the intangible scenic and spiritual effects of open spaces often motivate conservation work just as much as ecological research does. We often say we’re conserving this land for future generations, but how can we pass on this deep-seated respect for open space to ensure they’ll take good care of the land we’ve protected?

A new report by Ken Finch and Andrew Loza at the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association, called Nature Play: Nurturing Children and Strengthening Conservation Through Connections to the Land, investigates the effects of unstructured play time in the outdoors. This report is one part of a larger movement to restore nature exploration to childhood. Journalist Richard Louv first characterized the idea in his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, in which he coined the term “nature deficit disorder.” “Passion,” he wrote, “is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart. If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.”

Nature Play finds that simply playing outside instills deep conservation values in children and fosters their cognitive, creative, physical, social, and emotional growth. In this era of overscheduled afternoons, nervous parents, and record amounts of screen time, nature play has never been more important. But how to make it happen?

Just Relax

First and foremost, kids must connect with nature on their own terms. The key is for the children to feel that their play is self-guided and has the room to grow and evolve on its own, a feeling that can be squashed by adults trying too hard to force engagement or structure activities. Children’s worlds are small and intimate, and even small patches of wild land are sufficient to let children’s imaginations roam.

Illustration from Finch and Loza 2015

This suggestion to ease the rules may be hard for conservation organizations to swallow. In a world where intact open space and wilderness is so limited, Leave No Trace laws make obvious sense. But prohibiting so many types of actions can end up creating a hard boundary between children and the natural world around them.

Perhaps there are places, around trails or trailheads, where insects can be collected, sticks can be broken, rocks can be thrown, and trees can be climbed with minimal harm done to the land. After all, “If 1,000 children do this at a natural area for 100 years, they will… probably do less ecological harm than was done creating the driveway, parking lot or trail for public access to the natural area.”

Illustration from Finch and Loza 2015

What Can We Do?

Conservation organizations are already working toward remedies for kids’ nature deficit. California’s Feather River Land Trust aims to create Outdoor Classrooms – open spaces dedicated to kids’ exploration and education – within a 10-minute walk of every public school in their service area. Many organizations have found that their nature playscapes have attracted new visitors, ambassadors, and donors. POST has already protected a network of open spaces around the Silicon Valley corridor, increasing kids’ and families’ access to the outdoors. From Bair Island, where kids can spot numerous birds, harbor seals, and leopard sharks, to Cowell Ranch, where kids can play in beach sand less than a mile from the highway, POST lands provide numerous nature play opportunities for all ages.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the long-term viability of the conservation movement will rely on creating a new generation of stewards and activists. In that regard, attracting kids to nature is as pressing as land protection itself – and who better to lead the movement than land trusts and conservation organizations themselves?


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About Post

Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 76,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties.

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