The children at my son’s school makes a weekly pilgrimage from the urban jungle of Philadelphia to a local nature and environmental education center. Once there, in addition to learning about topics such as growing and harvesting vegetables and collecting rainwater, the kids work together to build some type of fort out of fallen branches, rocks, and other surrounding natural materials. Sounds harmless, right? But these hands-on, creative constructive play zones are increasingly rare, and such free, unstructured activity is often discouraged among public lands and national parks. The rules designed to preserve our natural spaces may actually be pushing our kids even farther away from falling in love with nature.
Let’s be clear… there are obvious benefits to the Leave No Trace Movement, and since much of the country seems less than concerned with the future of the environment, it was created out of necessity. But are national parks and public lands becoming just the sort of look-but-don’t touch museums that will eventually discourage our children from seeking them out?
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Compare these sanitized versions of nature, where you can only walk among prescribed paths and observe nature instead of interacting with it with some of the playgrounds that exist in Europe, such as The Land in North Wales, where kids are allowed to roam the terrain, experimenting with puddles and even lighting fires. Many kids (and adults) crave hands-on experiential learning. Simply looking at a rock for example is not nearly as interesting or as educational as touching it, noting what happens when you hold it up to the light, or (dare I suggest) skipping it across a body of water. And for many urban-dwelling families, visits to the National Parks or community playgrounds and public lands may be the only nature experience that kids get. Schools often drop the ball entirely on environmental education, so where exactly do we expect kids to learn how to coexist and negotiate with the natural world?
In a recent Slate article, a former park ranger suggests that instead of simply saying “don’t touch,” the lessons of nature etiquette could be better spelled out and beneficial to both land and child: offering suggestions of interaction with elements such as common flowers or pine cones that could be picked or played with or perhaps designating a certain area of the land to be carved out for more interactive use. Getting kids to love nature and experience it at their appropriate developmental level while learning respect for the world around them will be a lot more manageable and palatable of a task if they can truly understand why what we are trying to protect is so wonderful in the first place. How can we expect them to do that without getting their hands dirty?