Letting Children Go Wild
A new approach to the design of play areas is giving a boost to childhood health and development
By Heather Millar
CHILDREN VISITING THE CHARLOTTE NATURE MUSEUM in North Carolina do not lack for indoor amusements. They can explore Insect Alley, delight in the Butterfly Pavilion, pet a snake or meet an owl. Yet one day, Lisa Hoffman, the museum’s director, noticed that the exhibit halls seemed empty.
So Hoffman walked outside, where she met a group of first graders returning from Fort Wild, a new nature area designed by the museum in collaboration with NWF and the North Carolina State University’s Natural Learning Initiative to encourage creative outdoor play for children of all ages. The “fort” features an assortment of ways that public facilities and homeowners can encourage young people to go outside: an infant sensory garden, logs and stones for toddlers to climb and a veggie garden for digging.
The first graders were sweaty, grimy and thrilled as they ran up to Hoffman. “I turned to a colleague and said, ‘We’ve won,’” Hoffman remembers.
Today’s kids spend less time outdoors than perhaps any previous generation. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that children 8 to 18 spend an average of 7 hours and 34 minutes daily in front of electronic screens of various kinds.
Recent research shows that such an indoor life can rob children of the health benefits from outdoor time. Also, children accustomed to playing indoors may never feel an affinity for nature and may never develop a conservation ethic, eroding support for wildlife conservation and the environment in the future. Natural play spaces like the North Carolina facility are designed to help remedy this problem.
A nature play space offers kids a chance to escape from keyboards and to play with sand, water, wood and living plants. “We want people to realize that it’s easy to set aside a bit of their backyard for nature play,” says North Carolina State University professor Robin Moore, the design consultant for the Charlotte demonstration project. “It doesn’t take much space, and it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.”
Last August, in conjunction with the Natural Learning Initiative, NWF published guidelines to help homeowners recreate the Charlotte Nature Museum’s success in their own backyards. During the next year, similar demonstration projects will open in Texas, Mississippi and Michigan. The Federation and nature-play experts also are working on national guidelines to help park and recreation officials define nature play. “We want to make it easy and compelling for nature to become part of everyday play,” says Allen Cooper, an NWF senior education manager.
NWF at Work: Encouraging Outdoor Play
NWF is working with other organizations to advance policies that reconnect children with nature, such as the National Physical Activity Plan launched in 2010 with the goal that “one day all Americans will be physically active and they will live, work, and play in environments that facilitate regular physical activity.” NWF, through its Be Out There® program and other efforts to get kids outside, has set a goal to get 10 million more children within the next threee years to spend 90 minutes a week outdoors.
For more information, visit www.nwf.org/getoutside.
Heather Millar is based in San Francisco, California.