by Whit Gibbons

December 2, 2012

"As a state park ranger, I couldn't simply ignore environmentally damaging play. When a child was ripping live branches off trees, for example, I knew I had to act. But in other situations what should I do: preserve the environment or encourage children's connection with nature?" The question is posed by Matthew H. E. M. Browning, a doctoral student in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation at Virginia Tech University. His answer is to promote what he calls a natural play area (NPA).

An NPA is a designated area within an environmentally protected site such as a national park or nature reserve where "more lenient rules for recreation" are in force. NPAs would "allow children to have these important unstructured opportunities that are unavailable elsewhere." He points out that over the last decade, numerous NPAs have been developed but that most are in "nature centers, schoolyards, arboretums, and botanical gardens." The National Park Service oversees more than 80 million acres (an area larger than Arizona), so plenty of land is available to create hands-on, open-ended environmental education opportunities for kids on a national scale.

The country's natural habitats need all the protection we can give them, and one way to ensure that protection is by increasing public appreciation of the outdoors. To do that, we need advocates and ambassadors who will promote environmental awareness and encourage people to spend time outdoors. Among the most effective promoters are adults who developed their own appreciation of environmental awareness as children.

Rather than just encouraging youngsters to visit natural areas, a healthy exercise in its own right, Matthew proposes establishing NPAs within protected areas. One of Matthew's arguments for the value of NPAs is that "children's health and future environmental interest are strengthened by regular visits to natural areas." He cites several scientific studies to support that statement. In addition, his duties as a park ranger gave him firsthand experience interacting with and observing children and adults in a natural setting.

His duties sometimes conflicted with his desire to promote outdoor play. "If children were building a fort in the woods, I was supposed to tell them to return to the trail so they didn't trample vegetation." That's expected from officials at most parks and wildlife reserves. But wouldn't you rather have a ranger like Matthew around who would "often overlook such incidents, because I hadn't seen many children playing in the park. I wanted to encourage, not regulate, such activity." He points out a fact that was true for most of us in earlier generations: "I never thought about where to play when I was a child."

To be sure, regulating activities at nature parks is essential if we are to protect rare habitats. No one is suggesting that we simply turn children of all ages loose in woods to do what they will. Even back in the day, we had rules, and Matthew has given much thought to ways we can develop sustainable NPAs.

First, select sites that can withstand the impact of children, then develop trails that lead to designated NPAs based on "the anticipated patterns" of how children explore. He recommends promoting low-impact play behavior. He also suggests encouraging youth stewardship programs that facilitate a sense of ownership and protective attitudes about natural habitats. The concept is not a simple one to plan or bring to fruition, but Matthew's research into how to implement and sustain an NPA program is an excellent start.

Multiple causes can be cited for why today's children spend less time outside than their predecessors, including video games, cell phones and other technological attractions (and distractions). Irrational fears among many adults regarding the "perils of nature" also contribute to children's lack of interest in wildlife and natural habitats. NPAs as proposed by Matthew Browning will help create a generation of adults who appreciate and embrace natural systems, and who will encourage their own children to be a part of and enjoy playing in the outdoors.

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