A park manager from Five Rivers MetroParks in Dayton, OH, Todd Catchpole, recently told me about finding a secret nature place built by kids in one of their parks. This charming and unexpected construction, literally a little living room in the woods, was located near a stream, out of view, and known only to the neighborhood children who played there till it was accidentally discovered by the park staff.
The tableau was constructed from grape vines, stones, and other natural materials gathered from the nearby stream and populated by small dolls and toy furniture and decorated with fresh daffodils.
It was a delightful place, full of the imagination of children at play.
Far from being an unauthorized use of the park, the ‘Living Room in the Woods’ was exactly the kind of nature discovery play the park staff had hoped would take place in this recently designated Nature Play Area.
Five Rivers MetroParks has designated a number of Nature Play Areas in their parks, and this one is just about ideal–a wooded finger of parkland that extends into a residential neighborhood which surrounds the parkland on three sides. It is so suitable for children’s play that the mother of one of the kids who built the living room recently contacted the park staff and expressed her appreciation that there was such a place in the park that her kids could safely play, and in a way that she felt was so important for their development.
The Living Room in the Woods highlights an important truth—the immense value of parks to kids. Simply said, parks are one of the primary places that kids—and parents—can connect to nature and the outdoors. We take them for granted, but they may just be essential if a generation of kids who have lost their connection to nature are to re-connect.
So, why are parks so important to kids?
- Parks are safe places for kids to go. Whether it is reality or just the perception of reality, many parents are fearful of letting their kids play unsupervised outdoors except in very controlled circumstances. Stranger-danger, fear of poisonous plants, fear of stinging and clinging insects—all of these are reasons why nature for some is a place to be feared not embraced. Parks are one of the few places that are very safe for kids to go. They are secure, free from most hazards, and watched over by staff and the public. Park visitors promptly report unsafe conditions or hazards. Many eyes on the park make for a safe place for kids to play.
- Parks are one of the best places for discovery and play. Think back on your own childhood. The life of your imagination was a fertile place. Playing king-of-the-hill on a pile of dirt, building a fort or a clubhouse in the woods, flipping rocks over in a stream, exploring in uncharted territory—all were hugely enriching experiences. Natural parks are places for kids to discover the eggs of a frog in the water collected in a tire t rack and to see squirrels running through the tops of trees, jumping from tree to tree. Kids will load their pockets with natural objects to later marvel at how interesting the things found in nature really are. Parks are places for kids to discover nature and exercise their imagination.
- Parks are places for families to connect –with nature, and to each other. Perhaps more than ever, families need places to connect with each other. Parks are all-purpose places for kids to connect with nature and with families to connect with each other. They are one of the few places that families can go where there are no barriers to communication—no amplified loudspeakers, no big screen TVs, nothing other than the sounds and sights of nature. Parks enable connections between people as well as to nature.
- Parks are close-to-home nature places. One of the great blessings of our national birthright is the heritage of our parks and public lands. Acquiring and developing parks is a uniquely American tradition at all levels of government, one that is all the more cherished as open spaces are rapidly disappearing from communities. And the power of local parks to connect kids with nature is not to be underestimated. A long-standing observation about parks, recently articulated by Joe Elton, Virginia state park director, is that “you visit your local parks daily, your state parks a few times a year, and your national parks perhaps but once in a lifetime.” Nature is available in almost every park, and there are parks close to where you live.
- Parks provide a sense of adventure for kids. Parks have the unique ability to provide kids with a sense of adventure. Every hike in the woods brings new things to see, and around every turn there is something new to discover. Kids gain a sense of accomplishment from challenges met outdoors, which leads to greater self-confidence and self-worth. Parks are a great place for kids to take risks, within acceptable limits, and to discover that the fears they have about the unknown are conquerable. The snake they encountered in the woods didn’t fall out of a tree and try to bite them. They didn’t get covered with ticks after taking a hike in the woods. Every successful adventure in the park contributes to their maturity and to kids developing a sense of stewardship for wildlife, natural resources, and open spaces.
- Parks are a place to remember. Some of our earliest and most special memories were formed in parks—lifetime experiences that we remember with great satisfaction. Parks were special places where we forged friendships, had adventures, and learned new things about life and ourselves. Parks still provide these kinds of experiences to kids, and they produce powerful positive memories, affecting kids in ways we cannot always easily perceive. These park experiences influence their ethics, their career choices, and even how they will be as parents.
Parks connect kids to nature in all the right ways. Find out where your close-to-home local parks are and get to know the park personnel who supervise them. Enable your kids to play there—they will be grateful for the rest of their lives.
Richard J. Dolesh is Vice President for Conservation and Parks, National Recreation and Park Association
Photo of the Living Room in the Woods by Debra L. Hensley, Five Rivers MetroParks
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