Creating a Place for NaturePlay
Volume 3 Number 2 - October 2006
Richard Louv’s recent book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder, confirms what many have already observed: today’s children are more disconnected from nature than previous generations. Louv presents interviews of children, parents and teachers, analyzes research and current trends, and builds a compelling case for the negative impact this has had on children’s health. By what ways may public gardens try to reverse this trend? Perhaps to present a conference that explores the issue, or to create programs that engage children and families in activities with nature and plants. At the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, we have also created a temporary interactive nature-play space ‘Under the Oak’, where children may build simple forts, crawl through a willow tunnel, decorate a child-sized butterfly’s wings, play at the log tea table or simply sit in the arbor to watch wildlife in the neighboring marsh. We hope it will provide enjoyment for visitors, and inspire others to create places for nature-play as well.
Louv’s book has struck a chord with many. He has traveled widely since its publication to speak about it, and more importantly, to engage a broad spectrum of people in conversations about ways to address the issues he raises. During a recent visit to speak at an Arboretum conference for teachers, Louv asked for our thoughts about two points I’d like to share here. One was for help in developing a positive corollary to the term ‘nature deficit disorder’. Hmmm…should parents be encouraged to add another thing to their daily to-do list, to ‘nature-nourish’ their kids? Good food, enough sleep, exercise…and an hour of nature-time? Any thoughts on a clear, easy way to convey the idea are welcome! Louv also asked what we as public garden educators see as roles our gardens might play, a question that deserves careful consideration and to which there are many possible responses.
In the public policy realm, one role could be to create conferences and forums that bring educators, parents, park and school planners, legislators and other community leaders together to learn about the issues and to develop solutions in our own communities. Another approach might be to produce a steady flow of family programmes that immerse participants in hands-on fun with plants, gardens and nature, and that provide resources for parents to continue experiences at home. And certainly our gardens are wonderful green places that families can spend time together exploring. Yet reflecting on what were the most powerful nature-connecting experiences from my own childhood, it was not family visits to a park or zoo that made an impact. It was the time I spent on my own or with friends, climbing trees, making a tree-house, damming up the creek with rocks, picking wild blackberries, swinging on vines, digging ‘turtle-traps’…none of which would be permitted at most public gardens! A recent study at Cornell University supports the concept that ‘wild nature play’ (e.g. to hike, camp, hunt, play in the woods) is more likely than ‘domesticated nature play’ (e.g. to garden, pick flowers or produce, plant trees) to set an individual on a trajectory toward positive environmental attitudes and behaviors as an adult. (2)
In recent years many public gardens have invested substantial resources in creating and operating ‘children’s gardens’. They often have colorful plants to touch and smell, water features, climbing structures, tunnels, topiary, ABC and pizza gardens, playhouses and tea-party tables, and are places of delight for millions of family visitors. Yet the kind of ‘wild-nature play’ I recall from childhood seems to be missing in many cases. We wanted to experiment, without committing to a permanent installation. Could we create a simple, interactive nature play space, where children could build and pretend, that would trigger parents (and grandparents) to recall their own forgotten pastimes, and that might inspire others to create similar places and experiences in backyards and schoolyards? Would such a place with ‘loose bits’ be feasible to run? And if so, would the enthusiasm of its users destroy it? As part of the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum’s summer 2006 exhibition Secret Gardens, a juried competition of ‘20 curious spaces that delight the imagination’, we’ve had an opportunity to try out the concept.
What did we create? ‘Under the Oak’ is a space of about 3600 sq ft tucked into the shade of a massive oak tree behind the children’s education facility. At its entrance is a set of woven willow tunnels, with a hollow log to crawl through at each entry point, and log benches for those who would rather watch than play. The fort-making area has a few ‘starts’ of various shapes to inspire and provide a framework for young builders’ creative energies, including the Wigwam (woven from willow branches), the Cardtable (from ironwood) and the Den (from dogwood). Building materials are simple, a hollow-log holder filled with 5ft sticks for leaning and weaving, and some burlap pieces with a branch sewed onto either end for users to make fort walls, roofs and floors. Another area has a child-sized butterfly, its wings outlined with dogwood branches and attached flat to the ground, and its body a foam pad covered with landscape fabric. A bin filled with cones, small tree slices, and pieces of palm ‘bark’ provides an array of nature findings for creating patterns on its wings. We expected that children might lie down on its body afterwards for a photo, but have seen the occasional parent taking a comfortable nap as their fort-making session stretched on! Two other pretend-play areas are the Toad Abode (leave a note in the mailbox of the resident toad) and the Tea Table (unusual array of ‘meals’ served here).
Open just over a month at this writing, the response so far has been encouraging. First, thousands of visitors including families, daycamp and pre-school classes and other children’s groups have passed through, and everything is still standing! The ‘forts’ are in a state of constant transformation; floors become walls, roofs come and go, stick-porches are added and removed, independent clusters of teepees spring up and disappear. Visitors seem to take in what others before them have created, then forge ahead to leave their own legacy with remarkably little destruction of materials. The only maintenance needed so far has been to periodically restock the ‘butterfly bin’, since the materials provided to decorate its wings have migrated to become ‘stepping stones’/ ‘plates’/ ‘buffalo hides’/ ‘provisions’/ ‘lilypads’/ ‘drums’ in other areas . Imaginations are in active use daily (“You be the wild animal”, “This is my fishing pole”, “Let’s dance in the bongo-gym!”). We have not been able to gather any structured data on visitor behaviour yet, although we hope to do so. Anecdotal observations by staff so far show the area has appeal for a wide range of ages (with many stay-times of an hour or more), and that the answer to adults enquiring whether children are ready to move on to the next Secret Garden, is often “No!” It is common to hear comments from parents and grandparents like “This brings back memories; I used to build things like this.”
It is certainly a challenge to create a play-space with loose natural materials that both encourages intended behaviours (fort-building, pretend-play) and discourages negative ones (sticks used as spears and swords, climbing on branch-structures not strong enough for it). We’ve been intrigued with the results of our experiment so far. Perhaps keeping the loose building materials very simple, adding features to the ‘starts’ that prevent climbing (e.g. a willow-woven wall attached to one side, small log rounds screwed onto the framework that also keep leaned sticks from sliding and falling) and creating small ‘how-to’ signs with photos of children using each area have all contributed to the at least initial success. There are probably similar spaces for children and their families at public gardens in other places; if so, we invite others to share their insights from what has worked (and not worked!) for them. We would be happy to share more details about the design and operation of ‘Under the Oak’ at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum with anyone who has an interest. It would be inspiring and exciting to see new ideas for fresh approaches and different activities emerge from others who share a similar goal.
Public gardens are truly places for plants…AND for people. Helping today’s children form emotional bonds with green plants and nature is an undertaking that demands our best efforts, and an ongoing dialogue to be inspired by and learn from each other’s successes and dead-ends. The health of today’s children, the long-term health of our institutions, and indeed the health of the glorious planet we all share depend on it.