As a career biologist, I consider myself someone who is pretty aware of what’s going on in the natural resource field. As a grown man who thought he still experienced nature with a child-like wonder, I thought I had a handle on how to connect kids to the outdoors. Then I met Rusty Keeler at the recent Children and Nature Conference-2015. For those who may not be familiar with Mr. Keeler’s work, he is a sought-after designer of “natural playscapes” or “adventure playgrounds” (see earthplay.net) that seek to connect kids (and families) to the outdoors through unstructured experiential play in natural environments. The impact of Mr. Keeler’s session and the lunch conversation that followed reframed my perspective in both a professional and personal level.
Professionally, my career has been dedicated to connecting the public to nature, or more specifically, wildlife. As a result, I have spent 20 years working with communities to restore city parks to their original habitats so the community can enjoy native wildlife and natural areas around them. I have worked with schools to create natural areas on school grounds for nature study. Until now, I didn’t realize I was missing a critical component…allowing kids to PLAY in and MANIPULATE those environments.
Sadly, I had been operating from the perspective that natural areas were to be enjoyed by walking through them, observing them, studying them, etc. I had forgotten that when I was a kid, I didn’t just observe nature, I dammed creeks, dug in the dirt, made forts out of branches, etc. What a gift of play to give kids today! This Children and Nature movement provides biologists like me a platform to blend the disciplines of creating nature around people while letting people participate in nature and truly experience it.
As great a shift as occurred in my professional perspective, an even greater one happened in my personal perspective. You see, I have a son toddling behind me at home. I have been dutifully creating a native landscape full of bugs, butterflies, lizards and birds for him to “experience”. However, I’ve been designing it from MY perspective. I am guilty of creating a landscape meant for him to enjoy and study, but not one into which he can immerse himself. I allowed him to dabble in “my” landscape, but not pull anything up or step on plants, etc. I have repented. I am now designing sections of our landscape for him to dig, create, destroy, etc. as he immerses himself in dirt, water, logs, stones and plants. It’s a work in progress, but we have already begun. However, I am not stopping with our landscape. I have already opened conversations with candidates running for City Council in our town about spreading this concept into local city parks so all kids in the neighborhood can experience this kind of fun.
I love wildlife! I love the outdoors! I want everyone to love those things as much as I do. This conference opened my eyes to different ways to make that connection happen and to instill a love for nature into others at a young age. I am energized. To borrow a phrase from Richard Louv, I am committed to ensuring that I am not “the last child in the woods.”
John Davis is the Program Director of Wildlife Diversity, Texas Parks and Wildlife. Department