In a world that is increasingly filled with indoor entertainment options, children are spending more and more time away from the natural world that surrounds them.  Over the past 20 years, the time kids spend outdoors has fallen by 50% and the rate of obesity has more than tripled.  At the same time, research is increasingly pointing to the developmental, educational, and health benefits of learning and playing in a natural setting.  Experts are finding that children who play and learn in nature are:

  • Healthier
    Active nature play improves physical conditioning and has a positive effect on emotional well-being and child development.  Outdoor play is crucial to solving hypertension, anxiety, depression, and diabetes — “the diseases of indoor living.”
  • Happier
    Nature play increases self-esteem and reduces stress.  Children learn self-discipline and are more cooperative with others. Children feel more capable, confident, and connected to nature when they play outside.
  • Smarter
    Play in nature, particularly during the critical period of middle childhood, is proven to increase capacities for creativity, problem-solving, and emotional and intellectual development. Schools using environmental themes report improved academic performance, and children who play in nature are more likely to become tomorrow’s conservation leaders.

So how do we foster an interest and appreciation for nature in the next generation?

The National Wildlife Federation has taken a step in the right direction with their three-year goal to get “10 million kids outdoors” – encouraging a future where all kids spend time outside each day, creating a generation of happier, healthier children with more awareness and greater connection to the natural world.  The NWF is working with governors, legislators and state agency directors to develop state action plans to help connect children with the outdoors. The action plans identify resources and opportunities in multiple agencies—education, health, parks & wildlife, agriculture, and others—to strengthen and increase state programs that connect children with nature.  Additionally, the Texas Children in Nature Partnership is tracking a host of programs that are connecting kids with the outdoors statewide such as: Let’s Move Outside, an initiative introduced by First Lady Michelle Obama that has been adopted by many Texas schools; the Austin Children in Nature Collaborative, which is working with elementary schools to develop natural play areas; and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Texas Outdoor Family Program that introduces families to camping and teaches them outdoor skills.

Landscape Architects have always had a passion for creating healthy outdoor play and learning environments with a focus on natural areas, parks, playgrounds, and schools.   In an effort to re-introduce children to the wide range of benefits that “nature play” can provide, park and playground design has taken a turn towards nature is several different ways:

  • Nature inspired playgrounds combine adventure and wonder of nature with the durability, safety and low maintenance of pre-manufactured play equipment. Play equipment companies have created product lines that embrace elements of nature and blend them into park surroundings.  RVi’s Oso Bay Nature Preserve and Learning Center utilizes this type of play equipment in a nature-inspired playground that is focused on the types of sensory experiences found elsewhere on the site.
  • Nature playgrounds take the design concept a step farther with a holistic approach, using natural materials which may be found on-site to create climbers from boulders, balance beams from logs, dens from willow trees, and dirt digging zones.  Sand, water, and moveable wooden pieces encourage unstructured free play, allowing children to exercise their minds as well as their muscles.  RVi’s Quarry Splash Pad is an example of a nature playground, where existing quarry boulders and rock were re-used extensively throughout the site to create waterfalls, sandpits, slides, and seating areas.

But perhaps the best way to encourage children to embrace nature may be to provide opportunities to leave the structure of a playground setting – to find those special unprogrammed spaces where they can explore and become rooted in their world.  Unfortunately, as populations and crime rates increase, the days of allowing our children to roam the neighborhood freely or explore the woods on their own are quickly coming to an end.  The key to creating safe opportunities for nature exploration now lies in the development of robust park, trail, and open space systems in our communities.  Large-scale projects such as planning for the Pflugerville Park & Trail System address the need for safety, connectivity, and a variety of programmed and unprogrammed outdoor spaces.  At RVi, we are grateful for every opportunity to create outdoor spaces that inspire this much-needed interaction with nature.