Feature Article - September 2011
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Going Off Trail

New Paths in Programming to Connect Children With Nature

By Kelli Anderson

Play it Safe

Perhaps some of the biggest obstacles to this newer approach to children's programming and nature play are the concerns for children's safety, liability and damage to the environment. According to nature play advocates like Finch, many solutions to these concerns begin with a look at perspective, comparative risk and risk analysis.

"We often have conversations about the worry with catching fireflies and climbing trees," Finch said about a common concern. "When I ask if they have a driveway, a parking lot or buildings, I tell them 'You did way more damage with those things than a kid will ever do catching grasshoppers.' We put children in there to encourage them to take better care of the property—that's what it's about. It's a retooling of perspective to ponder what is harmful and what isn't."

Safety, too, is a commonly raised objection, especially on the issue of climbing trees. "A lot of it comes down to comparative risk and common sense," Finch responds. "When I met with Charlie Shoemaker, the director of Five Rivers, we talked about these perceived dangers and his answer floored me. 'No big deal; that's what we have insurance for'." When the first and second causes of children's death are drowning and car accidents, he further explained, it would be silly to expect parks to erect six-foot fences and turn roads that bring people to their doors into bike paths. From bee stings to grizzly bears, parks, he maintains, have risks. The trick is how to manage them.

Industry peers in Britain, it seems, have come up with a working solution. In a nationwide program to get kids out in nature called Play England, they perform a three-pronged safety analysis that, in the case of trees, for example, first identifies suitable trees for climbing; second, identifies potential hazards and lessens dangers (like removing neck traps and sharp points and adding mulch); and third, does a benefits analysis that explains the benefits like self-confidence, psychological gains and just falling in love with nature.

"Falling in love with nature, pairing it with the benefits, sends a great message to parents and community," Finch concluded. "The trends are going in the right direction."