Children, Nature, and Neighborhoods

Much has been written about the deep, positive impact that exposure to nature can have on children. I agree. Recently, I’ve seen with my own eyes how vital a relationship with nature can be for children.

However, through this experience I’ve come to realize that the discussions of children and nature have largely failed to address how to best include nature into children’s lives.

I’ve come to realize that two factors are crucial to the magical experience my two older boys (6 and 2-1/2) have had:

  1. Familiarity: My boys know deep details about many nooks and crannies along our creek bed. They have been to the same area multiple times, not just during this intense period of fort building this summer, but also less frequently over the past two years. They’ve been there during all seasons, from the days of no water in the summer to rainy season in the winter, when we’ve waded in wet suits in waist-deep water. When my oldest son Marco pointed out a mind-boggling number of details to me down there yesterday, I realized that his deep familiarity with the place has become a catalyst for him to explore more and learn more.
  2. Freedom: Before this summer, I was with my boys whenever they went to the creek, so I had a great impact on their experience there. Now, though, another adult or I take my boys and the other neighborhood kids there and back off. They make all of their own decisions. When they’re building one of their forts or “houses,” they debate among themselves about what to add, what materials to use, and how to get it done. Then, they goof around. Then, they decide to go foraging. They go where they want and when they want. This freedom has helped them gain a great deal of practical knowledge, social skills, and self-confidence.

I do not think my boys and the other neighborhood kids could have nearly the quality of experience they’ve had in nature without this level of familiarity and freedom. These two factors work together to create the perfect place for simultaneous play and learning.

There is nowhere that these kids could be having this experience other than their neighborhood. The fact that it’s so close enables us to bring them there very frequently, so they have become very familiar with the place. And, their familiarity and parents’ familiarity with the place has enabled us parents to afford them a great deal of freedom there.

I believe that neighborhood totally transforms the impact of nature on children. Without that local context, nature ends up being little better for children than an AYSO soccer game, albeit in a beautiful setting. A child’s experience in nature outside his or her neighborhood is most likely adult-administered and superficial. It bears little, if any, relationship to the absolutely transformational experience my boys and their neighborhood friends are experiencing.

So, what does this imply for the children and nature movement? Well, I’d say that the term “children and nature” is not very useful without bringing in the neighborhood context. “Children, nature, and neighborhood” is magical. It’s a holy trinity.

Children and nature outside the neighborhood is like a slice of cheese in a triple-decker sandwich of a busy, scheduled life. Parents schedule the “nature hour” at the park between soccer practice and piano lessons. Or, they schedule “nature weekend” at a national park for one weekend out of the year.

Of course, not every family lives close to a great creek or other natural habitat like we do. What should parents do in that case? I’d say, find a great place close to your house – i.e. within a kid’s walk – that can become a kid’s refuge or hangout. It may not be the most beautiful natural setting, but what’s most important is that kids have a place that they become intimately familiar with, so that they can feel free to explore, play, and learn with parents close by, but not hovering over them.

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