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January 2008 Issue

Where It’s Safe To Get Dirty
Letting kids play in their own neighborhoods scares today’s parents. Can children’s gardens like this one at the Morton Arboretum make up for kids’ nature deficits?

By Samuel F. Dennis Jr., ASLA

Where It’s Safe To Get Dirty Courtesy of EDAW

A recent environmental education conference in the Midwest, which I attended, focused on the “No Child Left Inside” movement sweeping the United States. In one session the audience was asked to describe their childhood play in nature. We filled flip charts with activities such as climbing trees, throwing rocks, building dams, and catching frogs—essentially getting wet and dirty far from adult supervision. Then audience members, most of whom represented nature centers, forest preserves, arboreta, parks, and K–12 schools, were asked which of these activities were encouraged or even allowed in their children’s programs.

After a silent pause, someone admitted they sometimes allow children to skip stones on the pond.

The driving theory behind the “No Child Left Inside” revolution, as journalist Richard Louv details in his book Last Child in the Woods, is that children’s free play in natural settings leads to an early emotional attachment to nature that later develops into environmental sensitivity. Depriving children of these experiences portends dire consequences for the future of environmental stewardship. “Nature-deficit disorder” is the phrase Louv invented to describe today’s children’s profound lack of contact with nature. It’s not simply that opportunities for nature play are shrinking; the forces holding children prisoners inside their schools and homes are increasing.

“Free-range childhood has come to an end,” says Robin Moore, Affiliate ASLA, who has spent his career focused on children’s environments. Moore’s research has demonstrated the shrinking range of childhood based primarily on parents’ generalized fear of strangers and of child abduction in particular.

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