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March 27, 2015

Commons Are For Kids!

Youngsters need places they can explore, discover and call their own.

A place of one's own:  Boyce Park in Pittsburgh. (By Kevin Conor Keller under a Creative Commons license)

The Rio Grande Bosque (forest) is one of the most beautiful and most loved open space areas in Albuquerque.  Here, large cottonwood trees, coyote willow, and New Mexico olive provide habitat for beaver, turtles, snakes, porcupines, and numerous species of birds.   A shady 16-mile multi-use path running through the Bosque is popular with hikers, bikers, skaters, bird watchers, photographers, and nature lovers of all ages. 

Yet, according to a complaint registered with the city, there are too many children laughing and enjoying the Bosque during summer vacation. Debate over who should have access to open space and how it should be used is not new. So who does the Bosque and other open space areas really belong to?  Are children included?

A look at a typical city suggests that kids should enjoy their time outdoors in places designed specifically for them.  We call such places “playgrounds” and often enclose them with fences. This arrangement conveys the idea that children should be confined to certain places while enjoying the out-of-doors.  Yet, this arrangement isn’t what kids really want; and the design of many playgrounds is sadly deficient in meeting the physical, social, and emotional needs of children. 

What children want and need are opportunities to explore, discover, and make a place their own.  Playgrounds -- where equipment is usually cemented down and designed to be used in a certain way -- fail to invite much exploration and creativity.   In terms of playability, empty lots with an abundance of mud, moss, weeds, and bugs have more to offer than traditional playgrounds.  Unfortunately, kids’ access to empty lots and other natural areas is becoming ever more restricted.  The result – as Jay Griffiths says in Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape – is that childhood is losing its commons.

Factors contributing to this loss include the actual disappearance of open space and attitudes about what children should be doing and not doing.  Suggesting that children should be at home watching TV or playing video games versus enjoying the Bosque is one example of an attitude inconsistent with what is in the best interests of children.  Parents who are over-anxious about the safety of their children and children who are over-programmed in their daily lives are other factors contributing to children’s diminishing access to the commons.

Fortunately, initiatives are underway in different parts of the US (and the world) to make the commons more inviting and accessible to kids.  One such initiative focuses on providing natural playspaces for children.  A natural playspace is a space intentionally designed to include natural features for play and active exploration.  Natural features – such as rocks, logs, sand, and soil – are already present in many open space areas.  The problem is that, in many places, the rule is “Do not disturb.”  This rule includes restrictions about moving things about in the physical environment.  In the case of the complaint about children in the Bosque, this also includes not disturbing the peace and quiet some adults are seeking.  Thus, the conflict of interests.

The Natural Learning Initiative (NLI) at the College of Design, North Carolina State University is the nationally and internationally recognized leader in making natural playspaces available to children.  NLI works with community institutions and organizations – including schools, child care centers, parks, museums, and neighborhoods – to create stimulating outdoor places for play and learning.  Their focus is on playability and what is good for kids. 

The nature play movement is another initiative making the commons more inviting to kids.  Children engaged in nature play dig in the dirt, pour water over sand and stones, use branches and sticks to build forts, make mud soup, and float leaves in a stream.  

NatureStart, a program of the Chicago Zoological Society, is a leader in the nature play movement.  NatureStart works with zoos, aquariums, nature centers, and other informal learning institutions around the globe to provide nature play opportunities for young children.  At times, this involves “changing the rules” about how open space can be used.  The development of the “Nature Play Zone” at the Indiana Dunes National Shoreline is one example of an established organization developing new policies to make open space more accessible to kids.

Julie Larsen, Ranger at Indiana Dunes National Shoreline, participated in a NatureStart training program at the Brookfield Zoo.  Excited about the possibilities, she envisioned a nature play area at the national park where she worked.  To make this happen, however, policy and procedural changes had to be made -- as a general rule for national parks is “Do not disturb.” Julie obtained the necessary policy changes, and in April, 2013, the Nature Play Zone welcomed its first visitors.  Today, children and their caregivers can build sand forts, climb trees, scoop water and sand in buckets, and engage in all types of imaginative play with natural materials while visiting the Indiana Dunes National Shoreline.

While playability is a term often used in reference to a rating scale for golf irons, it’s also a concept with important implications for children’s enjoyment of the commons.   Play is what children do.  To enjoy the commons, they need places with play potential.  The Bosque in Albuquerque as well as other open space areas around the country offer such potential.  What’s needed now is the understanding that the commons belong to all of us – including children – and that playability is just as important as aesthetics.