Whatever happened to parents saying, “Go outside and play?”
In nature, it’s just as important to know what not to be afraid of as it is to know what to fear. Unfortunately, in our increasingly urban county, some parents have become so fearful of what might be out there that they won’t even let their kids play in the back yard.
That’s where Nature Playce at Hidden Oaks Nature Center comes in. Hidden Oaks Visitor Services Manager Suzanne Holland says the play area is designed for nature-phobic parents as well as for their three- to ten-year-old children.
In speaking with parents, Holland found that many limit their children’s time in nature because they’re worried about everything from insect stings and bird flu to poison ivy and poison oak. Nature Playce addresses those fears through education and a woodland area cleared of many things a parent may find threatening. Since 2008, Hidden Oaks staff has encouraged preschool teachers and other child care professionals to embrace taking children outside for traditionally indoor activities and include unstructured play in their curriculum. There are monthly three-hour workshops for the Institute of Early Learning, a division of Fairfax County Office for Children, that focus on Nature Playce and how to use outdoor play to engage children in both cultural history and nature.
Off the Beaten Path
Part of Nature Playce’s appeal to children is letting them break some rules. For example, there is no trail to stay on. Children can roam the one-third acre area, pick up stones and roll logs to see what’s underneath. They can hop across stumps known as tree cookies and walk on a log. Touching is a “yes” activity. Kids can even make mud pies.
Before entering Nature Playce, parents are encouraged to visit the nature center for a ten-minute introduction to playing safely outdoors. Children and adults get tips on such things as how to identify a copperhead snake and avoid poison ivy, how to safely handle a worm, and how to figure out which bugs are safe to touch. They also learn how to roll a log and why the log should be replaced.
After the introduction, children are dubbed official “Nature Snoopers” and receive “a key” to the play area – a large, colorful magnifying glass. They are invited to explore with a Nature Snooper’s pail of goodies – digging tools, cups, books and feathers.
Naturalists keep the play area as safe for young children as possible by clearing out such things as poison ivy. A low, split rail fence surrounding the area provides a sense of security. Once children pass through the gate, they can venture through four areas that present new opportunities for fun and that grow progressively “wilder.” They’ll discover a waterscape surrounded by boulders to climb, supports to make a fort, a dirt pit for digging, hidden dinosaur tracks, fallen trees to balance upon, and stumps and rocks to overturn. Parents can sit back on rustic benches and watch the kids explore or join in the fun.
Holland says the area is designed to “provide assurances for parents while stimulating a sense of wonder.” Children need an adult to support their exploration, and she says her hope is that “as parents and children become more open to having an adventure, they’ll be more willing to go into their back yards.” Parents can join an email list to learn about other activities and programs at the center.
The typical response from parents who visit Nature Playce? Holland says she often hears, “What a great idea. I used to love to play outside,” or “My friend needs to bring her kids out here with us. She is not as comfortable with bugs as we are.”
Nature Playce Targets Nature Deficit Disorder
Is there such a thing as being too safe with our kids? If it means disconnecting them from nature, the answer is yes. That’s Richard Louv’s argument in his book Last Child in the Woods, the inspiration for Nature Playce at Hidden Oaks Nature Center.
Today’s parents are familiar with Attention Deficit Disorder and No Child Left Behind laws. Nature Playce exists to combat the growing Nature Deficit Disorder among today’s children and support the No Child Left Inside movement.
The Children and Nature Network says researchers have found connecting with nature can:
- Increase creativity and school achievement
- Increase focus
- Reduce stress
- Increase cooperation
- Reduce aggression
Holland says unmasking the outdoors for children fosters an appreciation for nature and environmentalism. By getting kids outside, you plant seeds for the “environmental stewards of the future who will care enough to vote to protect trees, wildlife and other green issues.”
Hidden Oaks will celebrate the 10th anniversary of Nature Playce on September 29, 2018. There will be an open house during an afternoon of activities in Nature Playce and at the nature center.
Nature Playce is on the web at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/hidden-oaks/nature-playce.
Author Carol Ochs works in the Park Authority’s Public Information Office.