Emma Marris recently posted an article on Slate, speaking with a former park ranger Matthew Browning and others, and arguing in favor of letting kids explore nature however they want, whether it's climbing trees or collecting rocks or building forts or digging holes, wherever they find nature...even in a national park. At first I was like, "Yeah!" Then I was like "Wait a second..."
Kids AND adults do need to explore and investigate nature. It's good for the soul and creates a tangible connection between ourselves and the world. BUT national parks are set aside for a reason. And the large numbers of visitors to these popular destinations means the "nature" within a national park is automatically more highly impacted than other natural areas. No one can selfishly treat these places as belonging to just themselves. Public lands must be shared, and they must be left how we would wish to find them.
But after millions of kid-hours of use by children gleefully doing their worst, these play zones remain functioning natural areas. The damage wrought by kids was comparable to that from hiking or camping.
Letting kids "do their worst" is not teaching them to respect and admire nature. Nature CAN be a playground...but it is so much more. The article implies that national parks are stuffy with a policy of Leave-No-Fun. The counter-offer is the creation of designated free-play areas within national parks where kids could do whatever they want to the plants, animals, and earth found in the zone. It's an interesting idea, but perhaps one that should be applied in cities, residential areas, and in place of structured playgrounds...the places kids explore everyday.
Kids do need unstructured playtime, and they do need to experiment and explore...but we humans spend so much time bending nature to our own desires, it's valuable to teach children to stop and quietly observe what's going on around them. Watch, listen, smell. Be IN nature, not ABOVE nature. National parks in particular provide this opportunity, and were in fact created for it. Stewardship, preservation, sustainability, and conservation are the words and actions children need to learn, but first they need to understand why. To understand why they need to see it and experience it as it is, not as an amusement park. Furthermore, they need to see the adults in their world respect and SHARE nature. There's plenty of wild on-trail and within the rules.