by Dr. Oakleigh Thorne, II
When I was a boy, I was lucky to grow up “in the country” far away from “the big city.” We lived on sixty acres of woods and meadows with a stream and even a lake. We even had a large garden, and I had an area of it that was mine to grow whatever I wanted. From a very young age, I had freedom to roam. I was always outside. Sometimes I would be looking for a bird’s nest and figuring out what kind of bird had built it. I’d have to wait patiently until the bird returned, then try to identify it in my bird book. Other times I would find a toad, a turtle, or a butterfly on a pretty flower. On rainy days I would play in the mud, watch how the water flowed, and make pebble dams to change the flow. In one way or another, I was usually in contact with nature. I indeed had the freedom to explore my surroundings.
What about kids today? Do they have the kind of freedom that I had? I’m afraid that many of them don’t. We have many parks and open spaces, but often the rules are that both kids and adults must always stay on the trails or paths. They are not allowed to build secret “forts”, like I used to do in our woods. They are not allowed to climb trees or build tree houses. Suburban kids might have a backyard, but urban kids may only have cement sidewalks and streets outside their apartment…no place to explore nature or to have a garden.
It doesn’t have to be that way. We can design areas where children can play freely and discover things about nature, what David Hawkins, the famous educator, called “messing about with science.” That’s exactly what I was doing when I built my pebble dams. There’s an organization called Wild Zones that builds these sorts of areas where kids are able to explore and have direct contact with nature. Public parks and open spaces can zone some areas as “protected” and others where children are allowed “free play” to explore without being afraid of breaking some rule.
In a recent article, I talked about “biophilic design,” where developers bring nature into their plans on purpose, especially when they are redesigning an urban area that might have become blighted, run-down, or deserted. An old vacant lot can become a community garden, where neighbors can come together and get to know each other while working cooperatively to grow fruits and vegetables that they can harvest for their families. This certainly is a kind of “nature contact.”
On a larger scale, there are some famous parks that have preserved nature for a big city. Central Park in New York City is one of these. It was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, whose son, Frederick Jr., came to Boulder in 1910 and created a plan to have greenbelts around the city and along Boulder Creek. It was over 50 years later that this report was republished and used for publicity to help pass the sales tax for the city to buy open spaces.
We must consciously see the importance of having places where children have the freedom to roam. Planners and public citizens need always to remember this!
Dr. Thorne is founder and honorary president of Thorne Ecological Institute in Boulder. They have helped “connect kids to nature” for more than 55 years. For more information about Thorne Natural Science School classes for children, check www.thornenature.org or e-mail email@example.com or call (303) 499-3647.