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The Importance of Nature Spaces for Kids

With Professor Emerita • CEDaR Fellow, Louise Chawla

BIO: Louise Chawla is professor emerita in the Program in Environmental Design at the University of Colorado Boulder. Previously associate director of the Children, Youth and Environments Center and co-editor of the Center's journal Children, Youth and Environments, she is now a Community Engagement, Design and Research (CEDaR) fellow. She is an active participant in Growing Up Boulder, a partnership that she helped establish between CEDaR, the Boulder Valley School District and the City of Boulder to integrate the ideas of children and youth into urban planning and design. Formerly international coordinator of the Growing Up in Cities program of UNESCO from 1996-2006, she now serves as an advisor for a revival of this initiative that involves young people in cities around the world in evaluating and improving their urban communities. She is also a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee of Children and Nature Network. She has written three books and many book chapters and journal articles on children and nature, children in cities, and the development of active care for the natural world.  Most recently, she is a coauthor of the book, Placemaking with Children and Youth: Participatory Practices for Planning Sustainable Communities (New Village Press, 2018)

Professor Emerita, Louise Chawla has authored 

Okay, so for a little context, I contacted you because I recently was listening to Richard Louve’s “Last Child in the Woods.” When he referenced your work, I immediately looked you up and knew I wanted to interview you. 

You’ve written extensively on the importance of natural spaces for children, designing and creating them, etc. For our readers, let’s start with an overview of your work and research, and what you've been involved in.


Alright. Well, my work in this field goes back to the late 1970s when I was doing a Masters in child development. When I was about 2 months into the program, I realized that what I'm really interested in is what children learn outside the classroom, which means both the natural areas in their communities and also cultural spaces; whether that's commercial public spaces or libraries, cultural centers, whatever. Really, what kind of resources are out there in communities for children that promote positive child development. Those have always remained my interest. 

So, I've worked on a range of different topics, but that's what ties everything together. I've never seen nature and cities, for example, as exclusive. My interest is asking where is nature in cities and how accessible is it for children. Do they have the freedom to discover it? Also, and this certainly fits in with your interest in the arts, what kind of public spaces are there that children can join where they can see people of all social classes, all colors, people of all kinds, all ages and also encounter the arts and encounter the culture of their communities.

To me, a really well-functioning community contains both, it contains opportunities for participation in community culture and also opportunities to explore and discover and connect with the natural world. Those are ideal communities.


What are some great examples, that you've seen, of communities doing it right and doing it well?


Well, a great deal of that presumes that children have the freedom to get out and about in their communities and freedom to explore on their own and with their friends, that they're not always directed and led by adults. Of course, that's a great challenge and we can get back to that, but that's why organized programs have become so important today. 

I grew up in a generation where the only rule was be home by dinnertime. And if I wasn't home by dinner time, the consequences were not severe. It just meant I went to bed with a bowl of cereal instead of dinner. That gave me freedom as a child. In the suburb where I lived, which was home base, there was a brook at the back corner of our home, a wooded lot beyond that, an old orchard beyond that and then the brook went up to a marsh, and the marsh was in a woodlands, and so on. I had that freedom to explore the natural world.

I also had opportunities to explore the city because I had relatives in New York City and I would often stay with them for a week or more at a time. 

Of course, I had the freedom to explore the natural world right around our home from the time I was in elementary school. But my freedom to go explore for hours at a time on my own in the city probably started by at least the middle of elementary school.

You know, many people of my generation growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s had that kind of freedom. So, the ideal situation for children gives them freedom to explore. Things have changed dramatically since then. My colleagues and I talk about how we need to bring nature where children are now because most children don't have the freedom to get out and find the nature in their communities, where it is.

Beyond that basic assumption of freedom to explore is dynamic cultural life in communities, which many cities offer. And then, nature spaces of all kinds and all sizes. You know, for little children that can be a small size which can still look very big and hold limitless wonders. Then, larger as young people get older.


From your research, how would you articulate the importance of having creative outlets for kids as a pathway to connect to the natural world? 


Well, just being in nature is a creative outlet, as long as, again, children are allowed to engage with it. I think David Sobel originally raised the issue that there are too many naturalist programs for kids where they have to stay on the path and they're not supposed to touch anything. The rule being look, look but don't touch!

When I'm speaking to groups of adults about children in nature, I often start out by saying, “How many of you in this room are here for this talk, on this subject, because you were marched down a trail as a child and told to stay on the trail and not to touch anything?” Of course, nobody raises their hand, but it’s the point.

When children are given the freedom to engage with the natural world, we have many, many studies that show just being in nature encourages creativity. While people may not think that building a fort with sticks is art, it's certainly creativity. Just the freedom to use materials and invent, using the stick as a horse, or making little miniature worlds, or whatever with found materials, molding the earth and building dams across creeks and all those kinds of things are definitely creativity. It's learning how things work. It's learning what I could do and inventing that oneself and with friends. So, we have a pretty well-established body of research that shows just playing in nature is more creative than, say, running around on a built playground. We’ll see a lot more creative play in the natural space.

Then, using the arts more formally, of course, is a way of giving children a voice. You know, having a voice and being able to express oneself is just another critical form of agency. In my work, I coordinated a project for Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, for 10 years called, “Growing up in Cities.” We have a couple of books that came out of that, films and many other presentations and publications. But it was dedicated to working with children in low-income districts, and sometimes in the most disadvantaged districts, like a squatter camp in South Africa, for example. We were looking at how even there, children could have their own ideas about what would make their places better places in which to grow up and what resources they had already. 

We started out working in eight countries together in a very closely coordinated way, and then 10 more, I think all in the end with 18 different city locations, but what came up always was the importance of nature as a resource, when the children perceived it as safe. Of course, in very difficult environments they, correctly, perceived it as a place where threatening people hung out. Or, in some cases, depending on the location it’s where the snakes or scorpions, or whatever were.

 When they perceived nature spaces as safe, they were really important resources for children according to the children's own expressions about what mattered the most to them. 

We used art a lot in involving children and evaluating where they lived in this way. So, I think the arts and nature spaces just go together. Nature spaces inspire artistic creativity because kids can have so many exciting experiences there. That just invites poetry, painting, drawing, modeling, you know, all kinds of artistic ways to express those emotional experiences in nature.


Yes, absolutely. Often, I’ll even stay away from the word art and just encourage personal “creativity” and personal “creative expression” because the word art can be so loaded. We also work with adults and I've noticed that word can create quite a block for people and even in some older kids. If we talk about, “doing some art,” they often feel unsettled about it. So, I usually just focus on, “Hey, let’s go get some natural materials and be creative with them!”

My mother used to run a day camp for kids from the inner city and a lot of the parents were a little bit scared to send their kids outside of the city. Some of those kids had never been off their block in their entire lives, and they would get pretty scared as they drove away from the city and suddenly saw no buildings and just wide open space with fields and cows. Have you ever experienced fear of natural spaces by parents or resistance to creating more natural spaces? 


Well, I think it's always critical to bring parents along. I mean, as I say, the people who grew up in my generation where the rule was to just be home by dinnertime, and who want to connect children with nature, we've kind of concluded together that we need to bring nature to where the children are. So, that means greening child care centers and greening preschools and schoolyards, having neighborhood parks, creating natural areas and nearby neighborhood parks, creating places for nature play and discovery right around multi-family housing.

Again, bringing it where children are. When it's right there and parents know that there are teachers or childcare staff that are supervising these spaces that gives them confidence. That's what we have found. If they can look outside their windows where their child is playing outdoors in a green space that is , of course, reaffirming. But there is a great need also for parent education because we already have a generation of parents who did not have much freedom, themselves. 

A paradox, of course, is that all the statistics show that life, in fact, has not gotten more dangerous for kids. But we're so swamped by media which emphasizes the scandals and the horrors and the crimes, even if they're committed, you know, 3,000 miles away, which terrifies parents. And that's understandable. So, I think everybody who is doing programs that connect children with nature are really important. A dimension of that needs to be bringing parents into the programs, or as volunteers to help plant trees or gardens, or whatever it might be. It’s important to have programs that explain the benefits children get from connecting with nature, and there is a ton of research that's continuously, rapidly accumulating that demonstrates that. There's no shortage of research on why it's important for children to have access to nature.

One of my former doctoral students, Chiara D’Amore, did an evaluation of family nature clubs which is one of the options. I think any kind of organized program that connects children with nature is a good option for parent education, but part of her research included participant observation at the ethnographic recordings where she interviewed parents. She found that it was useful for them to be able to see that other parents allow their children to get wet, or go into the wild creek, or to play with sticks, or walk through the mud.

Parents often expressed surprise that they didn't know it was okay to let their child do that, but then to see that other parents allowed that was really reassuring to them that it was okay. That always goes along, of course, with the smile on your child's face, and nothing could be a greater reinforcer than the smile on your small child's face when they're, you know, stomping through a puddle in their boots, or getting down into a wild creek, or making and constructing something with sticks in the woods. 


I know your interest is in informal learning. Do you have a one or two examples that are at the top of the pile for informal learning opportunities that you've seen and that have been exciting and effective?


Well, something that distinguishes my work and my work with colleagues is that we are not just about connecting children with nature, but we are very much about giving children a voice in their communities. It's not just about adults doing things for children like greening the school grounds for them or creating the nature play area in their neighborhood for them. Children have great capabilities. I have a book with colleagues called, “Place Making with Children and Youth,” which is a handbook for methods for involving young people in helping to plan, design and create the green spaces in their communities and the cultural spaces as well, even child-friendly transportation systems, all those different elements of sustainable communities.

We start with three-year-olds. I mean, if we're talking about the preschool grounds and enhancing the opportunities for discovering and playing with nature in those preschool grounds, involve the preschoolers and they'll have ideas about what they want there. They can even participate in some of the change-making. Then, we work from preschoolers through seniors in high school. By four years old, we're creating opportunities for children to speak to their city council. We're giving them opportunities to present their ideas for enhancing parks in their communities. When we look further down the road, we need young people who know how local government decisions are made, know that having a voice can make a difference.

We need that kind of civic action on the part of everybody, adults and young people. There's a wonderful African proverb that say’s a child carried on the back does not know the length of the road. It’s the same thing with learning civic action and learning to have a civic voice. 

So, that's a very important dimension of my work. As I said, it can start at any scale with children as young as three, or even younger. We're observing the babies and just seeing what they're attracted to in the environment, like what kind of trees or plants, or how they engage with the natural world.  From that, we’re deducing what to put more of into their environments. By then, they can deal with their immediate environment. By four, we find they're really ready to get enthusiastic about these kinds of processes.


Right. It does seem like their civic duty will be awakened or inspired or Informed by that idea of when we know more, when we learn more about something, we tend to care more about it. So if they know more about the natural world, then hopefully they're going to care mnore about it. That’s exciting.


Exactly. For example, we had our 200 kids from age four to high school students in the first stage of renovation of our Central Civic Park in my city of Boulder, CO. A creek runs through it so the older kids literally got into the creek, studying the creek ecosystem because one of the things you have to think about when you're planning any changes to a physical space is how it is going to affect the ecosystem. So, they're just so many opportunities for learning. 

You know, the city Council loves it when our kids show up because adults tend to just stand up and voice their opinions and their feelings. Before we put kids into a presentation to the City Council, they have done at least weeks of studying on the topic, if not a whole semester, and sometimes a whole year. So, these are young people who speak up, and are really informed about what they're talking about in terms of the natural world.


Which is so impressive. 


One of the things we're doing right now in my city is that we are in the process of getting Boulder formally accredited as a child-friendly city through UNICEF, U.S.A. We’re working with other cities to figure out what that means and it does mean that every agency in the city, their decision-making, their processes or policies, need to be consistent with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, where children's participation, and children's having a voice are among children's rights. Also, children's right to an education and to live in harmony with nature is one of the children's rights in the convention. So we're embarked on that right now. Our program.”Growing up Boulder,” which is leading this started in 2009. 


Ok., I know we are at our time, so would you like to close with any last thought?


What I want to close by saying is that what I'm talking about involves a culture change, and culture changes don't happen overnight. It takes like-minded people working together, finding each other, forming partnerships and then as I say, the magic happens.

Because with these partnerships, the different members of the partners find out, “Oh, you know I can do this, and I can do that. This is my skill set, and that's yours.” This is how we can combine and create these opportunities for children to have wonderful experiences in nature.

It's really a commitment to a long-term partnership and learning process to change the cultures of cities and have them really value children connecting with the natural world and children's agency in creating a greener and greener and more beautiful and sustainable community.


Beautifully said. I'm excited to dive into your work further! I so appreciate you taking this time to give me more insight and wonderful thoughts for our audience to consider. 


Sure. Well, thank you for the opportunity to share ideas. It sounds like you have a wonderful incubator organization.


Thank you. I hope so! I hope that we are able to encourage more of this right here in the community of the Wild Arts Learning Center. And just do our best to make the most positive impact where we are. 


Yes, and that's actually another working axiom that we have to start small, doing what you can comfortably do and see what happens.


Thank you so much, Louise. May we all find the most effective ways to live that!


For people who want to integrate children and teens into planning, designing and creating nature places in their communities, Placemaking with Children and Youth: Participatory Practices for Planning Sustainable Communities—co-authored by Louise Chawla and her colleagues Victoria Derr and Mara Mintzer—forms a comprehensive guidebook for methods. Many of the methods involve the arts, from painting, drawing, writing and model making to puppet shows and theater. 



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