Volume 26 Issue 4, Fall 2021
by Meghan Goldman, Youth and Family Program Coordinator
In Grand Rapids, Mich., public schools, every eighth grader gets a chance to put on a life jacket and learn how to canoe. Throughout the city, children are busy planting tree saplings in neighborhoods without a full tree canopy, and they’re also designing a green schoolyard play area using downed tree stumps. These efforts are all part of the city’s coordinated strategy to connect children to nature.
Grand Rapids is just one of many communities across the U.S. acting on research that nature makes kids healthier, smarter, and happier. In Rochester, N.Y., the city adopted a Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights, and committed to building an urban nature center. The city of Austin, Texas, has installed several new green schoolyards, and also launched a Nature-Smart Library initiative.
As communities across Loudoun continue to embrace sustainable growth and environmental stewardship, there are many opportunities to incorporate policies, programs, and green infrastructure that can connect kids to the natural world.
Already commonplace in other countries, as well as a growing number of U.S. cities, green schoolyards replace asphalt and turf lawns with nature-filled places for students, teachers, parents, and community members to play, learn, explore, and grow. Elements can include outdoor classrooms, native landscapes, nature play features, stormwater capture, trails, and trees.
Outside of school hours, these schoolyards become a convenient way for neighborhood residents to both access and connect with nature. Adding natural elements to school grounds is also a great opportunity to create a shared sense of ownership with the surrounding community, by engaging nearby residents in the design and stewardship of the space.
Making Parks Inviting to All
Even though Loudoun may have an abundance of green space throughout the county, it’s important to understand whether children — and which children — can actually have meaningful nature experiences. A close look at use patterns and accessibility barriers can uncover deficits that need to be addressed.
Some potential strategies to increase children’s connection to nature could include building a youth steward program. By training and enlisting local youth in park stewardship activities, teens are able to engage with nature in a new and meaningful way. They would also be able to help guide adults in creating relevant programming for their peers.
Teens with an interest in environmental issues could also be recruited, trained, and employed to lead summer nature activities for younger children through various community parks.
Lastly, park staff can be given training and funding to offer more culturally relevant programming and communications to families of color.
Infusing Nature Connections
Many cities across the U.S. have begun infusing nature experiences into early education and afterschool programming. Both Seattle, Wash., and Austin, Texas, operate nature preschools through partnerships between early childhood education providers and parks departments.
Another great option is to provide professional development and training to afterschool program providers on how to lead more activities outdoors and how to integrate nature as part of core programming. These staff have the potential to infuse more nature experiences into programming for many children during the after-school, weekend, and summer hours.
Finally, parks departments can consider naturalizing some existing park areas with children’s access and interests in mind, to promote the direct connection of children to nature.
Communities across the U.S. see bringing nature’s benefits to children as an integral part of goals towards equity, community health, resiliency, park activation, youth engagement, and infrastructure. If you’re interested in partnering with Loudoun Wildlife to bring any of these elements of nature connection to your community, please contact Meghan Goldman (firstname.lastname@example.org).
- Cities Connecting Children to Nature — Municipal Action Guide.
- “How the City of Grand Rapids Became a Leader in Connecting Children to Nature” by Alejandra Pallais, National League of Cities.