Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Columbus Metroparks Natural Play Areas

The Last Child in the Woods?

I'm lucky- as a natural resources professional for the good part of the past ten years- I've never really been confined to trails.  Yeah, sure, when I visit our local Metroparks with my family, I've got to stay on the trails, or do I?

Responding the the rising sentiment laid out in Richard Louv's "The Last Child in the Woods", in which he argues today's children suffer from a nature deficit disorder, the Columbus Metroparks have created what they call natural play areas.  At least ten acres in size, these areas are designated places where children and their families can go off trail, climb trees, look for bugs, to play in streams, and pick up sticks (please note that Weston is firmly holding onto a stick in each of the photos I have posted here).

We felt Weston, now 17 months, might finally be ready to explore an area like this.  Megan and I drove him to the Highbanks Metropark natural play area this past Saturday, and with a little guidance, let him explore the area.

"Play in a Stream, Climb Trees and Rocks, Look for Bugs and Worms"

Weston loved it- and we came slightly unprepared.  But those white New Balances won't fit in a month, so we let him get them all wet.  At one point he went marching into the Olentangy.

Towards the end of our visit, and after I had pointed out poison ivy and several patches of itch inducing wood nettle, Megan told me she wouldn't feel comfortable bringing Weston here by herself- she would worry about him getting poison ivy or nettle stings. It really brought home the point- today's parents are just afraid to let their kids play in the woods, fearing horrible insect bites, ticks, West Nile Virus, rashes, broken bones, abductions, and just about anything bad we can possibly think of.  

I grew up on the outskirts of a suburb of Akron, but we were lucky to have a piece of city owned land behind our house that was slated to be a developed park, but to this day remains a natural area. It was my natural playground, and it was in my backyard.  The house that Weston now claims as his own is surrounded by grassy yards.  Since I want to give Weston the opportunity to love the natural world, I'm excited about these natural play areas- hopefully other parents will find these places as well-  I hope Weston  won't be the last child in the woods.



  1. Thank you for your ongoing commitment to share nature experiences, and obstacles, that you and your family are encountering. I feel like I am some anonymous "aunt" watching as your son matures. How great that you are encouraging nature connection for him!
    There is a great movement to mentor children and adults in this connection, that many feel will be our hope for the future. The Cincinnati Nature Center is beginning NatureVersity classes, to encourage awareness and participation. A fabulous book that is addressing this next step after Richard Louv's "Last Child in the Woods" scenario, is "Coyote's Guide - Connecting with Nature", Jon Young, Ellen Haas, Evan McGown. I don't normally promote specifics, but I think these changes are so exciting.
    Keep up the good work, and experiences. It matters.

  2. I grew up out west -- a few minutes walk from a nice river valley and a short drive from a great expanse of mountains, foothills, canyons, and prairies.

    One of the biggest roadblocks to developing a healthy curiosity and understanding of nature is fear of nature as a dangerous unknown. In that sense, little patches of wild in an otherwise urban landscape are fantastic.

    No large predators (sorry, coyotes don't count!), no venomous snakes, it's impossible to get lost, ... these can be fantastic places foster a child's curiosity and appreciation of nature. As they get older, it's that same appreciation and curiosity which they will turn towards the more substantial patches of wilderness that exist elsewhere in the world.

  3. What a great place to take Weston to experience the outdoors. The fear that parents feel doesn't just stop with little kids, though. I'm an adult and my mom STILL frets when I tell her about some of my forays out into the woods. Hopefully places such as this at Highbanks will help teach parents and children alike some common sense about the natural world. Her fears come from what she doesn't know or understand. Learning to be on your toes and being educated about what might be around you will go a long way toward keeping us all safe "out in the woods."

  4. Great post! I really think people have lost touch with nature and people are afraid/suspicious of what they don't know. I hope more folks take advantage of these areas and get out and find some bugs, snakes, poison ivy, nettles and find out they aren't that scary but are actually pretty neat.

  5. Good for you for getting him in the wild young! He'll learn about what things to avoid and what things to fear as he encounters them with you guys along teaching him. He looks like he was enjoying it!

  6. Wow, what a great idea, natural play areas! Looks like Weston had a great time with his sticks and will want to go back soon!

  7. Tom: That was a super post, my Weston is getting so big. I'm so glad he got out into the park to have some fun.

  8. I grew up in a different era and was generally allowed to explore almost anywhere and learnt by making the usual mistakes....a few bites, scratches etc. and certainly not the fear of abduction or harm from other humans. The world has changed dramatically in my 60 years and I'm delighted to both watch and help any youngsters exploring nature at locations that are designed to be safe while opening their minds to what is around them. Excellent post Tom.