Are trees more important than children?
It was a glorious day. The sun was shining, and we had just dropped our backpacks next to the lake under a big oak tree. I found a strong, thick branch of a sprawling old oak tree and set up our swing, then gave the boys some nets to dip into the water and see what they could find. They waded into the water, some up to their knees, one even up to his waist! One of the boys immediately went to take the first ride on the swing, laughing with glee as he sailed slightly over the water in a gentle arc.
I stood back from giving directions and remained quiet for a few moments, marveling at the power of nature to “wake up” children’s sensory systems. The boy who was waist deep in the water was grinning from ear to ear, and talking to the other boys more than ever before. Others were saying, “Look at this!” and showing their peers what they had found, or attempting to make the biggest splash while jumping into the water at the very edge of the lake. They were PLAYING with one another, and it was beautiful to watch.
Suddenly, a park ranger ran up to us, slightly out of breath, waving both his arms in wide arcs out in front of his body, as if motioning for something to stop.
The first words out of his mouth hit me like a punch in the gut:
“NONE of this is okay!”
My heart sank…and started beating fiercely inside my chest as I took a deep breath and tried to remain calm. He quickly continued.
“First of all,” he began, “NO ONE is allowed in the lake. If you all want to go in the water, you each have to pay to enter and swim only at the beach area.”
“So they can’t even wade in the water? They’re not swimming…,” I tentatively asked.
“No, there is NO access allowed to the water anywhere except in the swimming area. There are signs all over the park; you should have seen them. There’s toxic algae.”
This surprised me because I had recently checked online and the lake had been cleared for swimming. So I had to ask, still trying to be polite, “Wow…really? I checked online recently and it said the water was safe after all the rain we’ve had. I thought the swim area was open?”
“Well, yes. There isn’t toxic algae that we’ve found yet…so the beach is still open.”
(Hmmm…strange. First there is toxic algae, then the lake is open to swimming??)
“Anyway, THIS” he said, motioning toward the rope I had placed on a very, very thick oak tree branch to hold up our swing, “is absolutely not allowed. There is no hanging of anything anywhere on any tree in this park. NO hammocks, NO swings, NO streamers or banners for parties. See how you have that rope there? LOOK at what it’s doing. It’s damaging the bark of the tree and making it susceptible to infection.”
I began taking the swing down while he rushed off, taking one last jab: “Can you get them out of the water now? It would have been nice if you had told them all to get out of the water at the beginning of this conversation when I told you they were not allowed in the water, rather than waiting till now.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said to his back, while he was walking away, “I was engaged in our conversation. I’ll tell them now.”
Directing my attention back to the children, I tried to use a cheerful voice: “Ok, boys. The park ranger says we aren’t allowed to play in the water. Let’s set up the blanket in the sun over here and have our snack….”
This whole encounter enraged me, only because it is NOT the first time I have encountered very angry park rangers or other well-meaning nature-lovers prohibiting children’s play in nature. Just recently a random hiker near Big Sur asked me to tell my 6-year-old to stop throwing rocks near a large waterfall, because we were in a “national park!” and it could damage plants growing on the rocks. I politely refused and told her there was virtually no risk of damage to nature with him throwing a few rocks. I also shared my belief that children need meaningful experiences in nature to help them love and respect nature, in order to grow into adults who take care of nature (and I followed up by cheering my son on, saying “Good one!” or “Nice throw!” every now and then.)
This battle between children and nature has been an ongoing challenge for me for 3 years since moving my OT practice outdoors. The protection of nature and the right of children to play freely in nature seem to always be in competition, with the protection of nature always "winning" because the laws are on the side of nature. But are trees more important than children? Being a person who works with children in nature, of course I want to protect nature! I also believe strongly in the right of children to play freely in it. I think we can do both.
While incredible initiatives are underway throughout the US to connect children to nature, are any of these programs addressing this key problem: how do we protect nature while still allowing children to play freely in nature? Do these programs include protections for children to do things like wade in creeks, climb trees, throw rocks? Children NEED these experiences- wading on the edge of a lake is not a crime! Neither is placing a rope on a large strong centuries-old tree for a few minutes of swinging! Or creek walking! Or picking a daisy! Or collecting rocks! But in all of our local parks, these are prohibited activities. What can children do? Walk on trails. B-O-R-I-N-G. And not the full-body experiential exploration that children need for their healthy development.
I wonder if there is a way to set aside portions of our public nature spaces where free play is not prohibited but is encouraged. A place in nature where children can explore, climb, wade, splash, swing, hang, jump, roll, shout, and laugh. One of our regional parks has over 2000 acres of land. What if the park could set aside just 2 acres (.1%!) of the land where—for once—children’s needs are more important than trees.
One of my deepest longings is for a space where children can play freely in nature without risk of being interrupted and told: "NONE of this is okay!" At this point, I'm not sure where that may be. I'm still searching in hopes of one day having local land to offer children a space for uninhibited play in nature. It is my biggest and most audacious dream! And now more than ever, I’m motivated to make it a reality. If you have any ideas, I’d love to hear them!