Kids damage ‘nature play areas’

Nature is good for kids: It lowers their anxiety and may increase attention span. But are kids good for nature?

Researchers investigated this question by studying three nature play areas, large patches of grass or forest where children can roam at will. These sites have become a popular way to counteract “nature deficit disorder” among urban and computer-addicted kids. The three play areas examined in the study are located in protected parts of Virginia, Illinois, and North Carolina, and each one host thousands of kids per year.

About half of the play areas’ trees and shrubs showed signs of damage, the team reports in Landscape and Urban Planning. At popular play spots and informal trails made by children, most of the ground cover had disappeared. The researchers also watched kids at four nature play areas and found that they engaged in behavior that had an “environmental impact” — such as trampling plants and digging in the dirt — about one-third of the time.

The study suggests that “nature play can have significant long-term impacts on the environment,” the authors write. But that doesn’t mean these sites should be shut down. “[T]he environmental costs of nature play may be outweighed by social benefits,” the researchers note, and “unstructured experiences in nature may help build a new generation of conservationists”. Roberta Kwok | 8 August 2013

Source: Browning, M.H.E.M., J.L. Marion, and T.G. Gregoire. 2013. Sustainably connecting children with nature — An exploratory study of nature play area visitor impacts and their management. Landscape and Urban Planning doi: 10.1016/j.landurbplan.2013.07.004.

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