“Every park needs to have one of these areas,” he says.
Browning imagines this shift as even more than the creation of roped-off venues for independent childhood experience with nature. He imagines rangers trusting visitors with a message a bit more complex than a blanket “Don’t touch!” Imagine a prominent sign or a notice on park maps that would give kids and parents a little context, he says: “Here are some really common flowers that we don’t want in our park. Your kids can pick bouquets of these. Here are some pine cones that you can collect in the park.”
Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, agrees that parks should make room for kids to play. “If kids don’t have some kind of connection to nature that is hands-on and independent, then they are probably not going to develop the love of nature and vote for parks and the preservation of endangered species,” he says. “Unless you know something you are unlikely to love it.”
There’s some research to back up this intuition. One 2010 study in the journal Children, Youth and Environments found that among people who ended up dedicated to nature and conservation, most had a childhood filled with unstructured play in nature, some of which "was not environmentally sensitive by adult standards; rather, it included manipulation of the environment through war games, fort building, role playing of stories in popular children’s adventure books and movies, and the like."
Browning didn’t talk to the kids in the play areas he studied very much, but at one school he had an interaction with a boy of about 12 that stuck with him. “He was talking about how he would break branches and build forts and throw rocks. He had a knife with him. He said ‘I carve sticks into spears and stuff like that.’ ”
But when asked if he would ever stick his knife into a living tree, the boy looked horrified, “No!” he said. “It would hurt the tree; it would hurt the tree just like it would hurt me.”
“This is the ethic we are trying to teach!” cries Browning. No glum fealty to prohibitions here, no self-abnegation codified as “leave no trace”—but an active relationship with nature and clear empathy with other living things.
Browning says he knows this is a better ethic, a better way to build adults who care about nature, because he was that kid with the knife. Born in 1983, he had the kind of childhood that few people his age had, on 20 acres of woodland in southeast Iowa. “I would go out and be back by bedtime. I didn’t realize whose land I was on. I would go miles when I was 10, just hopping over cow fences.” And he left plenty of trace: “I remember running along deer trails and pretending I was a deer. I ran around with elderberry shrubs and beat on things, slid down banks, putting sediment into the river.” Yet, there were things you did not do. You did not nail into big old trees. You took care of it so you could keep having fun in it, because it was a friend.
Charlie Peek, spokesperson for the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation, says that Mount Mitchell and other state parks try to strike a balance between safety, protection of the park, and letting people explore and engage. But children aren’t really the problem, he says. “We have more of a problem of habitat destruction and bushwacking with adults. The kids are a little bit more timid.”
Of all the many flavors of public lands, the National Parks Service has the most hands-off rules and culture. And for good reason: They enclose some of our most fragile and beloved places. They also have the most visitors: more than 273 million a year on their 80 million acres, compared to some 160 million visitors to National Forest or 58,000 to Bureau of Land Management land. For many families, the annual vacation to a national park is the primary contact they have with nature. Even if national parks are far more crowded than other natural areas, 80 million acres is still 80 million acres. I’m not suggesting we let kids skateboard on the arches at Arches. But creating an appropriately sized and sited play area, far away from the most sublime views or historical spots, would be as cheap as a few signs and the odd marker delineating the boundaries. And for that tiny cost, a difference could be made in millions of children’s lives.
Kathy Kupper, spokeswoman for the National Park Service, says that as of now, there are no “off trail” play areas. “It is when people go off trail that people end up getting lost, or in trouble, or hurting nature,” she says. “We advocate getting kids out to parks and exploring but definitely advocate leave no trace and leaving it untouched for others.”
But when pressed about her own childhood, the experiences that presumably led to her 20-year career as a ranger and subsequent gig as press officer for the National Park Service, she remembered lots of adventures off trail. “We had forts—both boys and girls’ forts and tree swings across the creek.” Try to put a creek swing anywhere in a National park, and, Kupper says, and it will be taken down. “For safety plus for helping the tree.”
Who, though, will help the tree when all the kids who built forts in the woods are dead and the people who vote spent their little time outdoors only on the trail, hands jammed in pockets, leaving the woods untouched and unloved?