It was the kid with the rocks that finally did it for Matthew Browning.
Browning was a ranger at Mount Mitchell State Park in North Carolina, and along with the other rangers he had been trained to give a little speech to children caught picking flowers, pocketing shells, or trying to make off with rocks. He explains it like this: “You are supposed to calmly kneel down and say, ‘I saw you picking the flower. That is so pretty! Now think about what would happen if every child picked a flower.’ And then they are supposed to have this moment of guilt.”
Browning had given this little talk many times. But on this day, in August 2009, he saw another ranger deliver it to a boy at the park restaurant, about age 8, with a fist full of rocks—rocks, Browning noticed, from the gravel road. “It was gravel we bought at the local store,” Browning says. “It made me sick. The boy was crestfallen. He was so excited about coming to the park that he wanted to take a little memento back with him. More than feeling empowered or excited to protect the natural world, now he is going to associate going to state parks with getting into trouble.”
The encounter got Browning thinking. What if every kid picked a rock or a flower? Would the park really turn into a desolate wasteland? Well, he figured, it depends on the rock, on the flower. “What kids were taking was gravel and weedy yarrow. They were not rare, delicate pink lady slippers.”
Taking home small souvenirs of the woods is just the beginning of things kids can’t do in nature. In many parks and other public lands, kids are told by rangers, parents, or teachers not to leave the trail, not to climb rocks or trees, not to whack trees with sticks, not to build forts or lean-tos, not to dig holes, not to move rocks from one place to another within the park, not to yell or even talk too loudly. Are we having fun yet?
Of course, not every kid or parent knows which flowers are widespread weeds and which are endangered. There are some heavily trafficked parks where “rogue trails” are a real problem. And yes, there are some very sensitive areas where flower picking and even removal of rocks would destroy the unique beauty and diversity for which they were protected in the first place. But there are 640 million acres of public land in the United States. Surely there’s room somewhere for a few lousy forts.
There are exceptions to the “hands off” rules: Hunting, fishing, mushrooming, collecting firewood, and other activities on public lands are regulated but allowed. But not all families hunt or fish, and certainly for smaller children, these activities are unlikely to be undertaken alone. The special category of experience that Browning worries is endangered in the United States is the simple, unsupervised messing about in the woods that so many older adults remember fondly.
When Browning left Mount Mitchell, disgruntled, he began thinking of how to bring this experience back. He went to graduate school to study recreational use of natural areas. Then he heard about “nature play areas” in Europe: set-aside areas where kids could go off trail, climb trees, collect specimens, and generally leave as much trace as they wanted with minimal adult supervision. There are many informal areas as well, where local people accept kids running wild in the woods.
Here was a way to test the assertion that letting kids play how they wanted would irreparably ruin the ecosystem.
So he spent a summer in Scandinavia. “I started off emailing people all across Sweden. Have they seen signs of children playing in the woods? Forts?” When he got wind of a natural play area, he hopped a train to the site with a GPS and a standardized form, collecting data on the damage wrought by unsupervised children. He was based in Uppsala, and by the end of the summer he just ended up walking to local elementary schools because “they all had plenty of forest and plenty of kids playing in the woods.”
His data, crunched and statistically analyzed, show that yes, kids beat up the woods. They break tree limbs, they make lots of trails, they compact the soil into hardpan where nothing can grow. But after millions of kid-hours of use by children gleefully doing their worst, these play zones remain functioning natural areas. The damage wrought by kids was comparable to that from hiking or camping. “It is not like the trees had no limbs left,” he says. “It is not like there was no vegetation.”
And to Browning, now a graduate student at Virginia Tech, the effects of play are a small price to pay to let kids really enjoy themselves, to have that irreplaceable pleasure and to create memories that will come back to them as they consider whether to vote for a conservation measure. (Never mind the more general benefits of playing in a space that isn’t boringly sanitized.)