Sticking out of a pile of dead branches at Glenwood Children's Park is a hand-lettered sign: "These materials may be used in the park for forts and other structures."
Eight grade-school boys cheer as they set to work toting "materials" across the sandstone ravine in this back-to-nature park on Madison's near west side, just off Glenway Avenue, near the southwest bike path. As the walls to their rough teepee-like structure grow thicker, they thatch the openings with leaves. Nobody tells the boys what to do. They organize themselves, shouting "power!" whenever they need more hands on deck.
Watching them, you'd think they played on their own in the woods every day.
You'd be wrong. The boys are guests at our son's birthday party. The park is very close to the Dudgeon-Monroe neighborhood where most of them live, but none (including our sons) has ever played there unsupervised.
For two hours, my husband and I lurk on the park's periphery while the boys swarm the woods and ravine. We've brought games in case the kids get bored. They never do.
Childhood is supposed to look like this, according to many children's health experts and an increasing number of landscape architects and urban planners. Wading in puddles or streams, building hideouts, climbing trees or exploring a "secret" outdoor spot develops the senses, stimulates the imagination and releases pent-up energy. Studies show that "a dose of nature" can be more effective than a dose of medication in reducing the symptoms of attention deficit disorder (see sidebar). Obesity and depression are alleviated, too.
"Nature stimulates that sense of wonder," says UW Health psychologist Katie Watermolen. "When kids are outside, they are less anxious, more creative, more relaxed. All that leads to improved mental health."
But free play in nature is a vanishing pastime, even in nature-friendly Madison, says Sam Dennis, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dennis, a father of three who's involved with several local and university-led initiatives to get kids outdoors, pays attention to the ways children interact with their environment. And, like many educators, parents and health professionals, he doesn't like what he's hearing, reading and seeing.
"Nationally, we're finding that most kids spend their free time indoors. And when they are outside, very often they are tied up in some structured activity," Dennis says. "Madison is full of little parks and open spaces where kids could pile rocks, play with sticks, get muddy. Where are the kids? How do we connect them with these spaces where they can enjoy free-range play?"
Dennis is working with neighborhood volunteers at Glenwood Children's Park and staff at Community Groundworks, a gardening and natural areas program at Troy Gardens on Madison's north side, to lure kids back to play in the woods and fields. Similar movements are happening around the country, sparked by journalist/author Richard Louv's book, "Last Child in the Woods." The challenge, Dennis says, is not so much in finding the open spaces - the UW Arboretum, for example, includes more than 2,000 acres of prairie, woodland and wetland - but in identifying those areas where kids are allowed to be kids (i.e., climb trees, build forts).
The other challenge? Convincing parents that this kind of play is important.
Structured activities, fear of "stranger danger," and video games are the top reasons kids spend less time playing outdoors in nature, writes Louv, recipient of the 2008 Audubon Medal.
"A kid today can likely tell you about the Amazon rain forest - but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude, or lay in a field listening to the wind," writes Louv. "Yet, at the very moment that the bond is breaking between the young and the natural world, a growing body of research links our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our association with nature - in positive ways."
It's a sunny Saturday in late spring, with white puffy clouds assuming all kinds of interesting shapes up in the blue sky. Where are the kids?
Many are racing up and down the green playing fields of Madison's city parks, chasing a soccer ball. Parents watch from the sidelines while adult coaches holler encouragement and directions. The kids pant, puff, kick, toss and sweat.
This is widely recognized as exercise, but is it "play"? Jill Steinberg, who teaches a popular class on play in the UW's Human Development and Family Studies program, often has her students debate this very question.
"True play doesn't have a goal," she says. "Children choose freely. They can set a goal if they want to, but they don't have to."
A 2007 report released by the American Academy of Pediatrics says free and unstructured play is healthy and, in fact, essential for helping children reach important social, emotional and cognitive developmental milestones as well as helping them manage stress and become resilient.
Free play is so important for children's well-being that the United Nations has recognized it as a basic human right.
"Free play," isn't the same as "screen time," when kids are using the computer or other interactive media. The sharp increase in "screen time," which reduces a kid's world to two dimensions, concerns experts like Watermolen, who says it may contribute to feelings of isolation and depression. Free play - especially in nature - has the opposite effect on kids.
When kids are, say, building sand castles or climbing trees, they're often concentrating quite intently. But it's a different kind of focus.
"Looking at bugs or staring at the clouds requires a type of attention that is much more calming and positive," says Watermolen.
The term psychologists use is "restorative attention." The brain gets a rest from all the "directed attention" it is required to bring to the classroom, music lessons and the soccer field.
That's not to say that kids shouldn't play organized sports or take piano, says Steinberg. But, she says, parents should realize that whenever they add a structured activity to the schedule, they are removing time for kids to just be kids.
If free play is an opportunity for children to develop the senses, test their physical strength, make up games and explore, then nature becomes the best playground, says Steinberg. She enjoys telling her students about her own "free-range childhood" on Madison's near west side.
"My brother and I had a huge range, from Hoyt Park to the fields where Hilldale Mall is now. We thought of it as our frontier," says Steinberg, who just turned 60. As a child, she poked around in streams, hunted for snakes and salamanders and tiptoed through a cavelike opening near Bluff Street ("somebody said it was an abandoned mine") for hours in the summer, starting at age 6.
"We got our feedback directly from nature. If a tree was too high and we got stuck, we had to figure out a way down. We knew what getting dirty felt like. And I developed a spatial orientation - the ability to map out my own world. Today we don't encourage that, by schlepping our kids everywhere in a car."
Moreover, it's the rare Madison parent who would feel comfortable allowing their young children to play, unsupervised, in Hoyt Park.
Sam Dennis, 48, says it's the perception of danger that makes parents reluctant to let their kids roam free. He tells how he and his neighbors are trying to "feel OK" about letting their children enjoy free play in a "tame" wooded area near Lake Wingra.
"Parents are suggesting the kids need a cell phone, or at least one adult patrolling the area," he says. "Even me, I'm much more reluctant to let my own children wander, compared to how I was allowed to roam. I'd go out on my bike for hours, and my parents had no idea where I was."
But, he says, child abduction rates are no greater today than they were 30 years ago.
"I think we should have a rational discussion about Amber Alert," he says. "Our fear is way out of proportion to reality."
Some parents are afraid of nature itself. Nancy Sheehan, a naturalist with the Madison school district, says poisonous plants, stinging insects and ticks top the list of parental fears on the field trips she leads into the school forest.
"I've had parent chaperones calling out, 'Don't touch anything!'" she says. "It would be great if parents could take the same classes the naturalists take, so they can pass on curiosity instead of fear."
Then there's the chance kids might get hurt. Watermolen mentions research that shows pediatricians have seen a sharp decrease in bumps, bruises and broken bones, as kids spend more time indoors. That drop, though, is matched by a disturbing, correlating spike in depression, anxiety and obesity.
If Watermolen could pass on one piece of advice to parents this summer, it would be this: "Let your kids go outside. Let them run around and get dirty. When parents have anxiety about kids going outside, then kids develop anxiety, and 'outside' becomes this dangerous place where nobody wants to go. It's a shame, because there's so much benefit to having that freedom."
In 2007, the UW Arboretum invited author Louv to speak about "nature-deficit disorder," the term he coined to describe the "human costs of alienation from nature." The room was packed to overflowing. Louv asked the adults to think back to their own childhoods. Could they remember the "small galaxies" - vacant lots, creeks, ravines - where they played as kids? The nostalgia was almost palpable - as was the sense of loss these adults felt on behalf of kids who don't have regular access to small, wild places of mystery and d iscovery.
Paul West, 38, is an east side parent of two young girls, and a scientist with The Nature Conservancy's global freshwater team. He works on river conservation efforts in the U.S. and South America. As an environmentalist, West wants his children to make connections about the natural world. But he's careful to keep things simple and local.
"We don't do too many big adventures," he says. "We like to go to wooded areas around Lake Monona. Adults often feel that, to really experience nature, you have to go on an expedition far out of the city. But kids can appreciate nature in a much more concentrated area."
West tries to refrain from "geeking out, and overwhelming them with the names of plants." He'd rather see his girls playing and exploring on their own, just like he did, as a kid growing up in suburban Rockford, Ill.
"I really liked being out on my own," he recalls. "Early on it helped instill a sense of what I valued."
Camps and classes at area nature centers do a great job of raising children's ecological awareness. But Louv says children need time and space to bond with nature on their own terms. Sometimes that means making a bit of a mess. That's not OK at, say, the UW Arboretum, a teaching and learning institution where visitors are welcome but must stay on the trail, and illicit forts, for instance, are quickly dismantled by staff. (The Arboretum, however, has recently begun mulling over a "free play" space for kids, according to Dennis.
"Many of the traditional activities in nature are destructive," writes Louv. "As the care of nature increasingly becomes an intellectual concept severed from the joyful experience of the outdoors, you have to wonder: Where will future environmentalists come from?"
Sam Dennis thinks they'll come from places where children are allowed to dig, run, climb and build with nature's materials. And from parents who encourage it.
"Heck, my yard is a wild space that kids can 'destroy' if they want," he says. "Let the other neighbors have a nice, neat lawn."
This spring, two years after Louv gave his talk, Dennis lectured at the UW Arboretum on "The Diagnosis, Prognosis and Treatment of Nature Deficit Disorder," sharing the results of his work with the Dane County Boys and Girls Club. Again the room was packed, as adults listened to stories about kids completely disconnected with nature, and in fact, afraid of it. Dennis' prescription for all kids: Reduce screen time. Address adult fears. Increase free play in natural settings. End or reduce preaching.
At Troy Gardens, there's teaching, but no preaching. Community Groundworks invites children from area schools and community centers to enjoy gardening, music-making, playing, and exploring the woods and prairie.
"Here, it's all about the joy," says Nathan Larson, director of the Community Groundworks Program. With his straw hat and scruffy beard, Larson looks like a cross between a farmer and a professor. His approach, too, is both thoughtful and organic.
"We try to avoid the dire stuff," he says. That means less focus on invasive species, water pollution and global warming and more focus on having fun. "Children are being asked to heal the wounds before they have a chance to bond with nature. We want to provide a place where they can, say, get lost in the raspberry canes, completely focused on picking, while time slips away."
Interim executive director Christie Ralston agrees.
"If they want to run off the trail and tromp through the tall prairie grass, I let 'em," she says. "The bison did it."
Aldo Leopold Nature Center is another place that welcomes kids to explore on their own terms. The center holds plenty of organized classes and camps, but Director of Development and Communications Kelly VanEgeren says families wander through the prairie and woods even when the center is closed, and that's just great.
And sprinkled throughout Madison are caring folks who remember their own childhoods, playing in woods and creeks, and want to pass that legacy along. Adults like neighborhood volunteer and retired physician Margaret Nelson, who has helped restore Glenwood Children's Park so families feel comfortable coming there again.
"About five years ago, there were almost no children, just people with dogs," she recalls. "Now, more than half the time, I see children playing there."
It was Nelson who made the sign encouraging kids to build forts.
"Margaret's like the good spirit of the park," says Peter Nause, another landscape architect who is working with Dennis and Nelson and other volunteers on a "re-visioning" of the park, which is a Madison Historic Landmark. Designed by famed landscape architect Jens Jensen in the 1940s, Glenwood Children's Park was intended as a place "for children to enjoy nature at its best." Jensen's original plans called for trees and rocks to form natural playspaces - he envisioned a grassy "Mother's Circle" and a "Sing Ring" - and the construction of a stone council ring, a circular stone bench designed for gatherings and contemplation.
Seated in the council ring on a sun-dappled morning, Nause describes how families once flocked to the park for watermelon parties, before it became neglected and overgrown. People began thinking of the park as slightly sinister, he says, the exact opposite of Jensen's sunny vision as a place for "children to enjoy nature at its best."
"To change people's perception of the space, we needed to draw them in," he says, mentioning the Weed Feed (an annual garlic mustard feast) and Summer Solstice party, two recently introduced events in the park that appeal to families. Margaret Nelson's quiet presence in the park is another comforting reminder to parents and children that this is a friendly place.
We may never return to the days when kids left the house on summer mornings and didn't return again until lunch. But there are still parents in Madison who believe that children and nature should not be separated.
Parents like Jen Lynch, a homeschooling mom in the Monona Bay area who, along with her daughter and some friends, searches out wild areas good for playing and exploring.
"Glenwood is definitely one of our favorites," she says. "There are others: Tom George Greenway off of Cottage Grove Road is a hidden gem, with a stream, a bluff, evidence of coyotes and skunks." Most of the time, she says, her group has these spots all to themselves.
MaryEllen Drumm is a near west side parent of two boys who enjoy plenty of free play in their driveway and backyard. Still, Drumm grabs at opportunities to get them into the woods. On one hike at Governor Nelson State Park, the boys discovered what has become their "special spot," a grassy nook just off the trail, sheltered by a pine tree. They move branches and vines around to make "rooms," and then lie down in the soft grass. Their faces, she says, become relaxed and dreamy.
"I feel like, when they are in nature, there's want for nothing more," she says. "They're content, and I am too."