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Volume 30
Number 2
Fall 2013
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Article thumbnail Designing Parks for Human Health Benefits
Managing vegetation for children: Enhancing free-play opportunities through direct management
By Thomas Marlow, Mike DeBacker, and Craig Young
Published: 4 Sep 2015 (online)  •  14 Sep 2015 (in print)
Benefits of free play
Design elements
About the authors
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Reconnecting our nation’s youth with nature has become a central theme in the National Park Service (NPS) (NPS 2011, 2012). This focus is an understandable response to societal changes that are limiting time spent in natural areas and increasing problems among youth, including poor health, emotional issues, and a loss of environmental knowledge and sensitivity. With this in mind, we explored opportunities for vegetation managers to contribute directly to this growing emphasis within the Service. Our backgrounds in ecology, conservation, and environmental ethics prompt our interest in the topic, and our perspective is shaped by direct experience working with national parks in the Midwest Region through involvement in planning and interpretive activities connected with our work in the NPS Inventory and Monitoring Program.

When considering how to connect children with parks, we see free play as a promising goal for vegetation managers. Free play affords children time to roam around, collect things, make up stories, climb, crawl, throw, and invent games without prompting. The importance of this as a transformative experience that inspires and educates children can be found throughout the literature on environmental education. Richard Louv’s influential book Last Child in the Woods can be seen as a manifesto for free play (2008). Louv contends that lack of contact with green spaces during childhood is a root cause of many problems seen in children and society as a whole. He dubbed this condition “nature deficit disorder” and prescribed free play outdoors as a remedy. Elements of free play already permeate NPS programs such as bioblitz, Junior Ranger, and Parks as Classrooms. We reviewed the research to ensure empirical connections and to help develop vegetation management strategies to promote free play.

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