Forward to Nature Play and Learning Places

by Howard Frumkin, M.D., Dr.P.H.
Dean, University of Washington School of Public Health

Decoding the human genome was impressive. The internet has been transformative. Big data are amazing. But a child playing in the woods? That simple, time-honored image is at once magical, and powerful, and inspiring.

We face enormous challenges—in our communities, as a nation, across the globe.  While many health outcomes are improving, many are trending in the wrong direction. Asthma and allergies, anxiety and depression, autism-spectrum disorders, obesity and diabetes…these and other conditions bedevil us, and
for the first time in history, today’s children may not live as long as their parents.¹ At the same time, the planet itself is ailing. The impact of human activity on earth systems has been so profound, that the modern era is known as the “anthropocene”²—an era marked by frightening rates of species extinctions,³ galloping climate change, disruptions of natural nitrogen cycles, and other dangerous and unsustainable trends.⁴

How do we halt and reverse these trends? Part of the answer lies in connecting with the natural world. This deceptively simple prescription offers far-reaching benefits. Nature contact promotes human health and well-being in many ways; the evidence of these benefits is now too compelling to ignore.⁵ Nature contact promotes better stewardship of the environment;⁶ how can we care for what we do not know and cherish? And better stewardship of the environment, from the individual choices we make each day to the policies our governments promulgate, will in turn result in a healthier planet—a fundamental requirement for healthy people, now and in coming generations.

So while this may seem to be a book about play spaces for children, it is much more. At the risk of bloviating, I would call it a book about saving the world. It offers essential guidance for designing places we need.

We need to provide our children with natural settings in which to play, learn, and thrive. We need to help them form emotional bonds with the abounding beauty of flowers and trees, rivers and streams, critters and clouds. We need them to be fascinated by these things, to grow into close and careful observers of the world around them, to feel not only appreciative but protective, and to be prepared to live their lives accordingly. This is a public health strategy, an environmental strategy, and educational strategy…and a path to the future we want.