Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone

Today we are hearing from Ben Roosa at our New York Field Office, who shares his Hands-On-Nature approach to outdoor play with the Ithaca Children’s Garden!

Evidence of the broad and multifaceted benefits of connecting children with nature is overwhelming.  Connecting with the natural world has been shown to positively influence both physical and mental well-being, improve academic performance, contribute to social development, and encourage greater environmental stewardship later in life.   Sadly, the average American child today has fewer and fewer opportunities to enjoy the formative experience of unstructured outdoor play that is so essential for forming that connection.  This unfortunate paradox has prompted  several organizations to work connecting children to nature.

ICG fort

Forts are a common feature of the Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone, each reflecting the unique creativity of its creators.

ICG nature sculpture

Nature is an integral part of play at the Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone, it provides the raw materials, and backdrop for many games, construction projects, and works of art.



The New York Field Office has taken up that cause and in 2012, we launched a landmark project called the Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone, or HONAZ, in collaboration with local partners.  Working with the Ithaca Children’s Garden, natural playscape designer Rusty Keeler, and early childhood development specialist Elizabeth Stilwell, we have established a place in the heart of the City of Ithaca where children of all ages and abilities are free to explore, experiment, and connect with the natural world.

ICG bridge

Flooded areas are often seen as an inconvenience, but here they are an opportunity to solve problems and test limits.

At the core of the HONAZ is the philosophy of free play.  Though the idea is straightforward—letting kids play the way that they want to play—the execution can be difficult for the uninitiated because it is so far removed from what many families are used to.

ICG mud slide

These kids are sizing up the mud slide at the International Mud Day celebration

ICG swing

The space is constantly changing, molded by the whims of the children playing











Free play means that kids are in charge…getting dirty, taking calculated risks, building things, destroying things, and generally being wild are all welcome.  It also means that kids will need to make decisions, solve problems, generate creative ideas, and navigate social situations by themselves.  Free play empowers kids to explore and connect with nature in ways that are most meaningful to them.  These experiences are likely to stay with kids for a long time and stimulate greater respect and love for nature.  We are working to inspire the next generation of naturalists and environmental stewards!

ICG mud day

International Mud Day: a celebration of the messy side of nature

We further encourage connections to nature through the Zone-into-Nature program hosted at the HONAZ.  This weekly program invites families to join local experts on an interactive exploration of nature, from soils to birds of prey and everything in between.

The results thus far have been astounding and the project has gained local, national, and even international recognition.  HONAZ has been featured on National Public Radio  and the Katie Couric Show.  It has also attracted attention from international groups interested in starting similar projects.

To learn more about this and other projects from the New York Field Office, follow them on Facebook .

All photos courtesy of Ithaca Children’s Garden

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