Connecting with the natural world has been shown to positively influence both physical and mental well-being for kids.
The average child today has fewer and fewer opportunities to enjoy the experience of unstructured outdoor play that is so essential for forming those connections.
Our New York Field Office helped launch a landmark project called the Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone, in collaboration with Ithaca Children’s Garden.
Featured on the Katie Couric show and recognized on NPR, the Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone integrates models of nature play, adventure playgrounds, and city farms from Germany, Scandinavia, and the UK.
Ithaca Children’s Garden is the first example in the US of integrating playwork and nature-based learning into a children’s garden setting.
Ithaca Children’s Garden is where children of all ages and abilities are free to explore, experiment, and connect with the natural world. In collaboration with Ithaca Children’s Garden, The Service helped establish one of the first adventure playgrounds in the US, along with natural playscape designer Rusty Keeler and early childhood development specialist Elizabeth Stilwell.
At the heart of the Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone is the philosophy and practice of free play, meaning children get to decide what they do (and don’t) want to do.
In other words, this is one of the rare places where kids are in charge.
They get dirty, take calculated risks, build and destroy things. It also means that kids will make decisions, solve problems, generate creative ideas, and navigate social situations independently.
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.
On site, a storage shed houses tools and materials to be used during programs. Locust logs, straw bales, topsoil, river clay, cardboard, sand, and boulders, invite children to play, create, destruct, work together, work alone, solve problems, and have fun.
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.
Adult Playworkers staff the Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone to provide a safety net without dictating how kids should play. In this way we are working to inspire the next generation of environmental stewards in a free play environment.