UF research shows kids need to be where the wild things are

December 10, 2002

GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- Planners need to create safe, wild spaces in urban areas because unstructured natural areas offer children rich opportunities to learn how to find their way in strange territory and gain other skills, a University of Florida expert says.

"Contact with nature is important - as a learning environment, it's unique. Nature is information rich, complex and dynamic, and it challenges people, even adults," said Myron Floyd, an associate professor of recreation, parks and tourism. "We need to be asking, 'What kind of space is available to kids?' I mean more than just generic greenways or trails, but also parks that present challenges."

Floyd conducts research on how people of different ages, races and cultural backgrounds relate to and interact with parks and other natural areas. He says for youths in urban settings, woods, unmanaged fields and other natural spaces are just as important for learning and growing up as baseball parks and other traditional outdoor recreational opportunities.

Floyd said his and others' research shows exploring untamed spots helps children learn how to find their way around and lessens their fear of the unknown. Such exposure also tends to make children more appreciative of the environment and interested in exploring the outdoors as they age, he said.

In an article last month in the journal Environment and Behavior, Floyd and two co-authors report the results of two studies involving a total of nearly 2,000 teenagers on the lasting impact of childhood exposure to the environment. The other authors are Robert Bixler and Bill Hammitt, assistant professor and professor, respectively, of parks, recreation and tourism management at Clemson University in South Carolina. The study was funded with a $37,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, North Central Research Station in Evanston, Ill.

The researchers separated the youths - who ranged in age from 12 to 17 and lived in North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas - into three groups based on the kinds of places they reported playing in as children up to age 4.

"Wild land adventurers" had spent a lot of their early childhoods in woods and other wild settings, while "yard adventurers" played mostly in backyards and parks, and "urban adventurers" had little exposure to natural settings of any sort.

Using a written survey, the researchers examined the reactions of the youths in these different groups to different natural, suburban and urban scenes and activities. In one example of the method, the teenagers viewed 10 pictures of outdoor landscapes ranging from a manicured park path including a sidewalk and bench to a rough dirt path in thick vegetation. For each picture, the youths were asked to rate their preferences for the setting.

The teenagers who played in nature a lot as children reported higher preferences for pictures and activities tied to outdoor recreation, rural settings and outdoor education. They also reported less fear of unfamiliar wild territory and greater interest in pursuing careers tied to the outdoors and the natural environment, such as park rangers.

The study demonstrates that childhood exposure to the wild leads to heightened awareness and interest of natural settings in adulthood, Floyd said. That has implications not only for educators, but also for public policymakers because the success of environmental efforts such as land preservation depends to a large extent on the support of the many people who live in urban as opposed to rural settings, he said.

Paul Gobster, a research social scientist at the USDA Forest Service North Central Research Station agreed.

"Building interest in nature at an early age could result in greater concern for protection of natural areas as reflected through such things as voting for local referenda supporting land acquisitions, donations to natural areas protection groups like the Nature Conservancy, (and) lifestyle choices that might help avoid urban sprawl," Gobster said.

Other researchers have shown that exposure to wild lands has a host of developmental benefits, including instilling navigational skills and improving cognitive ability, Floyd said. As a result, urban planners need to work as hard to create natural spaces as they do to create basketball courts, baseball parks or other traditional play areas, Floyd and Gobster said.

"It is not always the case that urban planners recognize the unique value of these places," Gobster said. "As a consequence, when they plan for recreation and open space opportunities for their residents, these areas tend to get developed into more intensive uses. Proactive planning using research such as Myron's will ensure that urban residents have access to a full range of leisure opportunities."
Writer: Aaron Hoover

University of Florida

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