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Why we should speak up for natural places for our children to play

Sadness over the clearing of a wild nature play location.

My daughter is in tears and I am stunned. Torn down are the tree limb shelters of our favorite nature play area. The children of the neighborhood had put them up. The city swept them away. We had come here to find joy and connection but found ourselves torn down as well.

This is where my story begins. My story is also a part of a bigger story that has no center. It is taking place all over the country and the world. The land is the main character. The struggle between people and how we perceive proper use of the land is the theme.

This is an old story actually. It began many, many years ago when people decided that the land was theirs to own. Once we owned the land we stopped saying, “thank you.”

Once people stopped saying thank you, we began to believe that we were most important. Instead of listening to what the land has to teach, we coerce. Instead of teaching our children to become friends with the land, we teach them about “us” and “that.”

It is unclear how the story arc will bend from here. My hope is that we begin to welcome children back to the wild spaces near our homes. They will then be able to reconnect to nature, themselves, and one another. Then we can relearn how to say thank you and listen to what the land is trying to tell us.

There are other things we have to learn about caretaking of the land and one another. But today this is the story in my heart.

There are many voices telling a story about how the land should be treated. I am but one citizen who feels that nature connection is an essential part of humanness. I am also one of the people in this story who forgot how to say thank you and listen. Although I have spent a lot of time trying to relearn.

The young need to interact with nature. They need to get dirty. To see nature from a distance and learn about it from books is not enough. Although that is nice too. For children to care about the land as adults, they must form an emotional bond. The method does not need to be a prescribed curriculum. It only requires access, time, and occasional guidance from an adult who knows how to say thank you and listen as well.

No need to overthink it. This lesson is as much about the heart as it is about the head.

Wild Nature Play is a call out to others who feel that same way as me. I seek to build a community where we can weave a story of connection and gratitude together.

Over the next few posts, I am going to explore an opportunity that is growing from a sad event. When the city cut down the shelters it was a removal of something special within my daughter and me. It is a place where we were connecting to the land and also to each other. Many other families were having the same experience.

I am not blind nor ignorant to why the city would feel obligated to clear a public space from “unsafe” shelters. Remember I am from the people who have forgotten to listen and say thank you as well. I am familiar with laws, regulations, and public opinion battles. But I am curious, how did we get to a place of such laws, regulations, and public opinions? How did we allow ourselves to give up the commons?

There is something deep inside of me that says to keep asking questions and see if anyone has answers. Or more, does anyone have questions like mine?

"Go back and play," neighbors suggest. "The shelters can be rebuilt." Of course, we will continue to visit, play, and invite others to join us. However, the removal is but one issue in a larger conversation around public land access. Any shelters that are rebuilt will be removed once again. New rules will be written and stronger enforcement enacted. My goal is larger than shelters. I will elevate the conversation around unstructured play in nature.

At the bottom of this post, you will see the letter that I wrote to our City Parks and Open Space department. It is full of emotion and was honest.

In subsequent posts, I will share the public opinion that was generated from a NextDoor forum. What do my neighbors think?

I will describe the few exchanges I have had with the city in response to my letter. What differing views does the city and parks department hold?

I will reflect on how to move forward with this conversation. How do we best go about gathering public support for change at the municipal level? Am I a minority in my desire for free and unstructured play spaces in our towns, cities, and country?

If you are reading this it is likely that you have also experienced something similar in your life. Your favorite place to play as a child turned into a new housing development? Public land sold away for logging to help fund another state project? A neighbor complained about your kids playing too close to their property? The treehouse was built too high and regulators forced you to have to take it down? You are growing tired of too many sports fields and schedules but don’t know how to slow down?

If any of this sounds familiar then I would like you to know that you aren’t alone. I sometimes feel sad, helpless, angry, or confused. Our current relationship with the land and one another also leaves me feeling uneasy. I desire to give my child the freedom of access to nature near our homes that so many of us had growing up.

So, how do we go about getting back the commons?

Subject: Sadness over the clearing of Keith Helart Open Space

Dear City of Louisville Open Space,
It has been a good idea that I waited a few days to write this letter. My anger has settled toward sadness around the dismantling of the shelters at the Keith Helart open space. At the time all I could do to hold back anger was explain to my young daughter why we no longer had our special place to visit. Her tears kept me grounded.
I saw the signs that went up warning that the shelters had grown too large. While I was overjoyed to see the young engineers make progress over the months, I understand that it had indeed grown larger than could be permitted by a committee of overseers. Initially, seeing the signs from a distance I feared that a complete and total dismantling was imminent. However, I read between the lines and felt there contained heart and compassion for the young souls who made that place their home, kingdom, fairyland, or refuge. It seemed that there was an understanding of the importance to the community.
When the limbs were cut and the main structure was thinned, I was pleasantly surprised that so much had been left standing. My daughter and I simply made our way to one of the other spaces. Inside our temporary home, we made pretend soup and told tall tales. We listened to the wind and the birds and tracked a fox that we spotted. We talked about how to care for the land while also sharing in its bounty.
Keith Helart park is a jewel. It is a space of pure joy for those who are childish enough to play. The full clearing of the shelters feels like a betrayal to all that hold the space dear. I assume you can cite me a long list of reasons and justifications around the ecology, trail degradation, and overuse of the space. I understand the concept of Leave No Trace. How unfortunate that so many people have come to cherish those woods, right?
Why was it necessary to clear the shelters out completely? How many lessons of “keep out,” have you taught to the young minds who were building their connection to those wild spaces. It feels like a bully move directed at the future stewards of the earth learning to love the land. The land you now have clearly deemed off-limits and worthy only to observe from a distance.
I am sad. I feel betrayed after having spoken with so many families that “they must come and see this wondrous place.” The children of Lousiville and of this generation deserve undeveloped places to grow resilient and creative. Free and unencumbered by the plastic playgrounds that are currently the only permissible areas for them to explore. Especially for those of us without access to privately owned land. I am open to hearing the city’s side of the story. If you feel that my protest is worth a response I implore you not to provide me with a rote and bureaucratic brush off.
I hope that one day our cities will understand that confining children to municipally sanctioned areas does not make them safer. Playgrounds do not offer the same creative potential and lessons of the resilience of natural places. There is room for balance between preservation and utilization. I hope that this office sees the need for this balance and finds ways to foster a deep connection to the land. Not by making it a museum but by making it a friend.


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