PPN Zoom Book Club: Naturally Inclusive

by Lisa Howard, MLA, RLA

image: Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The ASLA Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (PPN) is pleased to share a summary of the PPN’s third Zoom Book Club. Hosted on October 3, 2023, 15 attendees welcomed Ruth Wilson, PhD, educator and author of Naturally Inclusive: Engaging Children of All Abilities Outdoors, published in 2022 by Gryphon House. Dr. Ruth Wilson has several published works focusing on early childhood environmental education. She is an educational consultant who has worked with Sesame Street in designing nature education programs and has been an educator for over 30 years including work at Bowling Green State University. She currently works as the curator for the Children & Nature Network’s Research Library.

The book provides landscape architects with a basis of knowledge and understanding of children’s needs and the many benefits a natural environment provides for children’s whole development, including children with physical, sensory, and/or cognitive challenges such as autism or ADHD. Flagship programs from around the country provide program spotlights throughout the book providing detailed successful examples in relation to each chapter’s focus.

PPN leader Amy Wagenfeld, Affiliate ASLA, prepared and moderated this event leading the group through a series of thoughtful questions that were key to the themes of the book and ending by reading a passage illustrating how creative inclusive design can empower and engage children of differing abilities including a wheelchair accessible tree house.

Can you describe the concept of kinship and its importance as a keystone to nature play and inclusive design?

Ruth shared, for children with differing abilities this is especially important to feel like they belong. Kinship suggests a relationship. With kinship one can feel more belonging. In terms of humans, we are all kin, but kinship is much broader than physical connectedness. It has a lot to do with the emotions of who and what we feel connected with. Pets are an example, kinship with a pet is a part of the family demonstrating the emotional element of kinship.

Kinship appears repeatedly in the book and Ruth sees this concept appearing in research studies in terms of the importance of emotional connection. As the research curator for Children Nature & Network, she sees studies indicating that physical and occupational therapists, mental health professionals, medical professionals, and other related disciplines are talking about the importance of emotional connection. In academic literature another word is rapport, which means we are comfortable with each other. According to Ruth, we want children to have kinship, a feeling of comfortableness, and a harmonious relationship with nature. How do we view nature? If we simply think of nature as a resource, we are missing out on powerful aspects of nature, such as promoting human development and a sense of belonging.

When we talk about nature, what exactly do we mean? Nature play is a place to play; however, it is more than physical materials to play with. Nature becomes the ‘thou’—it becomes much more than an ‘it.’ We don’t want to pour “kinship” into children. They already have kinship, as demonstrated by a painting, An Experiment of a Bird in the Air Pump, which provides a powerful example from the 1700s. As the title suggests it illustrates a bird inside a glass container with the air being pumped out and the bird dying. The painting includes the experimenter, many adults, and children. Adults are focused on the experiment waiting to see what will happen to the bird. Children, on the other hand, are shielding their eyes. Children depicted in the painting did not want to do anything with this experiment. They already had that sense of kinship and that this is not the way to relate to other living things. Studies included in the Children & Nature Network Research Library reinforce this concept, such as one on children’s responses to dying bees on a school playground. Their reaction was an expression of empathy and concern with an ecological perspective taking. What happens when we get older? How do we get to the point of the adults in painting? Can we, as a society, live in a different way? These were questions that Ruth invited us to ponder.

Furthering the discussion, Ruth spoke of David Orr, Professor Emeritus at Oberlin College, who says kinship is the one message that can save us from peril. Kinship is the source of our best behavior and our deepest joy. Kinship tells us we are not alone. Our best behavior will emerge, and we will want to be protective. The separatist perspective, when we see nature as simply a resource, is the source of our worst behavior. When we talk about sustainability, we treat nature as ‘thou,’ not an ‘it.’

ASLA 2023 Professional General Design Honor Award. Qianhai’s Guiwan Park. Shenzhen, Guangdong, China. Field Operations. / image: Holi Photography

What kinds of outdoor spaces support kinship for children of all abilities? What types of spaces are most conducive for children and adults to support kinship and rapport?

We learned that including the presence of animals in the environment that children can tend to, and touch is the most impactful way to integrate kinship into a landscape. Children experience kinship because animals have many of the same needs we do. Animals need to eat, need to breath, and need a place of shelter. Animals can be mammals, hens, or smaller living creatures such snails, butterflies, and worms.

Another way to integrate nature is to reveal it with built pieces such as a bird blind or gazing ball. With the bird blind the children can see animals, but the animals cannot see the children. The bird blind can include a mirror on the inside so the children can see themselves, reinforcing the idea that they are a part of this experience and nature. Including gazing balls in a place that invites stopping and looking such as at a bench, provides a different vista of clouds or birds in the sky or trees swaying in the wind.

Designers can integrate pieces that create parallel play between the children and nearby animals such as the climbing structures at the zoo or tunnels for underground animals where animals and children can be doing similar activities side-by-side. These designs can help children see from different perspectives, to imitate animals, and encourage affinity with animals.

Small design moves such as poetry engraved in landscapes elements provide snippets for adults to share with young children. These quotes can give children ideas on how to look at things a different way through the power of words.

Lastly, David Sobel has written on design principles, which can be found in his book, Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators. He includes design principles that focus on the importance of beneficial risk and sense of adventure. He also encourages fostering the imagination by creating small worlds that encourage children to imagine they are a bird, worm, or other being and advocates for providing opportunities to harvest and eat food as another way to connect with the natural world.

Professor Emerita Louise Chawla talks about the term affordance, which is written throughout your book. The concept of affordance has a true relationship between kinship and rapport. Can you talk about the concept of affordance and its relationship to nature for children and youth?

Ruth shared, another word to use for affordance is invitation. It is something in nature that invites the children ‘in.’ Nature is so open-ended the gift of nature is that it does not need to be used in only one way. These gifts can be used in so many such as pebbles or sticks as loose parts or an incline that invites running up and rolling down. Another word is motivation. A physical, occupational, or speech therapist may work with a child in a therapy room where the motivation may be a sticker. Outside the motivation is built into the environment. Step over the log. Walk through loose stones and gravel. Talk about what you see. Glide your fingers and toes over the stones. It is entirely different. Natural affordances have power to build a sense of efficacy, a sense of calming, and security. An affordance is what nature has to offer to the child at their own level and ability.

Another example of affordance was at the National Zoo where one of the most popular exhibits was a soil table. It was a wooden trough filled with leaves and debris from nearby woods. The affordances were right there. Affordances give children the opportunity to observe more closely, find things and explore. Louise Chawla calls these confidence building opportunities because it offers graduated challenges which gives children confidence and sense of competence.

Affordances allow children to take what they need in the moment and not feel the need to choose in advance. The children find it and use it in a way that meets their needs.

Another of Louise’s concepts is ‘ecstatic memories’ that are spaces and places that stay in our memories and influence who we become as adults. They sustain us and delight us. Could you share a couple of ecstatic memories of your own with the group?

Ruth grew up on a small farm in Ohio. When she was 10, her family had 20 to 25 baby chicks delivered to the farm in a cardboard box. They could hear them peeping and see their little beaks peak out of the holes in the box. They put them in out in the coop. Because there were so many, her family had to monitor them and make sure they were warm in the cold weather, had enough food and water, and were not suffocating each other. One stormy night, her dad said we need to go to coop to watch the baby chicks. Ruth went to the coop with her dad. The chicks were huddling to stay warm. She picked up a baby chick in her hand and remembers feeling the heartbeat of the chick. It was frightened and under stress. At that moment she realized that we have things in common. She could sense its fear. That baby chick and Ruth were living, breathing beings, and had a sense of connectedness at that moment. Ruth realized something she had never thought about before: “That is what makes it ecstatic and stays with me.”

image: Afra Ramió on Unsplash

Recalling another ecstatic memory, Ruth said that she had nine siblings and between them, had one bicycle. If she wanted to ride the bike in summer, she got up very early. Ruth could hear insects, the early morning birds, rustling of trees along the road. Everything was making music. It was one symphony. It was all one! One beautiful sound of music.

Ruth mentioned a recent article in Frontiers, “The Power of a Profound Experience with Nature: Living with Meaning.” Participants in this study included examples of profound experience that ranged from sleeping overnight alone in a canoe in a lake to indirect experiences such as reading the book The Thirteen Original Clan Mothers. It added meaning to their lives and in some instances changed behavior, outlook, and career trajectory.

Before we move into the discussion questions posed by attendees, there are a couple of things to share about the book:

  • Pages 120 to 123 contains a helpful list of resources to include in natural play spaces that can be scaled up or down depending on the project.
  • The Children & Nature Network has an inclusion toolkit that is free and accessible to anyone.

Extending beyond our hourlong meeting, two questions in particular are noteworthy:

Is there research that shows how nature promotes prosocial behavior to create a sense of belonging among peers?

Ruth’s answer: Many studies show social and emotional growth and that children are more socially interactive outdoors than they are indoors. Lots of stories, by parents, shared in Naturally Inclusive demonstrate that there is less discriminatory behavior in nature. Nature models inclusion for us and exemplifies inclusiveness with diversity. We need diversity in nature for a healthy ecosystem.

There is a study demonstrating children worked working together to save a play space from development. At the time the children were ages five- to 15-years. Years later the children’s lasting impression was that they worked together for a common goal.

ASLA 2023 Professional Urban Design Award of Excellence. Heart of the City: Art and Equity in Process and Place. Rochester, Minnesota. Coen+Partners and RSP Architects. / image: Sahar Coston-Hardy, Affil. ASLA

Could you talk about risky play and how it is different and relates to kinship and affordances.

Ruth’s answer: Children with differing abilities do not want the protectiveness approach to meeting their needs. They feel sad when they see other children taking risks that they are not given the opportunity to take. Their feelings of sadness detract from their feelings of “I am important,” and “I am capable.” It feeds into the thinking that “I am less able.” That is the opposite of what we want for any child but particularly those with differing abilities. How can we provide children with differing abilities to have that risk taking experience? Many children know their limits so we could focus on their capabilities and interests.

We highly recommend this book!

Save the date: the Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN’s next Zoom Book Club will take place on January 9, 2024. Registration will be opening soon for this discussion with author Rue Mapp about Nature Swagger: Stories and Visions of Black Joy in the Outdoors.

For recaps of the PPN’s previous Zoom Book Clubs:

Lisa Howard, MLA, is the Principal and co-Founder of Bay Tree Design (BTD), a design and research-oriented practice with a reputation for advancing climate ready and child-centered landscapes. Lisa’s passion for spaces that foster healthy communities and environments is the driving force behind her leadership at the firm. She focuses her energy on the design of projects that restore ecological systems, give children places to blossom, capture the community’s vision, and create a memorable and beautiful place. From planning level work to site design projects, she enjoys collaborating with the community, other professionals, and working closely with her team at BTD.

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