by Lisa Howard, ASLA, and Willa Caughey
For those with access, nature has been a healing salve throughout the pandemic—a safe space to interact with the outside world, stimulate the senses, and explore freely. But for the many without ready access to pockets of nature, the crisis served to amplify existing inequities and brought urgency to the already pressing need for more equal access to natural outdoor spaces, particularly for children.
Dedicated natural areas for children don’t need to be expansive or pristine to offer benefits, but access is key. Small pockets set aside for nature exploration that are within 15 minutes walking distance from children’s residences or schools can provide children daily or weekly access to experiences that regularly support their cognitive, physical, and social development in ways a traditional playground can’t.
Historically, children generally had more freedom to roam and explore their surrounding landscapes. From streets to backyards, vacant lots to forests, these unofficial spaces offered opportunities for children to learn, grow, and challenge themselves in an unstructured environment. Today, opportunities to play and explore in these types of landscapes have been significantly diminished by children’s increasingly structured lives, urban/suburban development, and the absence of “eyes on the street.” Nature Exploration Areas (NEAs) offer a model for reintroducing such landscapes—and their associated benefits—into children’s daily lives.