Colleagues, I received this message a few days ago on Facebook. The writer poses and excellent question, related to the park and trail a few miles north of where I live, where a 17 year old was murdered recently; a registered sex offender has been arrested, and has also been implicated in another young woman's murder. 

How can we work together so people are free and safe as they enjoy a community's natural areas? Citizen patrols on bike and horseback? Many people have considered the Lake Hodges trails their "personal natural area," but of course predators can use the space too...

This is, of course, a legitimate concern that needs addressing. I'm thinking that, although violent crime has fallen in recent years (dramatically fallen in San Diego), these types of crimes will continue, and we should be able to provide suggestions. She suggests citizen patrols on bike or horseback. As I've thought about this, I've wondered about encouraging other actions. 

For example, this paragraph appears in something I'm writing: 

"....we may need a role rebalancing for domestic pets and urban wildlife. My own experience as former companion of the late great Rex the Wonder Dog, an Australian Shepherd, suggests that many breeds are underemployed. If dogs were given an expanded role as protective hiking companions for young people and adults – in those areas where they’re welcome – many people who might not otherwise enjoy outdoor experiences would feel comfortable going for outings in canyons, woods and other natural areas."

Can we suggest other ideas? I can compile these, perhaps in a blog or other form. I'm thinking about adults and children.

Rich

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Hi Rich

I had hoped that others would pitch in first so that my raw response might get refined by the views of others!

I'm quite aware too that suggestions from a British woman who lives in as safe a place as any could possibly be in a different culture and legal system may be out of turn so I'm apologising for once, before I open my mouth, rather than after!

My instinct would be to develop a walking/activity buddy system. It's cheap and grassroots based. But if there were agreed times and routes then folk could meet up and walk together or bike together. It may even fit into a "Lets" credit system where folk can use their Lets credits to have a companion on a walk. Alternatively park rangers might be available for guided walks.

Now, here's an interesting scenario - whilst undertaking the forest kindergarten project in Glasgow and the Clyde Valley, in one area the most suitable wood happened to be known as a meeting place for the gay community. Naturally both user groups (children in nursery + gay community) need privacy. Rather than discounting the wood in case an inappropriate situation arose, we advocated negotiating and working with the gay community to ensure that the pilot project could happen. Now I'm not suggesting for one moment that you folks walk up to the nearest prison or (worst still) high school and ask the nasty people to stay away. I just thought it was good news worth sharing.

Best wishes
Juliet
Hi Rich,

I'm just back from a keynote in Indiana, where the question of safety came up -- as it virtually always does when promoting nature play. It takes on still more currency after the recent, tragic murder in San Diego.

In response to your query, I wonder if the ultimate need is truly to make it safer to enjoy the outdoors -- or rather to improve the perception of safety there? As a parent myself, whenever I hear of crimes or injuries to children playing in nature, my right brain quickly says, "OMG, that could have been my child!" But my left brain then starts debating its counterpart: "Yes, but my kid is statistically in more danger every time I drive him to the store, or take him canoeing."

An example from my own personal experience, some years back: when my youngest was about 8, a mountain lion visited our slightly wild backyard and left clear signs (in Omaha, no less!). That certainly got my attention, since my kid played in the adjacent woods and stream. However, I chose not to ban Duncan from playing out there, but instead taught him how to react if he should happen to encounter a cougar. Was I an irresponsible parent? I don't think so. The chances of injury were exponentially smaller than the benefits he was gaining from outdoor play!

Too often we fail to apply logic and common sense to the issue of outdoor dangers. When I speak to audiences, I often tell the story of my conversation with a parks director who told me that they couldn't possibly allow kids to climb trees in their parks, since they might fall and break their arms. In reply, I asked if they had any ponds, lakes, or rivers in their parks. Of course, the answer was yes. I then asked if they had six-foot fences around all of them. Naturally, the answer was no. I then pointed out that drowning was the second most common cause of accidental children's deaths, and noted that apparently he was OK with kids drowning in his parks, but not with them breaking bones....

That illustrates what I feel is the real key to the safety issue: comparative risk. Statistics on it are not easy to find, but do any of us doubt that kids are more likely to be hurt running down their home stairs than running across a meadow? Or that today's children are at more risk of encountering a dangerous human predator on the internet than in their neighborhood park? In Last Child you cited stats that crimes against children are fewer now than a generation ago. Yet the general public's perception is almost certainly the exact opposite. It's not that such crimes don't continue to happen, of course. They do; they always have; and they always will. Each and every one of us who promotes more time in nature for children has an obligation to thoughtfully address those risks and to try to minimize them.

However, my hope is that the children and nature movement can become a consistent source of common sense regarding outdoor risks, and not inadvertently become a part of the problem by overplaying it -- a role that 24/7 media coverage handles quite well, thank you. Children need some risks; they need to test their abilities, to learn good judgment, to thrive from successfully overcoming challenges, and to gain empathy for their own failed efforts and those of others.

The key -- it seems to me -- is to aim for manageable and reasonable risks that do not dramatically alter the value and impact of their nature experiences. I'm sure there is no perfect answer to what constitutes "manageable and reasonable," but perhaps it is best viewed in the context of all of life's risks, rather than in the magnifying lens of isolation. If we unintentionally add to the hype about danger outdoors by speaking of it as though it is a common occurrence, we may scare parents towards even greater reliance on indoor, plugged-in play for their kids. That, too, reflects a part of the comparative risk viewpoint: it's not just what parental fears prevent kids from doing (like outdoor play), it's what those fears push kids into doing, instead (like more screen time). Which is worse? I certainly know my choice!

I don't mean to sound naive or unfeeling about the dangers to children when they are outdoors, enjoying free play and recreation. But they are at far greater risk in so many day-to-day life activities -- risks which parents accept as normal and don't obsess over, and which the media pays little attention to. Do parents hold their young kids out of soccer leagues because they may tear up a knee -- or because there's a tiny, tiny chance that the coach may be immoral? Do they avoid driving on family vacations because the highways can be so deadly?

Maybe we in the movement should collectively and aggressively focus on helping parents and other caregivers to view nature play similarly: as something so routine and positive for healthy childhoods that the minimal dangers will constitute no barrier to the valuable experiences.

Best,

Ken Finch
Green Hearts Institute for Nature in Childhood
Ken, I agree with all you say and you say it well. I do think we need to both educate people about comparative risk, but we also need to recognize that the fear isn't going to go away, so coming up with ways to help parents cope with that -- and still encourage independent play -- is going to be crucial. Excellent post by you, by the way.
rich

Ken Finch said:
Hi Rich,

I'm just back from a keynote in Indiana, where the question of safety came up -- as it virtually always does when promoting nature play. It takes on still more currency after the recent, tragic murder in San Diego.

In response to your query, I wonder if the ultimate need is truly to make it safer to enjoy the outdoors -- or rather to improve the perception of safety there? As a parent myself, whenever I hear of crimes or injuries to children playing in nature, my right brain quickly says, "OMG, that could have been my child!" But my left brain then starts debating its counterpart: "Yes, but my kid is statistically in more danger every time I drive him to the store, or take him canoeing."

An example from my own personal experience, some years back: when my youngest was about 8, a mountain lion visited our slightly wild backyard and left clear signs (in Omaha, no less!). That certainly got my attention, since my kid played in the adjacent woods and stream. However, I chose not to ban Duncan from playing out there, but instead taught him how to react if he should happen to encounter a cougar. Was I an irresponsible parent? I don't think so. The chances of injury were exponentially smaller than the benefits he was gaining from outdoor play!

Too often we fail to apply logic and common sense to the issue of outdoor dangers. When I speak to audiences, I often tell the story of my conversation with a parks director who told me that they couldn't possibly allow kids to climb trees in their parks, since they might fall and break their arms. In reply, I asked if they had any ponds, lakes, or rivers in their parks. Of course, the answer was yes. I then asked if they had six-foot fences around all of them. Naturally, the answer was no. I then pointed out that drowning was the second most common cause of accidental children's deaths, and noted that apparently he was OK with kids drowning in his parks, but not with them breaking bones....

That illustrates what I feel is the real key to the safety issue: comparative risk. Statistics on it are not easy to find, but do any of us doubt that kids are more likely to be hurt running down their home stairs than running across a meadow? Or that today's children are at more risk of encountering a dangerous human predator on the internet than in their neighborhood park? In Last Child you cited stats that crimes against children are fewer now than a generation ago. Yet the general public's perception is almost certainly the exact opposite. It's not that such crimes don't continue to happen, of course. They do; they always have; and they always will. Each and every one of us who promotes more time in nature for children has an obligation to thoughtfully address those risks and to try to minimize them.

However, my hope is that the children and nature movement can become a consistent source of common sense regarding outdoor risks, and not inadvertently become a part of the problem by overplaying it -- a role that 24/7 media coverage handles quite well, thank you. Children need some risks; they need to test their abilities, to learn good judgment, to thrive from successfully overcoming challenges, and to gain empathy for their own failed efforts and those of others.

The key -- it seems to me -- is to aim for manageable and reasonable risks that do not dramatically alter the value and impact of their nature experiences. I'm sure there is no perfect answer to what constitutes "manageable and reasonable," but perhaps it is best viewed in the context of all of life's risks, rather than in the magnifying lens of isolation. If we unintentionally add to the hype about danger outdoors by speaking of it as though it is a common occurrence, we may scare parents towards even greater reliance on indoor, plugged-in play for their kids. That, too, reflects a part of the comparative risk viewpoint: it's not just what parental fears prevent kids from doing (like outdoor play), it's what those fears push kids into doing, instead (like more screen time). Which is worse? I certainly know my choice!

I don't mean to sound naive or unfeeling about the dangers to children when they are outdoors, enjoying free play and recreation. But they are at far greater risk in so many day-to-day life activities -- risks which parents accept as normal and don't obsess over, and which the media pays little attention to. Do parents hold their young kids out of soccer leagues because they may tear up a knee -- or because there's a tiny, tiny chance that the coach may be immoral? Do they avoid driving on family vacations because the highways can be so deadly?

Maybe we in the movement should collectively and aggressively focus on helping parents and other caregivers to view nature play similarly: as something so routine and positive for healthy childhoods that the minimal dangers will constitute no barrier to the valuable experiences.

Best,

Ken Finch
Green Hearts Institute for Nature in Childhood
Thanks Rich!

Richard Louv said:
Ken, I agree with all you say and you say it well. I do think we need to both educate people about comparative risk, but we also need to recognize that the fear isn't going to go away, so coming up with ways to help parents cope with that -- and still encourage independent play -- is going to be crucial. Excellent post by you, by the way.
rich

Ken Finch said:
Hi Rich,

I'm just back from a keynote in Indiana, where the question of safety came up -- as it virtually always does when promoting nature play. It takes on still more currency after the recent, tragic murder in San Diego.

In response to your query, I wonder if the ultimate need is truly to make it safer to enjoy the outdoors -- or rather to improve the perception of safety there? As a parent myself, whenever I hear of crimes or injuries to children playing in nature, my right brain quickly says, "OMG, that could have been my child!" But my left brain then starts debating its counterpart: "Yes, but my kid is statistically in more danger every time I drive him to the store, or take him canoeing."

An example from my own personal experience, some years back: when my youngest was about 8, a mountain lion visited our slightly wild backyard and left clear signs (in Omaha, no less!). That certainly got my attention, since my kid played in the adjacent woods and stream. However, I chose not to ban Duncan from playing out there, but instead taught him how to react if he should happen to encounter a cougar. Was I an irresponsible parent? I don't think so. The chances of injury were exponentially smaller than the benefits he was gaining from outdoor play!

Too often we fail to apply logic and common sense to the issue of outdoor dangers. When I speak to audiences, I often tell the story of my conversation with a parks director who told me that they couldn't possibly allow kids to climb trees in their parks, since they might fall and break their arms. In reply, I asked if they had any ponds, lakes, or rivers in their parks. Of course, the answer was yes. I then asked if they had six-foot fences around all of them. Naturally, the answer was no. I then pointed out that drowning was the second most common cause of accidental children's deaths, and noted that apparently he was OK with kids drowning in his parks, but not with them breaking bones....

That illustrates what I feel is the real key to the safety issue: comparative risk. Statistics on it are not easy to find, but do any of us doubt that kids are more likely to be hurt running down their home stairs than running across a meadow? Or that today's children are at more risk of encountering a dangerous human predator on the internet than in their neighborhood park? In Last Child you cited stats that crimes against children are fewer now than a generation ago. Yet the general public's perception is almost certainly the exact opposite. It's not that such crimes don't continue to happen, of course. They do; they always have; and they always will. Each and every one of us who promotes more time in nature for children has an obligation to thoughtfully address those risks and to try to minimize them.

However, my hope is that the children and nature movement can become a consistent source of common sense regarding outdoor risks, and not inadvertently become a part of the problem by overplaying it -- a role that 24/7 media coverage handles quite well, thank you. Children need some risks; they need to test their abilities, to learn good judgment, to thrive from successfully overcoming challenges, and to gain empathy for their own failed efforts and those of others.

The key -- it seems to me -- is to aim for manageable and reasonable risks that do not dramatically alter the value and impact of their nature experiences. I'm sure there is no perfect answer to what constitutes "manageable and reasonable," but perhaps it is best viewed in the context of all of life's risks, rather than in the magnifying lens of isolation. If we unintentionally add to the hype about danger outdoors by speaking of it as though it is a common occurrence, we may scare parents towards even greater reliance on indoor, plugged-in play for their kids. That, too, reflects a part of the comparative risk viewpoint: it's not just what parental fears prevent kids from doing (like outdoor play), it's what those fears push kids into doing, instead (like more screen time). Which is worse? I certainly know my choice!

I don't mean to sound naive or unfeeling about the dangers to children when they are outdoors, enjoying free play and recreation. But they are at far greater risk in so many day-to-day life activities -- risks which parents accept as normal and don't obsess over, and which the media pays little attention to. Do parents hold their young kids out of soccer leagues because they may tear up a knee -- or because there's a tiny, tiny chance that the coach may be immoral? Do they avoid driving on family vacations because the highways can be so deadly?

Maybe we in the movement should collectively and aggressively focus on helping parents and other caregivers to view nature play similarly: as something so routine and positive for healthy childhoods that the minimal dangers will constitute no barrier to the valuable experiences.

Best,

Ken Finch
Green Hearts Institute for Nature in Childhood
As a kid, I seldom played outside alone. There were dozens of us running about in the woods, on the streets, in our back yards. We tended to migrate in tribes. There is safety in numbers.
Love the ideas people are putting forward.

I think the best thing we can do as a community is to "take back our trails" --slowly, over time, we will reach a "tipping point" of sorts. The more people are out there, using our parks, using our trails, enjoying our natural areas, the more our collective comfort with this sort of thing increases. Also, I believe, the very act of claiming our right to these spaces will have a deterrent mpact on those folks who would choose to victimize people for using them.

Patty Born Selly
www.smallwondersmn.com
patty born selly said:
Love the ideas people are putting forward.

I think the best thing we can do as a community is to "take back our trails" --slowly, over time, we will reach a "tipping point" of sorts. The more people are out there, using our parks, using our trails, enjoying our natural areas, the more our collective comfort with this sort of thing increases. Also, I believe, the very act of claiming our right to these spaces will have a deterrent mpact on those folks who would choose to victimize people for using them.

Patty Born Selly
www.smallwondersmn.com
Hi Ken,

Thank you so much for your post. I'm the author of Get Out! 150 Easy Ways for Kids and Grown-Ups to Get Into Nature and Build a Greener Future, and I've been doing several book presentations lately. This is one question that always comes up in the Q & A afterwards, and I'm delighted to be able to refer to your wise response.
Judy Molland

Richard Louv said:
Ken, I agree with all you say and you say it well. I do think we need to both educate people about comparative risk, but we also need to recognize that the fear isn't going to go away, so coming up with ways to help parents cope with that -- and still encourage independent play -- is going to be crucial. Excellent post by you, by the way.
rich

Ken Finch said:
Hi Rich,

I'm just back from a keynote in Indiana, where the question of safety came up -- as it virtually always does when promoting nature play. It takes on still more currency after the recent, tragic murder in San Diego.

In response to your query, I wonder if the ultimate need is truly to make it safer to enjoy the outdoors -- or rather to improve the perception of safety there? As a parent myself, whenever I hear of crimes or injuries to children playing in nature, my right brain quickly says, "OMG, that could have been my child!" But my left brain then starts debating its counterpart: "Yes, but my kid is statistically in more danger every time I drive him to the store, or take him canoeing."

An example from my own personal experience, some years back: when my youngest was about 8, a mountain lion visited our slightly wild backyard and left clear signs (in Omaha, no less!). That certainly got my attention, since my kid played in the adjacent woods and stream. However, I chose not to ban Duncan from playing out there, but instead taught him how to react if he should happen to encounter a cougar. Was I an irresponsible parent? I don't think so. The chances of injury were exponentially smaller than the benefits he was gaining from outdoor play!

Too often we fail to apply logic and common sense to the issue of outdoor dangers. When I speak to audiences, I often tell the story of my conversation with a parks director who told me that they couldn't possibly allow kids to climb trees in their parks, since they might fall and break their arms. In reply, I asked if they had any ponds, lakes, or rivers in their parks. Of course, the answer was yes. I then asked if they had six-foot fences around all of them. Naturally, the answer was no. I then pointed out that drowning was the second most common cause of accidental children's deaths, and noted that apparently he was OK with kids drowning in his parks, but not with them breaking bones....

That illustrates what I feel is the real key to the safety issue: comparative risk. Statistics on it are not easy to find, but do any of us doubt that kids are more likely to be hurt running down their home stairs than running across a meadow? Or that today's children are at more risk of encountering a dangerous human predator on the internet than in their neighborhood park? In Last Child you cited stats that crimes against children are fewer now than a generation ago. Yet the general public's perception is almost certainly the exact opposite. It's not that such crimes don't continue to happen, of course. They do; they always have; and they always will. Each and every one of us who promotes more time in nature for children has an obligation to thoughtfully address those risks and to try to minimize them.

However, my hope is that the children and nature movement can become a consistent source of common sense regarding outdoor risks, and not inadvertently become a part of the problem by overplaying it -- a role that 24/7 media coverage handles quite well, thank you. Children need some risks; they need to test their abilities, to learn good judgment, to thrive from successfully overcoming challenges, and to gain empathy for their own failed efforts and those of others.

The key -- it seems to me -- is to aim for manageable and reasonable risks that do not dramatically alter the value and impact of their nature experiences. I'm sure there is no perfect answer to what constitutes "manageable and reasonable," but perhaps it is best viewed in the context of all of life's risks, rather than in the magnifying lens of isolation. If we unintentionally add to the hype about danger outdoors by speaking of it as though it is a common occurrence, we may scare parents towards even greater reliance on indoor, plugged-in play for their kids. That, too, reflects a part of the comparative risk viewpoint: it's not just what parental fears prevent kids from doing (like outdoor play), it's what those fears push kids into doing, instead (like more screen time). Which is worse? I certainly know my choice!

I don't mean to sound naive or unfeeling about the dangers to children when they are outdoors, enjoying free play and recreation. But they are at far greater risk in so many day-to-day life activities -- risks which parents accept as normal and don't obsess over, and which the media pays little attention to. Do parents hold their young kids out of soccer leagues because they may tear up a knee -- or because there's a tiny, tiny chance that the coach may be immoral? Do they avoid driving on family vacations because the highways can be so deadly?

Maybe we in the movement should collectively and aggressively focus on helping parents and other caregivers to view nature play similarly: as something so routine and positive for healthy childhoods that the minimal dangers will constitute no barrier to the valuable experiences.

Best,

Ken Finch
Green Hearts Institute for Nature in Childhood
You're very welcome, Judy. Give me a shout if I can help further: kfinch@greenheartsinc.org

Judy Molland said:
Hi Ken,

Thank you so much for your post. I'm the author of Get Out! 150 Easy Ways for Kids and Grown-Ups to Get Into Nature and Build a Greener Future, and I've been doing several book presentations lately. This is one question that always comes up in the Q & A afterwards, and I'm delighted to be able to refer to your wise response.
Judy Molland

Richard Louv said:
Ken, I agree with all you say and you say it well. I do think we need to both educate people about comparative risk, but we also need to recognize that the fear isn't going to go away, so coming up with ways to help parents cope with that -- and still encourage independent play -- is going to be crucial. Excellent post by you, by the way.
rich

Ken Finch said:
Hi Rich,

I'm just back from a keynote in Indiana, where the question of safety came up -- as it virtually always does when promoting nature play. It takes on still more currency after the recent, tragic murder in San Diego.

In response to your query, I wonder if the ultimate need is truly to make it safer to enjoy the outdoors -- or rather to improve the perception of safety there? As a parent myself, whenever I hear of crimes or injuries to children playing in nature, my right brain quickly says, "OMG, that could have been my child!" But my left brain then starts debating its counterpart: "Yes, but my kid is statistically in more danger every time I drive him to the store, or take him canoeing."

An example from my own personal experience, some years back: when my youngest was about 8, a mountain lion visited our slightly wild backyard and left clear signs (in Omaha, no less!). That certainly got my attention, since my kid played in the adjacent woods and stream. However, I chose not to ban Duncan from playing out there, but instead taught him how to react if he should happen to encounter a cougar. Was I an irresponsible parent? I don't think so. The chances of injury were exponentially smaller than the benefits he was gaining from outdoor play!

Too often we fail to apply logic and common sense to the issue of outdoor dangers. When I speak to audiences, I often tell the story of my conversation with a parks director who told me that they couldn't possibly allow kids to climb trees in their parks, since they might fall and break their arms. In reply, I asked if they had any ponds, lakes, or rivers in their parks. Of course, the answer was yes. I then asked if they had six-foot fences around all of them. Naturally, the answer was no. I then pointed out that drowning was the second most common cause of accidental children's deaths, and noted that apparently he was OK with kids drowning in his parks, but not with them breaking bones....

That illustrates what I feel is the real key to the safety issue: comparative risk. Statistics on it are not easy to find, but do any of us doubt that kids are more likely to be hurt running down their home stairs than running across a meadow? Or that today's children are at more risk of encountering a dangerous human predator on the internet than in their neighborhood park? In Last Child you cited stats that crimes against children are fewer now than a generation ago. Yet the general public's perception is almost certainly the exact opposite. It's not that such crimes don't continue to happen, of course. They do; they always have; and they always will. Each and every one of us who promotes more time in nature for children has an obligation to thoughtfully address those risks and to try to minimize them.

However, my hope is that the children and nature movement can become a consistent source of common sense regarding outdoor risks, and not inadvertently become a part of the problem by overplaying it -- a role that 24/7 media coverage handles quite well, thank you. Children need some risks; they need to test their abilities, to learn good judgment, to thrive from successfully overcoming challenges, and to gain empathy for their own failed efforts and those of others.

The key -- it seems to me -- is to aim for manageable and reasonable risks that do not dramatically alter the value and impact of their nature experiences. I'm sure there is no perfect answer to what constitutes "manageable and reasonable," but perhaps it is best viewed in the context of all of life's risks, rather than in the magnifying lens of isolation. If we unintentionally add to the hype about danger outdoors by speaking of it as though it is a common occurrence, we may scare parents towards even greater reliance on indoor, plugged-in play for their kids. That, too, reflects a part of the comparative risk viewpoint: it's not just what parental fears prevent kids from doing (like outdoor play), it's what those fears push kids into doing, instead (like more screen time). Which is worse? I certainly know my choice!

I don't mean to sound naive or unfeeling about the dangers to children when they are outdoors, enjoying free play and recreation. But they are at far greater risk in so many day-to-day life activities -- risks which parents accept as normal and don't obsess over, and which the media pays little attention to. Do parents hold their young kids out of soccer leagues because they may tear up a knee -- or because there's a tiny, tiny chance that the coach may be immoral? Do they avoid driving on family vacations because the highways can be so deadly?

Maybe we in the movement should collectively and aggressively focus on helping parents and other caregivers to view nature play similarly: as something so routine and positive for healthy childhoods that the minimal dangers will constitute no barrier to the valuable experiences.

Best,

Ken Finch
Green Hearts Institute for Nature in Childhood
Thanks, Ken. My presentation went really well, but was quite different from usual - an audience full of a majority of teenage boys! (They were AP English students who have a requirement to attend at least 3 author events - and they chose mine!) So the issue of safety didn't come up this time, but what I loved was realizing how we need to reach everybody to tell them about the importance of spending time in nature. Many of these boys had never before considered that nature could be important to them - so I was excited to enlighten them.
Thanks again for your offer, Ken. I'll definitely keep it in mind! Judy

Ken Finch said:
You're very welcome, Judy. Give me a shout if I can help further: kfinch@greenheartsinc.org

Judy Molland said:
Hi Ken,

Thank you so much for your post. I'm the author of Get Out! 150 Easy Ways for Kids and Grown-Ups to Get Into Nature and Build a Greener Future, and I've been doing several book presentations lately. This is one question that always comes up in the Q & A afterwards, and I'm delighted to be able to refer to your wise response.
Judy Molland

Richard Louv said:
Ken, I agree with all you say and you say it well. I do think we need to both educate people about comparative risk, but we also need to recognize that the fear isn't going to go away, so coming up with ways to help parents cope with that -- and still encourage independent play -- is going to be crucial. Excellent post by you, by the way.
rich

Ken Finch said:
Hi Rich,

I'm just back from a keynote in Indiana, where the question of safety came up -- as it virtually always does when promoting nature play. It takes on still more currency after the recent, tragic murder in San Diego.

In response to your query, I wonder if the ultimate need is truly to make it safer to enjoy the outdoors -- or rather to improve the perception of safety there? As a parent myself, whenever I hear of crimes or injuries to children playing in nature, my right brain quickly says, "OMG, that could have been my child!" But my left brain then starts debating its counterpart: "Yes, but my kid is statistically in more danger every time I drive him to the store, or take him canoeing."

An example from my own personal experience, some years back: when my youngest was about 8, a mountain lion visited our slightly wild backyard and left clear signs (in Omaha, no less!). That certainly got my attention, since my kid played in the adjacent woods and stream. However, I chose not to ban Duncan from playing out there, but instead taught him how to react if he should happen to encounter a cougar. Was I an irresponsible parent? I don't think so. The chances of injury were exponentially smaller than the benefits he was gaining from outdoor play!

Too often we fail to apply logic and common sense to the issue of outdoor dangers. When I speak to audiences, I often tell the story of my conversation with a parks director who told me that they couldn't possibly allow kids to climb trees in their parks, since they might fall and break their arms. In reply, I asked if they had any ponds, lakes, or rivers in their parks. Of course, the answer was yes. I then asked if they had six-foot fences around all of them. Naturally, the answer was no. I then pointed out that drowning was the second most common cause of accidental children's deaths, and noted that apparently he was OK with kids drowning in his parks, but not with them breaking bones....

That illustrates what I feel is the real key to the safety issue: comparative risk. Statistics on it are not easy to find, but do any of us doubt that kids are more likely to be hurt running down their home stairs than running across a meadow? Or that today's children are at more risk of encountering a dangerous human predator on the internet than in their neighborhood park? In Last Child you cited stats that crimes against children are fewer now than a generation ago. Yet the general public's perception is almost certainly the exact opposite. It's not that such crimes don't continue to happen, of course. They do; they always have; and they always will. Each and every one of us who promotes more time in nature for children has an obligation to thoughtfully address those risks and to try to minimize them.

However, my hope is that the children and nature movement can become a consistent source of common sense regarding outdoor risks, and not inadvertently become a part of the problem by overplaying it -- a role that 24/7 media coverage handles quite well, thank you. Children need some risks; they need to test their abilities, to learn good judgment, to thrive from successfully overcoming challenges, and to gain empathy for their own failed efforts and those of others.

The key -- it seems to me -- is to aim for manageable and reasonable risks that do not dramatically alter the value and impact of their nature experiences. I'm sure there is no perfect answer to what constitutes "manageable and reasonable," but perhaps it is best viewed in the context of all of life's risks, rather than in the magnifying lens of isolation. If we unintentionally add to the hype about danger outdoors by speaking of it as though it is a common occurrence, we may scare parents towards even greater reliance on indoor, plugged-in play for their kids. That, too, reflects a part of the comparative risk viewpoint: it's not just what parental fears prevent kids from doing (like outdoor play), it's what those fears push kids into doing, instead (like more screen time). Which is worse? I certainly know my choice!

I don't mean to sound naive or unfeeling about the dangers to children when they are outdoors, enjoying free play and recreation. But they are at far greater risk in so many day-to-day life activities -- risks which parents accept as normal and don't obsess over, and which the media pays little attention to. Do parents hold their young kids out of soccer leagues because they may tear up a knee -- or because there's a tiny, tiny chance that the coach may be immoral? Do they avoid driving on family vacations because the highways can be so deadly?

Maybe we in the movement should collectively and aggressively focus on helping parents and other caregivers to view nature play similarly: as something so routine and positive for healthy childhoods that the minimal dangers will constitute no barrier to the valuable experiences.

Best,

Ken Finch
Green Hearts Institute for Nature in Childhood
Judy -- did you take any particular approach with the teenage boys, or choose a special emphasis? Doesn't seem like they'd be the easiest of audiences for the topic. Any advice to offer?

Judy Molland said:
Thanks, Ken. My presentation went really well, but was quite different from usual - an audience full of a majority of teenage boys! (They were AP English students who have a requirement to attend at least 3 author events - and they chose mine!) So the issue of safety didn't come up this time, but what I loved was realizing how we need to reach everybody to tell them about the importance of spending time in nature. Many of these boys had never before considered that nature could be important to them - so I was excited to enlighten them.
Thanks again for your offer, Ken. I'll definitely keep it in mind! Judy

Ken Finch said:
You're very welcome, Judy. Give me a shout if I can help further: kfinch@greenheartsinc.org

Judy Molland said:
Hi Ken,

Thank you so much for your post. I'm the author of Get Out! 150 Easy Ways for Kids and Grown-Ups to Get Into Nature and Build a Greener Future, and I've been doing several book presentations lately. This is one question that always comes up in the Q & A afterwards, and I'm delighted to be able to refer to your wise response.
Judy Molland

Richard Louv said:
Ken, I agree with all you say and you say it well. I do think we need to both educate people about comparative risk, but we also need to recognize that the fear isn't going to go away, so coming up with ways to help parents cope with that -- and still encourage independent play -- is going to be crucial. Excellent post by you, by the way.
rich

Ken Finch said:
Hi Rich,

I'm just back from a keynote in Indiana, where the question of safety came up -- as it virtually always does when promoting nature play. It takes on still more currency after the recent, tragic murder in San Diego.

In response to your query, I wonder if the ultimate need is truly to make it safer to enjoy the outdoors -- or rather to improve the perception of safety there? As a parent myself, whenever I hear of crimes or injuries to children playing in nature, my right brain quickly says, "OMG, that could have been my child!" But my left brain then starts debating its counterpart: "Yes, but my kid is statistically in more danger every time I drive him to the store, or take him canoeing."

An example from my own personal experience, some years back: when my youngest was about 8, a mountain lion visited our slightly wild backyard and left clear signs (in Omaha, no less!). That certainly got my attention, since my kid played in the adjacent woods and stream. However, I chose not to ban Duncan from playing out there, but instead taught him how to react if he should happen to encounter a cougar. Was I an irresponsible parent? I don't think so. The chances of injury were exponentially smaller than the benefits he was gaining from outdoor play!

Too often we fail to apply logic and common sense to the issue of outdoor dangers. When I speak to audiences, I often tell the story of my conversation with a parks director who told me that they couldn't possibly allow kids to climb trees in their parks, since they might fall and break their arms. In reply, I asked if they had any ponds, lakes, or rivers in their parks. Of course, the answer was yes. I then asked if they had six-foot fences around all of them. Naturally, the answer was no. I then pointed out that drowning was the second most common cause of accidental children's deaths, and noted that apparently he was OK with kids drowning in his parks, but not with them breaking bones....

That illustrates what I feel is the real key to the safety issue: comparative risk. Statistics on it are not easy to find, but do any of us doubt that kids are more likely to be hurt running down their home stairs than running across a meadow? Or that today's children are at more risk of encountering a dangerous human predator on the internet than in their neighborhood park? In Last Child you cited stats that crimes against children are fewer now than a generation ago. Yet the general public's perception is almost certainly the exact opposite. It's not that such crimes don't continue to happen, of course. They do; they always have; and they always will. Each and every one of us who promotes more time in nature for children has an obligation to thoughtfully address those risks and to try to minimize them.

However, my hope is that the children and nature movement can become a consistent source of common sense regarding outdoor risks, and not inadvertently become a part of the problem by overplaying it -- a role that 24/7 media coverage handles quite well, thank you. Children need some risks; they need to test their abilities, to learn good judgment, to thrive from successfully overcoming challenges, and to gain empathy for their own failed efforts and those of others.

The key -- it seems to me -- is to aim for manageable and reasonable risks that do not dramatically alter the value and impact of their nature experiences. I'm sure there is no perfect answer to what constitutes "manageable and reasonable," but perhaps it is best viewed in the context of all of life's risks, rather than in the magnifying lens of isolation. If we unintentionally add to the hype about danger outdoors by speaking of it as though it is a common occurrence, we may scare parents towards even greater reliance on indoor, plugged-in play for their kids. That, too, reflects a part of the comparative risk viewpoint: it's not just what parental fears prevent kids from doing (like outdoor play), it's what those fears push kids into doing, instead (like more screen time). Which is worse? I certainly know my choice!

I don't mean to sound naive or unfeeling about the dangers to children when they are outdoors, enjoying free play and recreation. But they are at far greater risk in so many day-to-day life activities -- risks which parents accept as normal and don't obsess over, and which the media pays little attention to. Do parents hold their young kids out of soccer leagues because they may tear up a knee -- or because there's a tiny, tiny chance that the coach may be immoral? Do they avoid driving on family vacations because the highways can be so deadly?

Maybe we in the movement should collectively and aggressively focus on helping parents and other caregivers to view nature play similarly: as something so routine and positive for healthy childhoods that the minimal dangers will constitute no barrier to the valuable experiences.

Best,

Ken Finch
Green Hearts Institute for Nature in Childhood
I have two daughters - ages 9 and 11 - and I let them ride their bikes in the neighborhood and go to the two local parks we are fortunate to have within easy reach. They can even go to the edge of the local lake where they met an energetic young turtle a few weeks ago. When they go, they take the "adventure phone," an extra cell phone we keep so the kids can be reached when we need them (and they can reach us if anything goes wrong). We've had some raised eyebrows, sidelong glances, and accusing questions occasionally. Some parents have asked if I am afraid for my kids because "it's not like when we were kids" - to which I always answer, "yes, statistically its safer, aren't we fortunate!"
But, the issue for some parents has been feeling as if I am failing to take responsibility for my own children, leaving them out there to be tended to by others. To which I say, "true." Well, not giving up my responsibility, but certainly relying on others to take a share in raising my kids. When I am at the park, or anywhere, I take an interest in the other children and families there and "butt in" if I think something has gone wrong (helped find lost articles, called a Mom for a hurt child, offered an extra snack, etc). If my children are making a bad choice, I expect other parents to call them on it. If they look lost or afraid, I am grateful to the grown-up who checks in with them.
Sometimes, I think we're too afraid of each other - afraid of offending someone, of butting in where we don't belong. We don't fear cougars where I live, we fear disapproving neighbors and awkward encounters. The outdoors of my children's roaming is not isolated - in our neighborhood you are always within ear shot of somebody - but there is still fear. If we all just pay attention to each other, rather than feel like "it not my business" we would all feel safer.
I've lived in this neighborhood for 3 years now. As I write this, I am renewed in my determination to become an active builder of community.

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