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From Snow Piles to Worm Rescues: A Child’s Connection to Nature

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by Rachel Maher, Park Pride’s Marketing + Communications Manager

Recently, Tina Arnold, Park Pride’s Director of Community Building, asked a gathering of board and staff what “made you ‘go green’?” She wanted us to share the moment that we discovered our connection to nature.

Growing up in Buffalo, New York, I have an incredibly distinct memory of laying on my back on top of an eight-foot pile of snow, staring up through the bare trees to the blue sky beyond. The stillness and tranquility of that moment spent communing with the natural world and my place in it was deep and profound. The significance of this experience was not lost on a child.

Andrew White, Park Pride’s Director of Park Visioning, shared how his love of nature stems from the compassion he felt for earthworms after a heavy rain, moving them from the sidewalk to safety. Several board members recalled the moments of bonding with their parents as they tended gardens, moments which steadfastly secured their respect for flowers and the critters that accompanied them. Though everyone’s story was unique, an underlying theme became clear as we went around the room: people’s love and appreciation for nature are deeply rooted in childhood.

Kids explore the creek surrounded by lush vegetation at Little Nancy Creek Park.

These stories were fresh in my mind when NPR’s article, Greener Childhood Associated with Happier Adulthood, came across my desk. After comparing decades of satellite data to the personal information from The Danish Civil Registration System, scientists have painted a compelling picture connecting the lack of childhood exposure to greenspace to an increase in the prevalence of mental health disorders in adults. Though the leaders of the study confirm the results are purely correlational, they suggest that “the more of one’s childhood spent close to greenery, the lower the risk of mental health problems in adulthood.”    

The takeaway, however, is clear: kids today need access to nature. 

However, as our urban core gets denser, more developed, and more focused on digital connections, three fundamental questions come to mind:

  1. How can we protect our high-quality natural areas to ensure that our children have access to them?
  2. What steps are being taken to increase access to high-quality natural areas for children and communities that currently lack them?
  3. How do we convince “the online generation” to put the phone down and just be in nature?

These are big, daunting questions that have an impact on the mental health of the next generation. I am heartened and hopeful, however, by the progress that I do see taking place on several fronts. Addressing question 1, thanks to the leadership of several organizations, efforts are underway to protect and enhance our urban natural areas, and you can get involved:

  • Atlanta Audubon’s Wildlife Sanctuary Program encourages property owners and park stewards to enhance their land for birds and other wildlife (by removing invasive species and planting native plants, and providing food, water, and shelter, for example).

I’ve personally been inspired to create a wildlife sanctuary of my own after seeing them in parks around the city!

“A number of these sanctuaries are in public parks, which provide vital habitat for our urban and suburban birds,” Nikki Belmonte, Executive Director of the Atlanta Audubon, explained to me. “Our hope is that when people visit these parks they will be inspired to create sanctuaries on their own properties.”

Visit Briarlake Forest Park, the Kirkwood Urban Forest, Jennie Drake Park, the Freedom Park Pollinator Garden and others for inspiration, then learn how you can create and earn certification for your own wildlife sanctuary on the Atlanta Audubon website.

  • Trees Atlanta has formed the Atlanta Canopy Alliance, which is committed to seeing more trees planted, more canopy saved, and forested land purchased for preservation.

The first in a series of public engagement meetings will take place on Tuesday, March 12th, 6:30 p.m. at the Trees Atlanta Kendeda Center. Join the conversation – the last 30 minutes will be devoted to signing letters on the importance of tree canopy protection to be sent to city commissioners, council members, and the Mayor!

As for Question 2, meaningful efforts are underway to increase access to natural areas for children and communities that currently lack them:

  • Park Pride and our partners are working daily on projects that will bring more greenspace within walking distance of communities that don’t have a park nearby.

For example, in partnership with The Conservation Fund, The Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, and our community partners, the Kathryn Johnston Memorial Park is under construction and will soon provide a wonderful greenspace amenity to the kids and families living in English Avenue.

Additionally, Park Pride, The Trust for Public Land, the Urban Land Institute, the City of Atlanta’s Dept. of Parks and Recreation, and Atlanta Public Schools are exploring an innovative idea to increase access to school playlots that already exist in under-parked neighborhoods.

  • The City of Atlanta is also pursuing initiatives to increase access to nature.

Under Commissioner Dargle, the Department of Parks & Recreation is developing a comprehensive plan to guide park development and examine how to connect more Atlantans to greenspace. The department has even received a grant from the Children & Nature Network, funds which will contribute directly to this planning effort.

Through Atlanta’s Department of Planning, the Atlanta City Design has taken a broader view of access to nature through the creation of the Urban Ecology Framework. This framework will help determine what aspects of nature in Atlanta should be preserved and restored as Atlanta grows over the coming decade.

A child explores the dry creek bed at Ormond-Grant Park.

Finally, question number 3: how do we convince “the online generation” to put the phone down and enjoy nature? The answer lays with and is the responsibility of every parent, mentor, or role-model to a child: take a child outside. Encourage them to climb a tree, explore the woods, get dirty, fall, pick a flower, plant a flower, run through the creek, jump over rocks, set up a bird house, watch the birds, or just to sit quietly and take in the rustle of the leaves and the smell of the earth.  

What made you “go green”? Take a few minutes to think. Then, pay it forward and act to increase the opportunities available for kids to encounter nature. Be the reason that a child “went green.” They’ll thank you for it later!

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