Doctoral student and former park ranger Matthew H.E.M. Browning is investigating ways to let children better connect with nature in parks and reserves. He recognizes, though, that their “connections” may be formed in ways that could be detrimental to the environment. “As a park ranger, I couldn’t simply ignore environmentally damaging play,” he said. “When a child was ripping live branches off trees, for example, I knew I had to act. But in other situations, what should I do: preserve the environment or encourage children’s connection with nature?”

His answer is to develop “nature play areas” — designated areas within environmentally protected sites with more lenient rules for recreation to allow children to have unstructured opportunities that are unavailable elsewhere, with the goal of increasing their appreciation of the outdoors. Browning has traveled to dozens of nature play areas across the United States and Scandinavia to learn what recreational impacts are caused by children’s play and has talked with managers and scientists about how to sustainably manage protected natural areas used for recreation.

Having researched the negative impact of unstructured play on natural sites, Browning suggests that land managers should be aware of, but not deterred by, such impacts; the societal benefits of unstructured play in nature may outweigh the environmental costs. He recommends selecting impact-resistant sites, improving site resistance, constructing formal play structures, promoting low-impact practices, and other management strategies to sustainably connect children with nature.