Friday, June 15, 2012

The Origin Of Our Sense Of Place

Studies show that city parks and natural areas give children a “sense of rootedness” and “aesthetic value” and “place making” and “supports the development of sense of place and attachment.”

This may not fully explain why a few ringleaders in the current legislature seem so driven to sacrifice North Carolina’s sense of place.

But it does further illuminate what gives some communities such as Durham, where I live, such a strong sense of place and attachment which is closely linked to economic and cultural vitality and the ability to attract and retain talent and pursue visitor-centric cultural and economic development.

Experts note that if a genetic switch is not flipped in a child they evolve into adults without compassion.  Apparently nature-based outdoor activity flips the genetic switch for stewardship of sense of place.

I’m not surprised that consideration is being given to converting a larger portion of some Durham city parks, such as Rockwood which is down the hill from where I live, back to a natural state although it might be more than a bit disingenuous to neglect the turf and then when it is overtaken by weeds to presume it is no longer useful because no one plays on it.

Historic parks such as Rockwood and Forest Hills are incredibly beautiful and useful but tend to be challenging to maintain because developers typically donated the land in flood-prone lowlands as a means to slow, capture and  cleanse storm run-off.

Still before they were neglected these parks had been beautifully manicured.

My 80+ year old and still very active neighbor remembers when she and her husband bulldozed the street where I live to build their home overlooking the park in the years after World War II, the City of Durham had to be reminded that Rockwood Park was public property.

Rockwood is widely used by both neighboring residents and commuters because it is cool and heavily forested, perfect for family and group get-togethers with a great playground for small children.  But it is also popular for walking pets, exercise and reflection.

Just as I was retiring a few years ago, the head of Duke School, a private Pre-K-8 institution in Durham, Dave Michelman, penned a great blog summarizing the value of unstructured, make-believe play and discovery as a means to increase children’s “self regulation, discovery, wonder and creativity.”National Kids Survey

Over parenting, including children sucked into the adult-driven ever hyper-active world of organized sports, is no substitute for what Michelman is wrote about.

Parents today are well-advised to adopt the Marine Corps “rule of threes” as a means to ensure sufficient unstructured time.

But studies about the importance of unstructured outdoor and especially nature-based activity have been lacking a “national baseline regarding children’s time outdoors and to determine what kids are doing or not doing outside, including factors that affect children’s activity choices.”

That was the purpose of incorporating a National Kids Survey into the rolling survey of Outdoor Recreation Trends And Futures (page 82.)  It turns out that 62.5% of children spend two hours or more outside on a weekday, 78.2% on a weekend which is more than many expected.

There are disturbing differences between girls and boys and ethnic and age groups, but overall 84% are just playing or hanging out while 49.8% are playing or practicing team sports.  This study notes that concerns about the shift away from nature-based activities is warranted.

Noted are studies supporting the fact that “direct play in nature is critical for youth cognitive and social development, especially during middle school years” as well as creativity, innovation and concrete skills such as way finding and an overarching sense of place.

More accessible and forested parks with a mix of nature area, well-maintained turf and playgrounds is part of the answer as are the quasi-unstructured exhibits such as those of the spectacular Museum of Life and Science in Durham.

The hugely popular museum is opening “Into The Mist” at the end of the month, its ninth outdoor exhibit which promises a “natural landscape where you can play, explore, and interact with the powerful forces and forms of the earth.”

But there is simply no substitute for time spent just exploring in the woods.

Among the most important factors, according to the study, is not only the emphasis on the unstructured and nature-based time children spend outdoors, but that parents are willing and able to spend time outdoors with their children!

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