Healthy Play Outdoors Means Healthy Kids

November 1, 2014, Department, by Barbara Tulipane, CAE

NRPA President and CEO Barbara Tulipane, CAE“Guidelines for natural playscapes?” What is this? It sounded like an oxymoron to me when I first heard about this initiative. Who in the world would think you need guidelines for kids to play in the woods? Well, I learned there is a lot more to this initiative than meets the eye, and the subject is very relevant to public parks and recreation.

When Richard Louv wrote The Last Child in the Woods about eight years ago, it was a wake-up call to parents, educators, and park and recreation advocates across the country, because people began to realize that this might be the last generation of kids who played outdoors. Kids were staying indoors to play video games, watch TV, surf the Internet and spend hours behind electronic devices. Kids no longer knew how to play outdoors, and worse, they didn’t care if they did.

With knowledge that there was a growing crisis that needed attention, the idea of creating nature play and learning areas quickly took shape. Parks, childcare institutions and schools all became interested in developing their own nature play spaces — safe, controlled areas that contain natural features and materials from nature to enable discovery play. Parents want more, and they are asking park and recreation agencies to provide these kinds of play areas. But how do you make such nature play places safe for all? 

Robin Moore, professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University, and Allen Cooper, director of state and local education advocacy for the National Wildlife Federation, led a group of experts, including many NRPA members and staff, in developing guidelines for the design, management and operation of nature play and learning areas, which were released in September 2014.

While the publication of the nature play guidelines marks a milestone in the effort to connect more kids to nature and the outdoors, it doesn’t signify that we have even made a dent in the profound changes that technology have brought to children. But there is no use wringing our hands — it is simply time to roll up our sleeves and get to work. 

And with your help, NRPA is making a difference. Our 10 Million Kids Outdoors initiative in partnership with the National Wildlife Federation has more than 650 park and recreation agencies signed on in support, and we have counted more than 5 million kids connecting to nature in parks. NRPA has also teamed up with the Partnership for a Healthier America to engage at least 2,000 park and recreation sites that will provide programs that offer physical activity and nutritional standards in after-school time. The American Water Charitable Foundation in partnership with NRPA recently awarded $384,000 in grants to park and recreation agencies to construct nature play areas in parks. And NRPA is providing tools, resources, networking, training and education to our members. Visit and the above links for the information and resources you need.

The bottom line is that we are about getting kids healthy. We want to connect millions more kids to nature and the outdoors, and with your help, we can.

Barbara Tulipane, CAE, NRPA's President and CEO