What Will Your Children Remember?


TGSG Note: Parks are such a rich part of my childhood memories, and are still very much a refuge for me today. I am thrilled to have Nancy Heltman from Virginia State Parks stop by and share this post with us. Nancy is a great advocate for connecting kids and all of us with nature. I grew up in Virginia, so these beautiful patches of the planet hold special meaning for me.

See ya outside! ~ The Grass Stain Guru

I am hard pressed to resurrect a childhood memory related to being inside. Far and away the most memorable times are keyed to having fun outdoors. From simple treats like lying on my back in the grass and watching the clouds, feeding the ducks at Ridgway Park, flying kites at Gosnold’s Hope Park, visits to Buckroe Beach, family vacations in the Great Smoky Mountains, Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Shenandoah National Parks; having fun outdoors is what I remember.

I trace the legacy of the love of playing outdoors to my parents. My mother celebrates her eighty-fifth birthday this month and often talks about her childhood growing up in New Jersey. New Jersey, often maligned for industrial areas near New York City, has great community parks and beautiful places that earn its motto “The Garden State.” Growing up, my mother was always within walking distance of a local park. She reminisces about ice skating in the winter and playing year-round in these parks with one or more of her younger siblings. During my childhood I stayed with relatives in New Jersey during the summer and still remember the many parks in walking distance.

Growing up in Hampton, Virginia, we had parks but not within walking or biking distance from where I lived. My mother worked during the week so my favorite weekends were spent at Ridgway Park and later Gosnold’s Hope Park and Buckroe Beach in the summer. My father introduced us to National Parks on family vacations and also instilled in us a love for outdoor fun like fishing, hunting and horseback riding.

My seven year old nephew does not play outside. He has a nice backyard with fun play equipment but he prefers watching TV and playing computer games. What will he remember of his childhood when he reaches the half a century mark? At seven I spent daylight hours outside jumping rope, playing hopscotch, riding my bike. I remember making a tent fort out of the clothes line and trapping lightning bugs in old mayonnaise jars.

Those of us in Parks and Recreation have rallied around Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. We already knew about the demise of free play but Louv’s book reached a broader audience and started a movement well overdue. It has inspired partnerships and major campaigns to counteract the addiction to the indoors and changes in society that have reinforced the behavior. Just last week our National Parks, America’s State Parks (via the National Association of State Park Directors) and local parks (through the National Recreation and Park Association) forged an alliance to work together to help reconnect children with nature.

Watching the Ken Burns series on National Parks it is clear that those behind the movement that created our National and State park systems had incredible foresight. Love for the beauty of nature and need to protect the wild places in this country spawned the National Park movement and America’s system of state parks. Local communities skimp and save to provide parks and recreation to its citizens. But what will be the fate of these special places if our children do not develop a love for the outdoors and the natural world?

While nature experiences certainly start in the backyard, more and more suburbia represents overly cultivated lawns and very little of what is wild about the natural world. City dwellers have the additional challenge of even finding the grass. In other words, today’s at home opportunities to experience nature outdoors are of very little interest to children when compared with multi-media experiences indoors. I grew up in suburbia and often escaped to the more wild “woods” and a marvelous borrow pit lake that freaked my parents out when they discovered I had been there. Today more than ever our local, state or national parks are the best place, if not only place, to celebrate the wild places still accessible to the general public.

Working for Virginia State Parks [http://www.virginiastateparks.gov] I love hearing the stories from adults about their visits to our state parks as children and how they are bringing their children to the same parks today. This is a legacy that your children remember and pass on for generations. If you are blessed with local parks or can work to develop them, your children will thank you. If not, spend vacations and weekends celebrating the fun you can have in simple play and outdoors. Help your children make the memories they will look back on in their adult years.

Guest Blogger Bio: Nancy Heltman is Operations Director for Virginia State Parks. While she has always loved the outdoors, she stumbled into her career in State Parks after fifteen years in private sector management. She lives in Yorktown, Virginia with her husband, David, mother, four cats and three dogs. While her job involves all of the boring indoor park stuff like budget, procurement and paperwork, her responsibilities for volunteerism and marketing give her the chance to visit Virginia’s great state parks. She is their social media guru, so follow her on Twitter or read their blog.

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