The Natural City? What do kids think?

by Sarah King

The Natural CityI used to spend my summers playing in the woods with children. Every year, summer camps welcome children out from their urban and suburban lives into a new universe, the forested domain of toads, spiders, salamanders and snapping turtles. Time spent in nature is important for children’s wellbeing – not only for their physical health, but for their mental and emotional health as well.

We tend to presume that the important encounters between children and nature happen out in the wilds, but time spent with nature as a part of daily life is equally important. Since most of us live in cities, this means that finding ways to access nature in cities is increasingly important. Robert Pyle reminds us that kids can find joy in “grasshoppers in the pigweed,” that there is “Eden in a vacant lot.” Kids can (and do!) find important time in nature, while still being at home, in the city.

Ingrid Stefanovic and I set out to learn about children’s experiences of nature in the Greater Toronto Area. We wanted to know how children themselves experienced nature in cities, and what they thought about how things should be. Walking and playing with groups of schoolchildren along the Lake Ontario Waterfront Trail, we learned a tremendous amount about their ideas and experiences. Clambering on rocks along the lake, watching carp swish through the reeds, skipping stones and balancing on fallen trees – all of these things were part of these children’s urban lives. Coffee cups in the water, rainbow slicks of oil, and admonitions from adults concerned more about safety than discovery, these were also part of these children’s urban lives. As Mohammed told us, “even though it’s a big city, nature pops up everywhere.”

All of the children we spoke to were concerned about pollution, and about keeping nature safe and protected from people. They were all longing for even more time to run and clamber and explore in the rocky and weedy corners. We found that the more time that children were able to spend exploring their communities in their own ways, enjoying free play and exploration on their own terms, the more nuanced and articulate their ideas about nature and cities. These ideas and insights are, we believe, important contributions to how we think about, design, and plan cities. Children’s contributions can and do matter to the communities we create.

This study, “Children and Nature in the City” is published in the new book The Natural City, edited by Ingrid Stefanovic and Stephen Scharper (University of Toronto Press, 2012). The book is a collection of ideas that re-envision cities, not as separate from nature, but as always already enmeshed within it. An interdisciplinary group of philosophers, engineers, anthropologists and others engage nature and cities not as opposites, but as interrelated. They echo the ideas of some of the children we met, who were learning to see nature not only in the great wide open, but also in the cracks of the pavement at their feet.

These days, I don’t get out of the city to summer camp. Instead, I’m with my own child, exploring his obsession with rocks, and sticks, and bugs in the midst of our noisy urban neighbourhood. Being at home in nature is important wherever we are.

Sarah J. King PhD.
Postdoctoral Fellow, School of Environmental Studies
Adjunct Professor, Environmental Studies & Philosophy
Queen’s University
Kingston ON, Canada