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A Child’s Natural Habitat - it’s time that we give equal access to nature for all kids.

In a moment everything can change.

Stressed from my work week, I headed out for a walk along the bike path near my home. It was dusk, so I was pretty much alone, until unexpectedly I heard someone from a nearby property yell, “Hey – get out of here!”. Next thing I knew, the brush near me rustled and a large doe leapt directly across my path.

Before that moment I had been caught up in my own thoughts and troubles, but suddenly all I could think about was the plight of that deer (and my own good fortune for not being run over!).

I kept wondering, “Where would that deer go?”.

With only a narrow strip of woods on either side of the bike path, it was hard to imagine where she could call home; forced to live in the gaps between suburban yards, denied access to her natural habitat, and shooed away by property owners.

Deer are not the only ones being denied access to their natural habitat – many children are too.

Last spring, I visited an elementary school situated in a run-down section of a nearby city. I had been summoned by a passionate teacher looking to expand her efforts around gardening and outdoor learning. The main landscape elements surrounding the school were minimal – asphalt, trash, a few unhappy looking trees, and raised beds that were in disrepair. While the teacher explained all her great efforts with gardening, she also outlined the limitations – money, vandalism, and long-term maintenance.

When I got in my car to leave, I was heartened by the teacher’s enthusiasm, but I also wanted to cry. Where do those children go to connect with nature?

There are huge disparities between which children have access to nature in our country and which don't. Systemic racism, poor land use planning, and lack of resources (or rather, those in power not prioritizing the allocation of resources) create landscapes not suitable for nature and children alike.

Referred to as the “Nature Gap" by a report put out by the Center for American Progress, nature deprivation, particularly in Rhode Island is alarming. The report, which measured nature deprivation across race, ethnicity, and income, highlights how certain Rhode Island children are being severely deprived. The percentages are disturbing with the largest disparity between Blacks (97% deprived) and Whites (13% deprived). When looked at across all categories, non-White, low-income Rhode Island children are 100% deprived of nature access.

Children need nature as much as they need food, water, exercise, and love, yet children in these environments are forced to find nature in the cracks in the pavement of their vandalized schoolyard. They are essentially being denied their natural habitat.

Like conservation and restoration efforts aimed at preserving habitat for our native plants and animals, how about we intentionally preserve and provide it for our children? The challenge is not only unique to urban areas. Even in suburban neighborhoods, it can be hard to truly find nature amongst the manicured lawns and shrubs.

Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods” has coined our younger generation’s disconnect from nature, “nature deficit disorder”. He also calls us to, “Imagine a world where children experience the joy of being in nature before they learn of its loss”. All our children deserve to experience this joy and basic human right.

It is time that we make nature access for all children a top priority. Our children need a natural habitat as much as that doe that crossed my path. We must ask ourselves if we are willing to provide it.

Wishing you time to thrive outside,

Shannon Rozea is the Founding Director and Landscape Architect for Thrive Outside

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