If Nature Play Is Vital, It Needs To Be Safe For Black Kids Too

by Elisha Beach
Originally Published: 
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Have you ever been concerned that playing outside could be unsafe for your kids? Of course. But have you ever had to consider that the color of your child’s skin, something they cannot change, is the thing that makes them unsafe? Unfortunately, as a Black mom of Black kids, I have to deal with this concern.

The unfortunate truth is, safe nature play for Black kids is affected by racism in a few different ways. This is alarming because we know that outdoor play in nature is vital to a child’s development. And if nature play is vital to kids, we need to work on making it safer for Black kids.

Some of you may read this and roll your eyes and ask, “Why does everything have to be about race?” And I will point out that’s an easy thing to say when you don’t generally have to worry that the color of your skin may be a threat to your safety. I want my kids to be able to enjoy nature play freely, but I don’t have the luxury of pretending these issues don’t exist.

Nature play is when a kid actively engages in unstructured play in natural surroundings. The benefits of this less structured form of play are established as an important part of a child’s development. It stimulates problem solving and creative thinking. Nature play provides opportunities for healthy risk taking and develops social skills. It increases focus, improves mood, promotes muscle development and strengthens the immune system. Not to mention, it helps to foster a relationship with nature.

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And it’s not just about playing in nature but playing with nature. Think climbing trees, digging in the dirt and collecting rolly-pollies and fireflies. Moreover, this includes hiking trails, camping and exploring creeks and backwoods. These are normal childhood experiences that every kid should be able to innocently participate in.

So how can racism have anything to do with something as innocent as kids playing in nature?

For starters, the most common place kids tend to play is in neighborhoods. But Black children, and particularly Black boys, are often over-policed in their own neighborhoods. Group gatherings of Black kids are treated as loitering or gang activity. A Black kid simply walking in a neighborhood is sometimes reported as suspicious. And there are very valid concerns of police harassment, abuse of power and brutality in communities of color.

My oldest son is 15 years old. He is about 5’9 and insists on wearing hoodies whether it’s 85 degrees or 55 degrees outside. He loves to skateboard and walk in our neighborhood and he should have the freedom to do so. I hate that I even have to think of the possibility that someone could walk or drive by my kid and see him as a threat and what that could lead to. And I hate even more that I feel the need to make him aware of this possibility and steal away a piece of his innocence.

Unfortunately, Black kids have even lost their lives because of these issues. Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a police officer when he was 12 because he was playing in an outdoor playground with a toy gun. Seventeen year old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed as he was walking home because he was deemed suspicious. And Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed while jogging in a neighborhood. And these are just a few stories that happened to be brought to the public’s attention.

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Another part of nature play is public outdoor spaces like beaches and parks across the country. These beautiful spaces give outdoor adventurers access to activities like hiking, camping, rock climbing, surfing, canoeing and swimming in natural bodies of water. But these public outdoor spaces are far less diverse than one would hope. Based on National Parks Service (NPS) figures, Blacks make up only 7% of people visiting national parks.

I can attest to this. I hike every weekend with another Black woman in a racially diverse area on a very popular trail. And occasionally we bring our kids along. We have been hiking weekly for at least six months. It is rare that we see any other Black people on our five-mile hike. It’s kind of a running joke for us to count how many Black people we see, but when you think about it, it’s actually not that funny.

And to be honest, this problem isn’t necessarily due to lack of access or exposure. National parks haven’t always been the most welcoming places for Blacks. Many public beaches, pools, parks, and lakes did not desegregate until after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. And although changes have been made, there is still a gap when it comes to things like culturally competent programming and outreach and more ethnic diversity reflected in park rangers and staff.

Alex Bailey, founder of Black Outside, shared with the news site The 74 that he has taken several groups of Black kids camping in Texas State Parks. When planning these trips, he calls ahead to speak to a supervisor so that he can “prep” staff for the group of black campers. Bailey is aware of the likely possibility that his campers will stand out due to the fact that they are Black kids and will probably not be in typical camping gear.

He wants to ensure that his campers will feel safe and welcomed and won’t be “policed” in nature by camp staff. Bailey wants Black kids to know that they have a place in the great outdoors. He believes this message needs to be reinforced to park rangers, camp staff and other camp goers.

The bottom line is nature play should be just as safe for Black kids as it is for every other kids. They have the right to feel safe and play carefree in outdoor spaces. I don’t have all the answers for how to make nature play safer for Black kids. But I think the first step is to make people aware that there is even an issue. And in the meanwhile, I will continue to expose my kids to as many outdoor adventures as I can.

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