How to Reconnect Your Youth to the Natural World

“With access to nature, we have real racial disparity in our city. If you are a middle-class kid, your parents or scout troop are making sure you have positive outdoor experiences. This is not the case for a kid struggling with not having enough food and the trauma of everyday life,” said St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson. “If we consciously tackle this now, we will create better outcomes for all kids today and tomorrow.”

Research shows that childhood has moved indoors, leaving kids disconnected from the natural world. This trend has profound implications for children’s health and wellbeing and disproportionately affects marginalized youth in urban areas.

A group of city leaders is working to change this reality. Imagine a city guided by a Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights, where municipal leaders, community organizations and nonprofits work together to defy statistics. Imagine a city committed to strategies that help all children, regardless of background, have meaningful access to outdoor learning and recreation.

Seven cities across the US are doing just that. Joining a group of other cities as part of the ongoing Cities Connecting Children to Nature (CCCN) initiative, Baltimore, Md.; Gary, Ind.; Houston and San Antonio, Texas; Rochester, N.Y.; Seattle, Wash.; and St. Louis, Miss. will implement nature connection strategies with a focus on equity.

Each city then developed implementation strategies reflective of their community’s assets, capacity and potential.
A process map guides cities in identifying priorities and a path towards measurable outcomes.

In 2018, CCCN cities began a year-long planning process that included mayor’s offices, parks and recreation, public health and youth services departments, along with a variety of community partners. City teams gathered community feedback via listening tours, youth surveys, partnership development, and program and resource mapping. Each city then developed implementation strategies reflective of their community’s assets, capacity and potential.

In San Antonio, Texas, creating nature connection hubs in local libraries emerged as a viable solution for equitably connecting children to nature. Gary will reclaim local parks and green spaces by engaging youth in leadership development, summer employment, and green career programs. St. Louis will develop partnerships with school districts and charter schools and promote a city-wide green schoolyard policy. Houston, still recovering from Hurricane Harvey, will revitalize local parks in collaboration with libraries and community centers with a focus on climate resiliency.

These new CCCN cities join a growing CCCN cohort that receives grants, technical assistance, peer learning support, and consultation with national experts. Cities in the first CCCN cohort are seeing success from their implementation strategies: Austin, Texas launched its first green schoolyard in a traditionally marginalized neighborhood; Madison, Wisc. improved nature sites near childcare centers; Louisville, Ky. used its Summerworks youth employment program to provide children with access to nature. Perhaps the most important outcome is the creation of four full-time permanent positions to lead local children and nature strategies.

“We know that access to nature improves academic outcomes, community health, and quality of life,” says Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, mayor of Gary, Ind., and president of the National League of Cities. “And if our young people are more connected with the environment, they can–and will–have a better appreciation for what they see outside.”

CCCN invites cities to apply for the 2019 Cities Connecting Children to Nature (CCCN) Leadership Academy in Denver. Complete the online application here.

About the Author

CCCN is a partnership between the National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education and Families and the Children & Nature Network and funded by The JPB Foundation. Learn more by attending the Children and Nature International Conference in Oakland, Calif., May 16 – 18, 2019, featuring a special “Creating Nature-filled Cities” track; exploring tools and resources to help cities connect children and nature; and signing up for the Cities Connecting Children to Nature newsletter.