It may seem unimaginable that there are children in San Francisco who have never been to the beach, considering the city is surrounded on three sides by water.
But Charlotte Hill, an environmental educator with the San Francisco-based nonprofit Kids in Parks, said she comes across them.
“The first time I realized a lot of my students haven’t been to the beach, I was shocked, but I have met adults who have never been to the beach,” said Hill.
In the years since Richard Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” in his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, there has been a growing movement to get children outdoors as a way to improve their quality of life and cure societal ills, such as obesity, electronic media addiction, and mood and attention disorders. Outdoor play has dropped precipitously in the space of a generation and given cause to more than 20 states and cities, including California, to adopt “Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights” in the hopes that officializing a set of outdoor activities will help make them happen.
San Francisco Children and Nature Forum, a coalition of educators, park staff and health care and urban planning professionals, is now joining the bandwagon with the creation of a Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights specific to San Francisco. The forum is encouraging the public to take a survey of the top 10 outdoor activities they think are most important for every San Francisco child to experience.
A social compact
Should every San Francisco child have the opportunity to play in mud or sand? Should he or she be able to climb a tree or ride a bike, or sleep under the stars?
“We would like to make this part of the social compact of the city,” said Damien Raffa, who is a steering committee member, along with Hill, on the San Francisco Children and Nature Forum.
Raffa said once the list is finalized, the forum plans to take the Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the San Francisco school district board for endorsement, along with other groups. Broad support is needed if the items ever stand a chance for funding and implementation
“The idea of this initiative is that there are numerous providers who could get that child to the beach, but we have to make it a priority,” said Hill.
She added that it’s not just low-income city kids who have a deficit in time spent in nature.
“A lot of the children who go to a playground where it’s all hard surfaces or soft matting are not learning things like how to walk on a hill,” she said. “We go to a trail or slight grade and a lot of times I see kids panic.”
The Outdoor Bill of Rights list can spark some interesting debate about what is truly basic to a child’s experience in the outdoors. It took the nature forum about a year to narrow down the list to 13, of which 10 will prevail.
“We really felt like as a San Francisco group we wanted to have distinct experiences unique to our city,” said Hill. “We have this incredible nature in the city, you don’t have to leave town for it.”
For example, sleeping under the stars is actually possible in San Francisco because of the Rob Hill Campground in the Presidio.
“The one that was at the top of my mind going into it was tree climbing,” said Raffa, whose day job is the outdoor education program manager at the Presidio Trust.
Raffa said a few years ago when his daughter was seven, she and a group of kids were climbing trees at the Yerba Buena Gardens.
“It was a nice moment of kids being in the inner city having a joyful experience in the tree canopy,” Raffa said. “It was about 10 minutes later that the parade got rained on with a security officer … Here is a recreational resource but they’re not allowed play.”
Nature as liability
Raffa said he’s encountered similar restrictions at preschools, where safety passes for liability protection.
“There’s a lot of subjective interpretation that goes on in the matter of covering oneself,” he said.
San Francisco Children and Nature Forum is also looking into the perceptions the feed adult restrictions, to help distinguish between real and exaggerated dangers.
“This is also what we need to get a handle on, but we feel like we need to build support and we need to do it through public and nonprofit and for-profit leaders, who with this united stand can say, we’re all behind this,” said Raffa. “So with that in the back pocket we are able to question with more influence.”