My entire life I’ve been an outdoor enthusiast, enjoyed the beauty and diversity of nature and lived a life outside. Some of my earliest memories involve fishing and hunting with my dad, learning to appreciate the changing seasons and getting a little dirty. I’m fortunate to bring these same experiences to my family, three kids and often two high school exchange students we host each year.

As I’ve experienced more of the world, and New Mexico in particular, I’ve been hit with a harsh reality. Few of our young children and families get to play in the grass or hike through nature, even with our abundance of public lands.

While outdoor recreation is a great way for my kids to be involved with nature and disconnect from technology, it’s not an option for many families. Too few kids experience nature on a daily basis, especially at child care facilities or with families, friends and neighbors. Thankfully, there’s a way to start small and focus on where our New Mexico youth spend their time every day.

If you drive by nearby playgrounds, early childhood programs or child care centers, you’ll see a common theme. Immobile, plastic play equipment and hot rubber mulch, sometimes lacking shade. It’s common to see kids huddled together scraping for the last inch of shade under a play structure, or the playground closed altogether due to heat.

These plastic structures aren’t used how they’re intended when trees and shade canopy could take their place, keeping kids safe and cool.

This has become the norm at so many playgrounds and child care centers today. It’s easy to buy “built equipment” from a catalog, something that doesn’t involve maintenance or attention. But for our youngest children, spending time at child care is the best opportunity to introduce them to nature, even on the smallest scale. It’s time we ditch plastic playgrounds and think of how we can bring nature to the forefront in a way that’s affordable, sustainable and equitable for all families.

I recently began working with the New Mexico Wildlife Federation as the youth program director, focusing on bringing the Early Childhood Health Outdoors program to New Mexico. This program specializes in redesigning traditional outdoor play spaces to incorporate winding pathways, space for earth and sand play, stumps to jump and climb, native plants and trees, and even pine cones or rocks.

The board of Bernalillo County Commissioners even signed a resolution to acknowledge the need for ECHO and nature play across New Mexico.

Early childhood is a critical time in life, when children’s brains are developing at an exceptional rate and learning new skills and behaviors. Dynamic nature play spaces ensure young children experience multiple benefits like being more active, collaborating more with each other and adults, improvements in self-confidence, concentration and more.

New Mexico made a big step in prioritizing early childhood. For the first time in New Mexico’s history, the state will make its biggest investment in young children with the $320 million Early Childhood Trust Fund, which will provide dedicated revenue to fund early childhood programs.

A small portion of these funds could improve the spaces where children are spending their time. We don’t need to completely renovate or remove plastic equipment, but incorporating nature throughout the space drastically changes the way children interact within it.

Through nature play, we can ensure families and communities here in New Mexico have a chance for the best possible start in life and experience the benefits of nature every day. If you’re interested in learning how to get started, contact me at sarah@nmwildlife.org.

Sarah Candelaria is youth program director for the New Mexico Wildlife Federation.

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