Q&A with Children at Nature Play sign creator Michael Barton

Q&A with Nature Play Sign creator Michael Barton

Since we believe so strongly in the importance of nature play for children, we're always looking for new and creative ways to spread awareness to a broader audience. Enter the Children at Nature Play sign, created by stay-at-home dad Michael Barton. 

Playing off of the standard "Slow: Children at Play" signs often seen in neighborhoods or near parks, which request of their viewers to slow down their approaching vehicle, the “slow” in this sign seeks to urges viewers to slow down their minds and busy schedules and take notice of the joy and wonder that children exhibit when playing in nature. 

The sign is intended to be displayed any place where children explore, play, and learn about nature, from schools and nature centers to public parks and front yards. 

We had the opportunity to connect with the sign's creator, Michael Barton, and are excited to share with you about the work that he's doing to support the nature play movement.  

What is your favorite outdoor childhood memory? 

My brothers and I would often play outside in the street in front of our house, tossing a football around and calling "Car!" when necessary, or riding our bikes and venturing out to local parks and playgrounds. Two things always come forth, however, when I think about nature-related experiences. First, going on hikes in the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains in southern California with our grandfather; and second, when living in southern Oregon for a period of time, the smell of broken milkweed stems along a river. 

What inspired you to create the "Children at Nature Play" sign?

Nature Play Sign

I created the unique Children at Nature Play signs when in 2011 I was parked alongside a neighborhood road and my attention fixed on to a traditional "Children at Play" sign (I don't remember for sure, but it probably showed kids on bikes or kicking a ball around). While these activities are surely things I did as a child, they were not the common type of "play" that my son, then 5, was engaged in. Such signs did not depict "play" as we experienced it, because for us, play included dirt, logs, boulders, water, investigating bugs. In essence: exploring in nature. So I thought to myself, it would be really neat to see such a sign that stressed nature play. I had one sign made up for ourselves, and then it dawned on me that it might be something other people would like. So it was a few years until I was able to have a bulk of signs printed and made available through my website. And three years later, there are more than 300 signs all across the U.S. and Canada, and a handful internationally. 

What's the coolest place you've seen one of your signs displayed? 

While I always enjoy receiving photos from nature centers, nature-based preschools, etc. showing how they put up the sign they ordered, one time I was extremely excited to be sent a photo showing one of the signs being held by the previous U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell in a photo op for a city and parks event in Atlanta, GA.  

You recently launched a new endeavor, The Nature Book Nook, where you share reviews of children's books about nature. Do you have a couple current favorites that you'd recommend? 

I love all manner of nature books, from field guides and encyclopedia-style books to naturalist memoirs. But children's books really strike a chord with me, for not only do I have my own children I can share them with but I enjoy the way that well-written and beautifully illustrated titles can present large topics in a digestible fashion. One such book, Water is Water: A Book About the Water Cycle by Miranda Paul and illustrated by Jason Chin, does this splendidly, showing in every spread kids engaged in outdoor play and exploration. Other books that touch on encouraging kids to get outside themselves are Bringing the Outside In and On a Magical Do-Nothing Day.

What’s one pro tip you’d offer parents looking to spend more time outdoors with their children? 

Keep it simple. That's it. Not much is needed to prepare for spending time outside with your kids. Appropriate footwear and clothing (especially hats), snacks, water, and depending on the time of year and where you live, sunscreen and insect repellent. Those are the basics of what you need to get out in your area and explore local parks and natural areas. Perhaps towels and a change of clothes. And always keep a first aid kit in your vehicle or backpack. Of course, more essentials will be needed when upping your game to hiking deeper into wilderness areas or camping. But if you're planning to just get outside at a local nature park for a couple of hours, not much is needed. Bring the basics, and nature will take care of the rest.

Finish this sentence: “Spending time in nature makes me feel…” 

Connected. As a science-minded person, I think of having a connection to nature in several ways. (I am now rehashing words from a short column I wrote for a local parenting magazine a few years back). We are all connected to everything in the natural world because we share atoms that were forged inside stars in the early evolution of our universe. I talk about this connection when my kids and I are looking at a tree, a bug, or a cloud. We share the same elemental matter with nature, and thus have a cosmic connection. We are all connected to everything in the natural world because our actions as organisms on this planet affect the environment, and therefore the well-being of all other organisms. We share our environment with plants and animals in nature, and thus have an ecological connection. And we are all connected to everything in the natural world because we evolved from it. What better way to make bird watching or bug hunting – or visits to the zoo, even – more personal than to make it a family affair? I talk with my children about various animals being like very distant cousins. We share ancestry, going back millions, even billions, of years with all other organisms on Earth, and thus have an evolutionary connection.

Children at Nature Play: raising awareness about children and nature, one sign at a time.

Visit natureplaysign.com to order your own Children at Nature Play sign.

Q&AEmma HuvosQ&A