New York Field Office
Northeast Region

Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone

Evidence of the broad and multifaceted benefits of connecting children with nature is overwhelming. Connecting with the natural world has been shown to positively influence both physical and mental well-being, improve academic performance, contribute to social development, and encourage greater environmental stewardship later in life. Sadly, the average American child today has fewer and fewer opportunities to enjoy the formative experience of unstructured outdoor play that is so essential for forming that connection. This unfortunate paradox has prompted governmental agencies and non-governmental organizations alike to work to address this epidemic of nature-deficient children.


Fort at HONAZ; photo by ICG Nature sculpture at HONAZ; photo by ICG
Forts are a common feature of the Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone,
each reflecting the unique creativity of its creators.
Nature is an integral part of play at the Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone, it provides the raw materials, and backdrop for many games, construction projects, and works of art.

The New York Field Office has taken up that cause and in 2012, we launched a landmark project called the Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone, or HONAZ, in collaboration with local partners. Working with the Ithaca Children’s Garden, natural playscape designer Rusty Keeler, and early childhood development specialist Elizabeth Stilwell, we have established a place in the heart of the City of Ithaca, NY where children of all ages and abilities are free to explore, experiment, and connect with the natural world.


Bridge at HONAZ; photo by ICG
Flooded areas are often seen as an inconvenience, but here they are an opportunity to solve problems and test limits.

At the core of the HONAZ is the philosophy of free play. Though the idea is straightforward—letting kids play the way that they want to play—the execution can be difficult for the uninitiated because it is so far removed from what many families are used to.


Mud slide at HONAZ; photo by ICG Swing at HONAZ; photo by ICG
These kids are sizing up the mud slide at the International Mud Day celebration
The space is constantly changing, molded by the whims of the children playing

Free play means that kids are in charge…getting dirty, taking calculated risks, building things, destroying things, and generally being wild are all welcome.  It also means that kids will need to make decisions, solve problems, generate creative ideas, and navigate social situations independently. Free play empowers kids to explore and connect with nature in ways that are most meaningful to them. These experiences are likely to stay with kids for a long time and stimulate greater respect and love for nature. We are working to inspire the next generation of naturalists and environmental stewards!


Zone into Nature
Zone into Nature programming encourages kids to really "dig in" to nature

We further encourage connections to nature through the Zone-into-Nature program hosted at the HONAZ. Each week throughout the summer, this program invites families to join local experts on an interactive exploration of nature, from soils to birds of prey and everything in between.

The results thus far have been astounding and the project has gained local, national, and even international recognition. The HONAZ has been featured on National Public Radio, the Katie Couric Show, and in several articles (including these seen on Babble, Play-scapes, Play and Playground Magazine, and Syracuse Media Group). It has also attracted attention from groups interested in starting similar projects.



The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Wants families everywhere to get outside and connect with nature. Find more information and resources at Let's Go Outside!

Connect with the Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone on Facebook!


All photos on this page are courtesy of Ithaca Children’s Garden.


National USFWS Kids, Educators, and Parents Page


Last updated: February 15, 2019
All images by FWS unless otherwise noted.