I go for walks in the woods on the North Shore pretty frequently; this is Vancouver, and we love our outdoor sports and spaces.
Some of those trails are pretty well-trod; and some of the areas, like between the suspension bridge and the Pool in Lynn Canyon, are so popular that there is no longer a 'trail' per se; the entire broad swath of forest floor between the safety fence along the canyon edge and the steep mountain shoulder on the other side is compacted to a hard black-brown sheen amongst the tree trunks.
Personally, these super-trails aren't my favourite places to go for a restorative walk in nature. However, when I'm taking my kids into nature, these well-worn places are the absolute best: wild, yes, but already so touched, loved, and explored by humankind that my children's footprints, handholds, scuffs are indistinguishable from the thousands of others'. I can actually let them free to explore as they are inclined -- touching, poking, pulling, climbing, jumping, building, whacking -- to explore with their whole bodies, and all their senses and imagination as, I would argue, they need to in order to really develop a relationship with the land.
I have respect for pressures on the wild places around us; I don't want everything to look like Lynn Canyon's hard packed forest super-trail. If the land is untouched, then we stay on the trail and we 'leave no trace'. It's good stewardship.
But 'leave no trace' leaves little room for children to learn wholly, and even less to learn to love -- nature becomes a mere backdrop, a pretty picture, an untouchable moral decree. One of my children refuses to go for a walk in the woods at all unless we promise him digging and/or climbing opportunities -- what's the point of looking at the stuff? he wonders.
When I was a child, and now when I work with children, I've found that what kindles passion for nature is building stuff with it, poking it apart, finding out what the different pieces are and, especially, creating rich fantasies about how we might use them. These archetypical experiences and the imaginary world they conjure seem to allow the children to see themselves as a part of nature, and to bond with it. I believe that it sets them on the path not necessarily to strict conservation of the wild spaces in a 'do not touch' sense, but to a love of nature that will propel them into stewardship as a whole.
I was happy to see this article at Slate.com, to hear of the growing awareness of children's needs regarding how they play and explore in nature (not just their presence in the midst of it), and certain efforts to create spaces within parks where children are free to be that way -- doing all the whacking, building, jumping, climbing, poking and digging that they need.
I also delighted in this website from the UK, GoingWild.net, an inspiring and very informative resource and support for parents and caregivers trying to get their kids outside for nature-based play and exploration.
Let's keep going outside and messing around in nature, so that future generations retain the use of more than their thumbs! and develop the biophilia to want to be good stewards of the land.