"I like to play indoors better ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”
For Richard Louv, this comment by a San Diego 4th-grader explains what is at the core of some of today’s most disturbing childhood trends, including the rise in obesity, attention deficit disorders, and depression. Louv is an author and journalist whose most recent book, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder,” describes a generation of children so plugged into electronics and so tuned out to nature that they have lost an essential, formative connection that makes them whole and healthy human beings.
His assertion that a child’s direct exposure to nature is essential for positive physical and emotional development — “just as children need good nutrition and adequate sleep, they may very well need contact with nature” — has touched a chord with parents and educators all over the world, triggering an international discussion about the importance of connecting children and nature.
Louv’s grassroots efforts, which led to environmental education campaigns all across the United States, have also resulted in the passage of the No Child Left Inside Act — which expands environmental education in America’s classrooms — by the House of Representatives. Just this year, Louv’s efforts in the environmental movement were recognized by the National Audubon Society, which awarded him the Audubon Medal, putting him in the elite ranks of other such environmental notables as Robert Redford and Jimmy Carter.
Louv will give a talk, “Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder,” aimed at parents of children ages pre-K through 12th grade, at the Lewis School in Princeton on Thursday, November 6, the first of three speakers in this year’s CommonGround lecture series. CommonGround, a consortium of 12 Princeton area independent schools, invites distinguished speakers who address contemporary educational and parenting issues. The lecture series is free and open to the public.
Louv says one of the factors that has fed the disconnect between young people and nature is the breathless advance of technology and the “cool” factor that is often associated with it and not associated with nature. But, he says, that can be changed. “I often tell teenagers that they have hidden powers, and that they can trump the iPod with the nPod.”
He points to one high school in Los Angeles that has taken active steps to make nature more accessible, appealing, and more “cool” to its students. “At Crenshaw High School, the Eco Club has given many students their first introduction to the natural environment through the club’s weekend day hikes and camping trips in nearby mountains, as well as through expeditions to Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks. Community service projects include coastal cleanups, and hiking trail maintenance.” The exposure has also resulted in improved student grades, not surprising, says Louv, since research also correlates exposure to nature with reducing symptoms of attention deficit disorder.
In fact, a study conducted at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign looked at how the environment influenced a child’s concentration skills. The researchers evaluated 17 children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, who all took part in three 20-minute walks. The researchers found that a “dose of nature” worked as well or better than a dose of medication on the child’s ability to concentrate.
“When good parents hear about these studies, they want nature for their kids, either as an addition to traditional therapies or in some cases a replacement. I hear from parents and teachers all over the country how important this can be to their children and students, and in many cases the remarkable improvements that do occur.”
What is it about modern society that has produced this broken bond between nature and young people? While the advent of technology, video games, media, and the like are to blame, as well as the overscheduling of kids, Louv also points to the “bogeyman” factor — highly publicized events such as kidnappings and hit-and-run accidents that have made both children and parents fearful about exploring the great outdoors or even playing outside. While the fear is real, he says, it is important to face it. “Know your neighbors. Invest in the life of the block and the surrounding community. Create a play-watch group and ask fellow parents to sit on front stoops or porches several hours a week, available at a distance as children play. Such parent groups can take children on trips to local or regional parks.”
Louv graduated from the University of Kansas with a degree in journalism in 1971. As a child raised in Kansas, the heartland of the United States, Louv and his brother were offered plenty of opportunities to be exposed to nature by their mother, Pauline, a commercial artist, and father, W. Richard, a chemical engineer. One of Louv’s favorite memories revolves around the twisters that would spring up on the Kansas plain and the annual family ritual of saving the turtles from becoming roadkill.
“The blacktop roads and cement highways would be dotted with splotches, crawlers, and spinners. Spinners were what we called those turtles that, while traveling to turtle Mecca, took a glancing blow from a tire, flipped over, and spun like tops. Crawlers and splotches were self-explanatory. When we saw a spinner or a crawler, my father would brake the car and my mother would jump out, white blouse fluttering in the wind, shoot across the pavement — sometimes dodging cars — and grab the turtle. I often think about the crawlers and spinners that would have been splotches, and sometimes I wonder if other parents cruise for box turtles in the spring, their children in the back seat, still in their pajamas.”
He and his wife, Kathy Frederick Louv, tried to create connections with nature with their own sons, Jason and Matthew, when they were growing up. Louv says parents can have the greatest influence of all in helping to heal the broken bond between their children and nature.
He offers a variety of solutions, including these tips for children of all ages:
Go digital. Try wildlife photography — appropriate for small children, teenagers, and adults. Digital cameras are portable, easy to use, and can literally give you a new perspective on nature.
Plant a garden. Whether teenagers or toddlers, young gardeners can help feed the family and if your community has a farmers’ market, encourage them to sell their extra produce. You can also share it with neighbors or donate it to a food bank. If you live in an urban neighborhood, create a high-rise garden. A landing, deck, terrace, or flat roof typically can accommodate several large pots, and even trees can thrive in containers if given proper care.
Help restore butterfly migration routes. Plant seeds of indigenous pollinating plants that provide nectar, roosting, and food for caterpillars. Hollyhocks, for example, are host plants for the painted lady butterfly, lupine for the Karner blue butterfly, and milkweed for monarchs.
Encourage older children to become citizen scientists, and become one yourself. Volunteer at a wildlife rehabilitation center or other wildlife care facility. Help restore habitat and monitor rare and endangered species through natural history museums, state and national parks, and wildlife protection groups.
Go birding — urban or suburban, rural or wilderness. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology (www.birds.cornell.edu) offers, in English and Spanish, the Celebrate Urban Birds program for youngsters, focusing on 16 species of birds often found in urban neighborhoods. Young people can post their bird sightings onto satellite maps and track bird populations in their own neighborhoods (www.birdpost.com).
Get wetter and wilder. Canoeing, sailing, and swimming are great for kids of every age. As they reach their teens, young people are likely to be attracted to edgier, riskier outdoor adventures, such as snorkeling, kayaking, scuba diving, and river rafting.
Help your child become a “natural leader.” Your child can help organize regional campaigns, or volunteer at nature centers or with such programs as the Student Conservation Association, Outward Bound, and the Service and Conservation Corps. The National Wildlife Federation, Audubon Society, and Nature Conservancy also have youth engagement programs.
While in the past, young people have had role models like Ansel Adams and John Muir, who helped celebrate nature, today there is a dearth of such heroes, especially as young people look to the casts of television and movies for their inspiration. Louv says today’s new role models will have to be developed for youth by youth. “Young heroes in nature are practically nonexistent, with the marginal exception of some of the survival shows. Having said this, there are plenty of young people who are working heroically to address climate change and other major environmental issues. In the meantime, while we wait for new heroes to emerge, reading John Muir, Edward Abbey, Thomas Berry, Robert Michael Pyle and other great nature writers is a good start.”
Louv says he is optimistic about the future of young people and their ability to reconnect with nature. “The most hopeful growth, in fact, is among young people themselves. This movement is only beginning, and we believe it is going beyond awareness to action, and that we’re already beginning to see the first anecdotal evidence of real change. Besides, there’s no practical alternative to hope.”
Last Child in the Woods, Thursday, November 6, 7:30 p.m., Princeton High School Performing Arts Center, Walnut Lane, Princeton. “Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder” presented by Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods” and co-founder and chairman of the Children and Nature Network. Louv’s talk links the lack of nature in children’s lives to obesity, attention disorder, and depression. Free. 609-924-8120.