Taking Children Outdoors

An interview with author Richard Louv regarding the benefits of taking children outdoors. 

Since its publication in 2005, Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, has gone through 10 printings in cloth and paper, and generated more than 600 requests for author speeches, with five appearance requests continuing to hit the in-box each week. The book also has spawned a grassroots movement among the most divergent of people: conservatives, liberals, developers, environmentalists, educators, ministers, architects, and outdoor clothing and equipment manufacturers.

This appeal to such dissimilar audiences is one reason why Louv describes “nature-deficit” as a “doorway” issue. “The people who are championing this book and this issue come from a wide range of experiences, religions and political views,” Louv says, “so one of my tasks in the past year — and it continues to be — is to use the issue to bring people together. This is an issue that gets people through the same door and at the same table.”

The book’s premise is simple, backed by interviews and rigorous research: Nearly 8 million children in the United States suffer from mental disorders. Obesity rates in children are soaring; children are being diagnosed with depression, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) at alarming rates, accompanied by prescriptions to Ritalin and other stimulants.

At the same time, children are increasingly disconnected from the natural world. While children of decades past spent summers building tree houses and forts, and winters sledding and building igloos, children today are stressed, overscheduled, and wired to computers and televisions. And, if the current generation of young parents missed out on personal experiences with nature, who will teach their children? How will the children of the new millennium learn to catch lightning bugs, feel the satisfying crunch of shell roads under their sneakers, or simply sit quietly in a forest to smell the rich soil of autumn, feel the crisp air of a coming winter and watch as sun dapples the trees?

Louv is careful to point out that “nature-deficit disorder” isn’t a clinically recognized term; he uses it with a sense of irony in a society that embraces medicalized phrases. Still, it has been enthusiastically embraced as a part of the modern lexicon.

In this Grit interview, Richard Louv, journalist and author of seven books on family, nature and community, discusses the necessity of taking children outdoors, the importance of nature to a child’s physical, emotional and spiritual health, and makes a powerful argument for a free-range childhood.

Nature enhances life

My first response to the book was “Doesn’t everyone already understand that unstructured time spent among nature enhances your life, regardless of age? Could anyone disagree?”

This issue was not on the burner, not on the stove. This is not to say that people weren’t thinking of it in the back of their minds. But there was very little direct knowledge about it. It was more of a subconscious knowledge. I think there are some changes in society that are so large that we cannot see them and I believe this is one of them.

Here’s an example: several years ago, I looked up one day and saw the horizon disappearing in San Diego. Literally. The tops of the mountains and hills throughout San Diego were being sliced off, flattened, and developments were being placed on them. I wrote a series of columns for the San Diego Union-Tribune about what I called the strip mining of San Diego. I can’t tell you how many e-mails I got from people saying that they had driven past these locations for years and had never really looked. It was only when it was compared to an idea they were familiar with — strip mining — that they saw it.

I think the response to this book and this issue signifies that same kind of shock of recognition.

Your question, “Could anyone disagree?” might be reframed by focusing on the peculiar nature of this issue — the fact that few other issues in America actually bring together people who ordinarily would not agree on much. Speaking around the country, I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter what someone’s religion or politics might be when we discuss this issue; if they are of a certain age, they want to tell me about the tree house or a special place in the woods they had as a kid. If they are in their early 20s, they likely didn’t have that experience. But for those who are older, they want to share their stories. This is an almost primal issue and it touches something deep inside people.

A movement has emerged in the last year. People have committed themselves more deeply to this issue. One of our tasks is to make sure they have access to information about new developments across the country.

In September, I helped sponsor a conference in West Virginia, which brought together people from a wide political, professional and cultural spectrum, including the secretary of the interior and the surgeon general. Based on these ideas, the Conservation Fund, another co-sponsor, will fund pilot projects throughout the country over the next 12-18 months. We hope they can leverage that money into a lot more.

We’ve also created a website — Children in Nature — to provide a space where all this information is pulled together, including interesting studies that have been completed since the book came out. Another purpose of the site is to stimulate the national children’s and nature movement. We don’t perceive this happening as a top-down national movement in the traditional sense, but instead as a number of regional campaigns that are emerging in places like Cincinnati, Florida, New Mexico, Washington, the Bay Area and St. Louis. Eventually, we hope to see these regional movements find common cause as a national or international movement. But one of our tasks — and this is important — is to let these regional movements know what the others are doing.

Parenting in the 21st Century

I spent a childhood outdoors with a single restriction: Be home before the street lights come on. But now, we’re inundated with media accounts of child abductions, infectious diseases and bad nannies. What’s a modern parent to do?

I’m not pretending that the 1950s are going to come back any time soon. Parents are fearful. I think the reasons for fear aren’t nearly as large as we think. The fear is amplified by my profession to the point of bad journalism.

But the fear won’t go away so that means a couple things have to happen:

  • Parents and other adults must be more intentional about getting their children outdoors. It’s no longer a matter of telling them to go outdoors until the streetlights come on. It’s a matter of taking them fishing, going on hikes with them, getting them involved with groups like the Scouts and community centers.
  • The second thing that has to happen — and this is paradoxical — is that this fear has greatly upped the ante for institutions and organizations to get involved. They must help parents get children outdoors. This will become increasingly true as we have a new generation of very young parents who unfortunately didn’t experience the outdoors in the way generations before them have. They don’t know where to start.

The primary message we need to deliver is that nature experience is critical for the health and development of children. Young parents will want to explore nature with their kids, and they’ll need help accomplishing it. The paradox is that to give kids some semblance of unorganized activities in nature, we’re probably going to have to organize much of this experience. The free-range childhood that I enjoyed as a child may not come back, but we’ll find new ways to connect children to nature, hopefully ones that are not overbearing, so that kids can achieve some sense of independence in nature.

ADD and ADHD surfaced a few years ago and escalated rapidly. Are we too quick to slap a label on kids, rather than encouraging more exercise, more stimulation, and more engagement in the natural world?

First, the phrase nature-deficit disorder needs to be explained. When I use the phrase, I’m not talking about a known medical diagnosis. I’m not trying to medicalize this. I’m using this phrase with a sense of irony. Most people get the irony. But the phrase has proved useful in a society that uses this kind of language. In the case of ADD, I’m not pretending that nature is a panacea or that some children don’t need medication. I do acknowledge that the whole arena of ADD is hazy. It can be quite confusing to sort out what is nailed down, scientifically, and what isn’t.

Natural Nature Therapy

If you look at the skyrocketing rates of kids who are diagnosed with these symptoms and given Ritalin or some other stimulant, you have to wonder what has changed in the culture that might stimulate such an increase. Some people blame TV and video games. But I think that’s too easy. Ongoing studies at the University of Illinois by Frances Kuo and others are quite convincing that a little bit of nature experience reduces the symptoms of ADD. They suggest that nature therapy should be added as a third therapy along with behavior modification and medications.

You discuss many studies in the book. While some of the evidence is still anecdotal, other studies are producing more conclusive evidence. Once the evidence is conclusive, will parents, educators, city planners, scientists and medical personnel move faster to enact changes locally, statewide and even federally?

I see that happening already, in all the areas you mention. I recently attended a biophilia design conference, where I met Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard biologist who defined the term biophilia as “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life.” He believes we must move forward on this.

Howard Frumkin was also in attendance. He’s director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Howard was one of the people in the medical field who recognized the importance of this issue early and reviewed the studies on the effect of nature on child development. He suggests that much more study needs to be done, but he also believes that, based on what is now known, we absolutely should move forward, bringing children to nature for their health and good development.

He says we can’t wait. And when you think about it, how many decades can we wait? What will happen after those decades pass if we have done nothing? At what point will we lose our cultural memory of what it was like to simply go out into the woods with children and watch the leaves move?

Publishing is a notoriously disappointing endeavor. The enthusiastic response to your book must be especially gratifying.

Most authors hope for two things. One: that people buy their books and actually read them. And two: that your work has a positive impact on society. That has always been my goal.

I should add that one of the things that I’ve noticed as I’ve moved around the country is that there have been people out there working on this issue long before I came along. They have been doing it quietly, without credit, unsung. I mention quite a few in this book. Yet there are still others out there, and they are growing in numbers. When I speak to these people, I tell them that I believe, in the broadest, nondenominational way, that they are doing sacred work. I believe this more every day.

Linda Shockley is a writer based in New York City. She was one of the lucky kids who could walk to school “the creek way,” play unrestricted in the lakes, creeks and forests of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and run wild in the neighborhood as long as she was home by dark. 

  • Published on Oct 5, 2020
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