In the days before sprawling residential subdivisions, children at play could often be seen traipsing through meadows or climbing trees. Now it’s more common to find boys and girls being shuttled from school to computer to soccer practice as part of a fast-paced schedule that leaves little time for daydreaming or exploring nature. The result, says journalist Richard Louv, is “nature-deficit disorder.” Louv coined this term, which is not a medical diagnosis, to call attention to the absence of nature in children’s lives. In his newest book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder(Algonquin Books), he ties the lack of time spent in nature to everything from childhood obesity to psychological disorders.
Suburban sprawl and busy schedules are just two factors keeping children out of nature, Louv says. Others include the strict focus on academics, what he calls the “criminalization of play,” media-fueled fear of child abductions, and overzealous environmental campaigns. Still, Louv is optimistic and believes that people with different political and cultural concerns can find common ground around this issue. Most people above a certain age, he says, remember having a place in nature that was special to them when they were a child.
For Louv, that place was the woods beyond his childhood home in Raytown, Missouri. Born in 1949, Louv was raised by an artist mother and a chemical-engineer father, both of whom encouraged his engagement with the natural world. But nature for the Louvs didn’t mean just looking at wildflowers. Every spring, his family would get in the car on a mission to save the box turtles — who were making their annual migration — from the ravages of automobiles.
Louv began writing at a young age, and by twelve he was getting published in his school and community newspapers. He went on to receive a degree in journalism from the University of Kansas in 1971. It was the Vietnam era, and he successfully applied for conscientious-objector status. For his alternative service, Louv got a position at Project Concern, a charity in San Diego. He spent five years there before returning to journalism and later became a contributing editor toHuman Behavior and San Diego magazine, and then a columnist for twenty-three years at the San Diego Union-Tribune. Louv has also written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Christian Science Monitor. He helped found Connect for Kids, the largest child-advocacy site on the Web, and was an advisor to the Ford Foundation’s Leadership for a Changing World awards program. In 2005 he cofounded the Children and Nature Network (www.cnaturenet.org). His other books includeThe Web of Life: Weaving the Values That Sustain Us (Conari Press) and Fly-Fishing for Sharks: An Angler’s Journey across America (Simon & Schuster).
We spoke in the sunroom of Louv’s San Diego home, on an uncharacteristically rainy August day. A shadow box of multicolored fishing lures hung on the wall, and titles like The Art of Fly Tying and Trout Magic lined the shelf. (He prefers fishing to writing, he says.) Louv has two sons — Jason, twenty-five, and Matthew, nineteen — and is as comfortable quoting facts and figures as he is talking about the delights of a childhood immersed in nature.
Cooper: What was your relationship with nature as a child?
Louv: When I was a kid in the 1950s, I had a strong sense that nature was saving me in some fundamental way, though I couldn’t have articulated it then. I found a meaning in the outdoors that I didn’t find anywhere else. Not that my life outside nature was without meaning; it’s just there was a certain intensity in nature. I’d go as far as to call it a “spiritual” intensity, though the word spiritual makes some people — including me — uncomfortable.
I was lucky to have parents who introduced me to nature. Being outdoors gave me a sense of balance and a little bit of escape from family problems.
Cooper: How has childhood changed since you were growing up?
Louv: Children’s activities seem more restricted now. My son Matthew once asked me, “How come it was more fun when you were a kid?”
Matthew’s now nineteen, and he and I recently traveled to Kansas and Missouri. I took him to some of the places where I’d spent time in nature as a child. We went to the Lake of the Ozarks, where I’d gone fishing. Back then there were only rustic cabins and wooden boats hauled up on the mud beach. Now it’s cheek-by-jowl California-style McMansions and Miami-style condos along the shore, and if you went out on a bass boat in the middle of the day, you’d be in danger of being capsized by the speedboats’ wakes. [Laughter.] There are parts of the lake that are blocked off and protected, but overall there has been a huge change.
Next we drove up to Kansas City, where I grew up. Along the way we must’ve seen thirty dead armadillos on the road. I had never seen even one as a child. It turns out the armadillos’ range has expanded out of Texas and up to central Missouri. There’s some suspicion that this might be caused by global warming, but that also may not be the case. In fact, armadillos have been heading north ever since they crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico in 1850. We have to consider a much longer clock when we talk about the environment and remember that major environmental changes have always occurred.
Growing up in the Midwest, I learned that nature is often dangerous. In 1957 I watched as a huge tornado passed behind our house and killed nearly fifty people. Kids today, because they don’t have a lot of direct contact with nature, have this odd belief that nature should be safe and dependable. So when some major natural disaster, like Hurricane Katrina, happens, they take it as evidence of the end of the world.
I think the long-term effect of Katrina will rank with that of the 9/11 attacks. It taught young people that nature can be dangerous. Many kids my son’s age think of nature as a slogan on a T-shirt, a consumer item that doesn’t have much power. When disaster strikes, nature goes from being something they wear to being something they fear, from clothing to catastrophe. The joy that can be found in the middle, somewhere between consumerism and natural disaster, gets lost when a generation has so little direct engagement with nature.
When I showed Matthew the places where I’d lived, we took a walk through what was left of the woods behind one house. What for me had been a source of endless wonder was now a sad remnant of its former self. When I was a boy, that house, though part of a ticky-tacky, Levittown-like neighborhood, was on the very edge of Kansas City. I could walk through the yard, past a hedge, and into a cornfield, where I built my underground fort. Beyond that were deep woods and rolling hills and farms that seemed to go on forever. I spent many of my waking hours hiking those woods and fields with my dog, a collie named Banner. It was a real fifties boyhood.
But my knowledge and awareness of nature stopped with those woods. I could not have told you anything about the Amazon rain forest. I had no clue that my woods were connected ecologically to any other woods. For kids today, it’s the reverse: they can tell you plenty about the Amazon, but they cannot tell you the last time they went outside just to watch leaves blowing in the breeze. It’s good that children know more about ecology, but an intellectualized experience of nature simply isn’t enough. We need both.
Cooper: You were aware of threats to nature, though, when you were a boy?
Louv: Yes, I had a deep sense of ownership of those woods behind my house. They were my woods. My sense of ownership was so strong that as an eight-year-old I pulled up hundreds of survey stakes, because I knew they had something to do with the bulldozers that were taking out other woods nearby. I had a big stack of the stakes behind the hedge. I’ve learned since that my sabotage would’ve been more effective if I’d simply moved the stakes around.
When I tell that story in speeches around the country, I ask the audience members how many of them have pulled out survey stakes, and about a third of them will raise their hand, mostly those thirty-five and older. Then I induct them into the Secret Society of Stake Pullers. They become “stakeholders” in that organization. [Laughter.]
I was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a few months ago, speaking to the Quivira Coalition, a group that unites ranchers and environmentalists in support of common causes. Around half of the five hundred people in attendance were wearing cowboy hats. I told the story about the stakes, and afterward, during the Q and A, a rancher stood up. He was the real deal — big white handlebar mustache, sunburned face, in his sixties — and he said that when he was a boy, he’d pulled out survey stakes. And then he began to cry in front of all these people. He was embarrassed, but he continued to talk about his deep sense of grief that his generation might be the last to have an intimate connection to the land.
Cooper: In your book you write about a kid who visited Utah’s Rainbow Bridge rock formation and was disappointed because it wasn’t as “perfect” as it looked in the brochure.
Louv: The experience of nature through media is primarily visual. Young people today tend to lack the deeper personal experience of nature that involves all of the senses. So when they see a natural wonder like the Rainbow Bridge or the Grand Canyon, they react to it almost entirely visually at first, comparing the image to other images they’ve seen, which are often enhanced or dramatized. But if they stick around long enough, their other senses kick in, and the place becomes more than just an image to them.
Cooper: Why don’t more young people have a firsthand experience of nature? Aren’t there still large swaths of undeveloped land?
Louv: Yes, but more people have moved to cities and suburbs. In the Great Plains states, for example, there has been a huge population drop. With the growth of new communication technologies, however, people can be connected wherever they live, and I imagine a resulting revival of the old small towns that have disappeared on the Plains. Sooner or later the population will bounce back, and people will return to rural areas — which is good news for children, because they’ll have access to nature. New towns could be designed using ecologically friendly architecture and sustainable urban design.
Cooper: Do you really think people will move back to Kansas?
Louv: There are already signs of migration out of the cities. San Diego, where I live, is losing population for the first time. It’s a slight decline, but significant when you consider the number of immigrants coming in. Rising housing prices are causing people to look more toward Middle America and away from the coasts. So this shift will happen because of economics, but also because of a desire for a better quality of life.
The availability of nature isn’t enough, though. When we were in Kansas City, my son was astounded by how much open farmland and forest there was just outside the city. Yet during the entire four days, we did not see one single kid playing outside. It may have been because of the heat. But then, when I was a kid, I played outside even in very hot weather.
I spoke recently in Ukiah, California, the town that was at the center of the controversial efforts to protect the endangered spotted owl. I learned that kids aren’t going outside there either, despite the rural setting. It’s not just the spotted owl that’s endangered in nature; it’s the human child. And if children aren’t going outside today, who is going to care about the spotted owl fifteen years from now?
Childhood obesity in rural areas is growing at twice the rate that it is in urban areas. The assumption is that these kids are watching more TV, playing more video games, and going on longer rides in the car. They’re also not working in the fields the way previous generations did.
Ironically, some of the older cities offer people more access to nature. For example, in Philadelphia there are parks everywhere. And of course there’s Central Park in New York City. Just imagine a city deciding to build a park that size today. You can see a bit of green in suburban areas, but it’s manicured to the point that it might as well be cement, and there are rules that criminalize natural play. That’s another reason kids aren’t going outside.
It’s not just suburban development that’s at fault. In many school districts, teachers can no longer have reptiles and amphibians in the classroom because of concerns about salmonella. (Teaching students to wash their hands might be a better idea.) And People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals just came out with an anti-fishing comic book for kids, done in the style of Tales from the Crypt. On the cover a father with a huge knife is ripping the guts out of a fish in front of his horrified children. Fishing isn’t the only way for kids to be engaged with nature, but it’s one traditional way. I think it’s destructive in the long run to frighten kids away from fishing.
I understand the desire to avoid harming any type of wildlife. My wife carries spiders out of the house, and sometimes I help her. But the morality of our interaction with nature is often quite murky. It’s important for kids to be engaged in nature so they can confront these gray areas and make decisions, with our help, about what is moral and what is not.
It’s not just the spotted owl that’s endangered in nature; it’s the human child. And if children aren’t going outside today, who is going to care about the spotted owl fifteen years from now?
Cooper: Aren’t safety concerns another reason kids aren’t going outside?
Louv: In every part of the country, the fear of child abduction has reached epidemic proportions. It’s changing the way we live. I won’t pretend I was immune to it as a father; my kids did not have the kind of free-range childhood that I did. But there was a big canyon behind our property, and I spent a lot of time hiking in it with them. Parents need to be more active about getting kids outdoors. I’m not saying I don’t have fears too, even though, as a journalist, I know the statistics: Child abductions have not increased in the past two decades, and may actually have decreased. Studies suggest that kids are safer outdoors than we believe, and that the more TV we watch, the more dangerous we think our neighborhoods are. That’s not to say that there aren’t bad people out there, but we can’t allow fear to drive us indoors. We are raising a generation of children under virtual house arrest.
Our culture needs to begin talking about comparative risk. Yes, there are dangers in nature. Yes, there’s Lyme disease. Yes, there are snakes. I used to catch copperheads when I was a kid. A friend from high school told me recently that he remembers me running up a hill waving a small copperhead, my elbows and knees all bloody; he also remembers that I looked tremendously happy. [Laughter.] Kids, don’t try this at home — seriously. But we take bigger risks when we raise kids indoors: psychological risks; risks to their sense of independence and mastery in the world; risks to their sense of place; risks to their physical health. Childhood obesity greatly increases the risk of diabetes. There is concern in the medical community that kids today may be the first generation since World War II to die younger than their parents, primarily because of this increased risk.
But nature is almost never mentioned in the national debate about childhood obesity. Instead it’s suggested that you get your kids into organized sports. Think about it: the rise in childhood obesity has occurred despite two decades of growing participation in organized sports. Something’s missing. Organized sports certainly give kids exercise, but there is something special about being in nature that we don’t fully understand.
Pediatricians will tell you that they don’t see many broken bones these days. When I was a kid, a broken bone was a rite of passage. What they do see is an increase in repetitive-stress injuries from video games and computer keyboards. The typical broken bone heals fairly quickly. Repetitive-stress injuries can last decades, even a lifetime.
Cooper: So why is the medical establishment not discussing the role of nature?
Louv: Modern medicine’s focus on cures rather than prevention may be part of the reason. The influence of the pharmaceutical companies might also be part of it: what pill could you possibly manufacture for nature-deficit disorder? There was a special section in the Sunday New York Times several months ago about childhood obesity. It was sponsored by Kaiser Permanente and San Francisco State University and must have been ten thousand words long, yet I didn’t see the word nature once. More and more, academic research is being funded by commercial interests. One of the only studies I could find on the trend toward indoor play was funded by Tide detergent, because it was in their interest to find out where all the grass stains had gone.
Cooper: What about attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD]? Some people believe nature helps cure it. Others deny ADHD even exists. What camp are you in?
Louv: ADHD is a rather loosely defined disorder. A lot of problems get lumped under that heading. Schools counsel parents that Johnny needs the ADHD medication Ritalin because Johnny is a problem in class. Well, Johnny may be a problem in class for a variety of reasons. Some kids do need medication, but for many others Ritalin is just an easy fix and not always effective. Research coming out of the University of Illinois shows that a little bit of time in nature dramatically reduces the symptoms of ADHD. I’ve heard from parents and educators all over the country who cannot believe how differently kids with ADHD behave after they’ve been outdoors. I don’t pretend that nature is a panacea, but I do wonder whether some ADHD symptoms might be caused by the fact that we took nature away from these kids in the first place.
The same question could be raised about the huge increase in the number of kids as young as preschool age being prescribed antidepressants. Could it be that kids are missing out on the natural calming effect of nature, which some studies are now starting to measure?
Several decades ago E.O. Wilson of Harvard University made his “biophilia” hypothesis, which says that human beings have a deep attraction, rooted in our biology, to other living creatures and to natural landscapes. Evolutionarily speaking, we are still hunter-gatherers. There is something in us that needs immersion in nature, and when we don’t get that, we don’t do well.
Stephen Kellert is a leading expert in biophilic design, which includes redesigning houses and rethinking where we live. He held a Yale-sponsored conference in Rhode Island with some of the major thinkers in this field. They looked at cultures all over the world and found that, regardless of locale, people seem to be attracted to the same kind of landscape: open grassland with some trees and woods at the edge. Their hypothesis is that we are hard-wired for this landscape because it once kept us safe and helped us find food, and therefore we feel better, safer, and calmer in such conditions. If they are correct, this has many implications for how we design houses and cities.
Studies suggest that kids are safer outdoors than we believe. . . . That’s not to say that there aren’t bad people out there, but we can’t allow fear to drive us indoors. We are raising a generation of children under virtual house arrest.
Cooper: What about people who really don’t love nature? When my mother moved from New York City to a rural part of New Jersey, she missed the sound of fire engines.
Louv: I knew a city dweller who said the ocean sounded like the freeway to him. It’s possible that our brains are being rewired by our environment. A study that came out a few weeks ago shows that the number of visitors to national parks is dropping. The researchers controlled for factors such as an aging population. They eliminated every possible cause except for competition from the electronic experience. The authors of the study say that biophilia is being supplanted by videophilia, the love of electronic images. I appreciate this point of view, but I think it’s too easy to blame electronics. We shame parents for letting their children watch too much TV, but we don’t provide them with the support they need to get their kids outdoors. We don’t explain why spending time in nature is beneficial to their children’s health.
Cooper: Some have theorized that the cyber experience is so alluring because when we’re surfing the Internet, for example, we are the master of our domain. We’re in control of that world, and it’s hard to give that up.
Louv: I had a long talk about technology with my nineteen-year-old on the plane to Missouri, and he defended the electronic experience. I share some of his fascination. I love my computer and spend way too much time on the Internet. My kids actually got me to play the Grand Theft Auto video game, and they remind me often and with great glee that I ran over everything in sight, including the innocent bystanders. [Laughter.]
There’s a theory about play called the “loose-parts theory,” which states that the more loose parts there are in an environment, the more creative the play. And I would argue that nowhere do you find as many loose parts as you do in nature. A video game may have many loose parts and a large “environment” to explore, with thousands of choices that can be made, but ultimately it’s a program created by human beings and therefore limited. And those loose parts are virtual loose parts, not true loose parts. The player is little more than a glorified spectator.
Our environment shapes us and has a lot to do with who we are. But that doesn’t mean that, down deep in our DNA, there isn’t a yearning for nature. A couple of years ago, as part of a program to revitalize the urban core, I took some gang members from inner-city LA to a nature preserve in the mountains, where they helped cut trails. These were tough guys in their late teens and early twenties, but initially they were scared to be in the woods. One of the toughest of them said it was “too noisy out here.” I pointed out that he came from a neighborhood where gunfire is common, and he said, “Yeah, but there are only four or five different sounds in my neighborhood, and I know what they all mean.” Out in nature there were hundreds of sounds, and he didn’t know what any of them were.
Although they were scared at first, by the end of the day the gang members were jumping over the creek like eight-year-olds. Their cynicism had fallen away. Nature was bringing out their true nature.
Cooper: You mentioned earlier that rules and regulations are “criminalizing” natural play. I recently came across an article about three kids in the United Kingdom who were arrested for climbing a tree on public land and breaking some branches to build a treehouse.
Louv: It doesn’t surprise me. I loved treehouses as a boy. They’re the ultimate in biophilic design: structures that are designed around and connected to nature.
There’s a Toyota commercial on TV now in which a father rushes up to a minivan where the kids are sitting and says, “Kids, I just finished the treehouse.” They ask, “Does it have leather seats? Does it have a flip-down video screen?” and he’s crestfallen. What’s interesting about that commercial is not that the kids prefer being in the SUV, but that the father built the treehouse for them. It’s safer for the dad to build it, of course, but it’s not the same experience I had. Building a treehouse is a perfect example of playing with loose parts.
The criminalization of natural play comes in part from a kind of cultural fascism that has been spreading since the late seventies and early eighties. My first book, published in 1981, was called America II [Viking]. It described a new type of suburban development: the private neighborhood ruled by a community association. I called it the “anticity.” This phenomenon is still growing. It’s curious that people will accept regulations from private associations that they would never accept from the federal government. I actually remember a time in America when you could paint your house whatever color you wanted. For the generation growing up now, that is not assumed. In many areas of the country, unless you’re rich — or poor — you are stuck with beige. Almost every housing development built in the last thirty-five years has a set of covenants, conditions, and restrictions that you must agree to honor when you move in. Just try to put up a basketball hoop in one of these communities, let alone a treehouse or fort. The message is that playing outdoors is certainly frowned upon and probably illegal.
Environmental organizations also sometimes contribute to the problem with a “look but don’t touch” ethic. In some cases involving endangered species, that rule is quite appropriate, but it has spread too far. For example, a friend of mine is helping lead the way to create San Dieguito Regional Park here in San Diego County. When it’s done, the park will extend from the ocean clear up into the mountains. I asked my friend if kids will be able to go there and build treehouses, and he said no; it could hurt the trees. Then I asked him to try to remember what his first hands-on experience in nature had been. He thought for a while and sheepishly said, “Building a treehouse.”
So though our fears and restrictions arise from the best intentions, we have to ask what effect they are having on the health of children, and on the earth itself. Environmentalists and conservationists, almost to a person, had some transcendent experience in nature when they were kids. If we take that opportunity away from today’s kids, who will be the future stewards of the earth?
In the past year, some environmental groups have begun providing or expanding good outdoor programs for children. I think they are realizing that this isn’t a “cute” issue. This is about something much larger, and also integral to their long-term survival as organizations.
Research coming out of the University of Illinois shows that a little bit of time in nature dramatically reduces the symptoms of ADHD. . . . I don’t pretend that nature is a panacea, but I do wonder whether some ADHD symptoms might be caused by the fact that we took nature away from these kids in the first place.
Cooper: Has there been any nature component to federal education reform?
Louv: No. In fact, the president’s “No Child Left Behind” program is running in opposition to what I believe kids need most. For instance, 40 percent of school districts have either canceled or reduced recess in the belief that more time in the classroom will improve academic performance. Some schools are being built with no playgrounds at all. Even physical education is being cut. I never thought I’d grow up to defend gym! [Laughter.] I was at the St. Louis Zoo last week, and they were talking about how field trips are rapidly dwindling.
What we really need is a “No Child Left Inside” program. Studies done since the 1990s have shown that nature has a positive impact on cognitive development. Schools with outdoor classrooms perform remarkably better across the board than those that focus on standardized tests. Last year the California Department of Education hired an independent research group to look at three school districts that had some kind of outdoor-immersion program, like a sixth-grade camp, as part of their schooling. It found that the kids in those programs did 27 percent better on science testing than kids in traditional classrooms. They were also better at conflict resolution.
In Scandinavia, studies compared how kids play in natural playgrounds — with trees, bushes, and native grasses — versus playgrounds covered with asphalt or turf. They found that the kids in natural playgrounds were far more likely to invent their own games and play cooperatively. I find this fascinating, because teamwork is one of the selling points for organized sports, yet there’s more cooperation on these natural playgrounds with no adult hovering nearby. Any of us who built a treehouse or dammed a stream with our buddies remembers what that was like: it just kind of happens. I think it has something to do with the calming effect of nature.
Unfortunately, we’re moving in the opposite direction, walling up kids and even taking the windows away. The school-design movement of the seventies, which continues to have an influence today, replaced standard windows with narrow panes of glass at the top of the wall. They were called “vision strips,” though you can’t see out of them.
Cooper: So are you optimistic about the future for kids?
Louv: Yes, in part because reaction to the book has been incredible. People care deeply about this issue. Robert Perkowitz, the environmental entrepreneur and husband of the Sierra Club president, is starting a group called ecoAmerica, and I’m on the board. He commissioned a survey to learn how people feel about the environment. The survey revealed that 92 percent of Americans think kids do not go outside enough. Some others and I have also created the Children and Nature Network to help advance the growing movement to get children back into nature; some twenty-two cities have created “No Child Left Inside” programs.
This is an inherently hopeful issue. As a journalist, I’m used to making people depressed, so when I noticed that people were not leaving my readings looking dejected, it surprised me. There’s so much that people feel is out of their control right now, from global warming to the war in Iraq, but they can do something about this issue. They can go out tomorrow and help a child get into nature.
It’s also what I call a “doorway issue.” By that I mean an issue that will get people who don’t agree on much to walk through the same door and maybe even sit at the same table. If you bring up parenting or education in a group of people, you’ll have an argument within fifteen minutes. When I bring this issue up, it doesn’t matter what people’s political outlook or religion is; they all want to tell me about that special place they went to be alone in nature when they were a kid. Those places still exist in their hearts, even if the woods were clear-cut long ago, and that could become the start of a conversation about the future of education, or healthcare, or environmentalism.
The CEO and cofounder of one of the largest private development companies in the country e-mailed me after this book came out to say he was very disturbed by it. He actually allowed himself to be quoted on CBS News saying that we’ve got to do something about this issue, and he invited me to deliver my sermon to eighty real-estate developers in Phoenix, Arizona. They responded with great excitement and some wonderful ideas, like simply leaving a portion of the land undeveloped in the first place. What was important about that moment, though, was not so much the quality of the ideas but the fact that these were developers and real-estate marketers who were excited about solving this problem. Just a couple of weeks ago the Sacramento Bee had a front-page article about a major developer who had discovered my book and was committed to developing properties in a way that would connect kids to nature. I’m not holding my breath, but it’s encouraging.
Cooper: Have you talked much to children themselves?
Louv: A few months ago I was asked to give a talk at a nearby high school. I expected twenty kids to show up, but there were more than two hundred. (To be honest, they were getting extra credit.) I talked for an hour, and they listened intently. And it wasn’t because I’m a great speaker; I’m not. It was about something else.
I talked to these high-school students about the connection between their health and their direct experience of nature, and about how in the next forty years all our lives must change because of global warming and other environmental challenges. We’ll need new kinds of agriculture, new kinds of urban design, new kinds of architecture, new sources of energy. Whole new professions will emerge, for which we don’t even have names yet. When you frame the issue that way, young people can get excited about it.
After the students left, I asked the biology teacher who’d invited me to speak why he thought they’d been so attentive. He said it was simple: I’d said something hopeful about the future of the environment. They never hear that. The major message that comes through to kids is that it’s too late for the environment. Why suit up for the game if it’s already over? We need to change that message. As a journalist, I don’t believe in printing happy news for its own sake. Nor do I think for a second we should pull back from printing bad news. But we should expand our message to say that we are facing not just a host of problems, but also a great opportunity.
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Arnie Cooper grew up in New York City but still managed to explore nature by playing in the bushes around the apartment buildings. He lives in Santa Barbara, California, and plays in the surrounding hills, where he frequently contracts poison oak.More From This Contributor ▸
Nature deficit disorder is a phrase coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods[not in citation given] meaning that human beings, especially children, are spending less time outdoors resulting in a wide range of behavioral problems. This disorder is not recognized in any of the medical manuals for mental disorders, such as the ICD-10 or the DSM-5. Evidence was compiled and reviewed in 2009. Richard Louv has stated "nature-deficit disorder is not meant to be a medical diagnosis but rather to serve as a description of the human costs of alienation from the natural world".
Louv claims that causes for the phenomenon include parental fears, restricted access to natural areas, and the lure of electronic devices. Recent research has drawn a further contrast between the declining number of National Park visits in the United States and increasing consumption of electronic media by children.
The phrase has been criticized as a misdiagnosis that obscures and mistreats the root problems of how and why children do not spend enough time outdoors and in nature.
Richard Louv spent ten years traveling around the US reporting and speaking to parents and children, in both rural and urban areas, about their experiences in nature. He argues that sensationalist media coverage and paranoid parents have literally "scared children straight out of the woods and fields", while promoting a litigious culture of fear that favors "safe" regimented sports over imaginative play.
In recognising these trends, some people argue that humans have an instinctive liking for nature—the biophilia hypothesis—and take steps to spend more time outdoors, for example in outdoor education, or by sending young children to forest kindergartens or forest schools. It is perhaps a coincidence that slow parenting advocates send children into natural environment rather than keeping them indoors, as part of a hands-off approach.
Studies by other researchers throughout the world suggest physical activity and exposure to nature are important to good health, report positive impacts upon mental health and wellbeing associated with natural environments, and can reduce sadness and negative emotions.
- Parents are keeping children indoors in order to keep them safe from danger. Richard Louv believes we may be protecting children to such an extent that it has become a problem and disrupts the child's ability to connect to nature. The parent's growing fear of "stranger danger" that is heavily fueled by the media, keeps children indoors and on the computer rather than outdoors exploring. Louv believes this may be the leading cause in nature deficit disorder, as parents have a large amount of control and influence in their children's lives.
- Loss of natural surroundings in a child's neighborhood and city. Many parks and nature preserves have restricted access and "do not walk off the trail" signs. Environmentalists and educators add to the restriction telling children "look don't touch". While they are protecting the natural environment Louv questions the cost of that protection on our children's relationship with nature.
- Increased draw to spend more time inside. With the advent of the computer, video games, and television children have more and more reasons to stay inside—the average American child spends 44 hours a week with electronic media.
- Children have limited respect for their immediate natural surroundings. Louv says the effects of nature deficit disorder on our children will be an even bigger problem in the future. "An increasing pace in the last three decades, approximately, of a rapid disengagement between children and direct experiences in nature…has profound implications, not only for the health of future generations but for the health of the Earth itself". The effects from nature deficit disorder could lead to the first generation being at risk of having a shorter lifespan than their parents.
- Attention disorders and depression may develop. "It's a problem because kids who don't get nature-time seem more prone to anxiety, depression and attention-deficit problems". Louv suggests that going outside and being in the quiet and calm place can help greatly. According to a University of Illinois study, interaction with nature has proven to reduce symptoms of ADD in children. According to research, "Overall, our findings indicate that exposure to ordinary natural settings in the course of common after-school and weekend activities may be widely effective in reducing attention deficit symptoms in children".Attention Restoration Theory develops this idea further, both in short term restoration of one's abilities, and the long term ability to cope with stress and adversity.
- Following the development of ADD and mood disorders, lower grades in school also seem to be related to NDD. Louv claims that "studies of students in California and nationwide show that schools that use outdoor classrooms and other forms of experiential education produce significant student gains in social studies, science, language arts, and math".
- Childhood obesity has become a growing problem. About 9 million children (ages 6–19) are overweight or obese. The Institute of Medicine claims that over the past 30 years, childhood obesity has more than doubled for adolescents and more than tripled for children aged 6–11.
- In an interview on Public School Insight, Louv stated some positive effects of treating nature deficit disorder, "everything from a positive effect on the attention span to stress reduction to creativity, cognitive development, and their sense of wonder and connection to the earth".
- Lack of exposure to bright light (at outdoor levels) among children contributes to myopia due to lack of resulting chemical signals to prevent elongation of the eye during the growth phase.
The Children & Nature Network is leading the movement to connect all children, their families and communities to nature through innovative ideas, evidence-based resources and tools, broad-based collaboration and support of grassroots leadership.
The No Child Left Inside Coalition works to get children outside and actively learning. They hope to address the problem of nature deficit disorder. They are now working on the No Child Left Inside Act, which would increase environmental education in schools. The coalition claims the problem of nature deficit disorder could be helped by "igniting student's interest in the outdoors" and encouraging them to explore the natural world in their own lives.
In Colombia, OpEPA (Organización para la Educación y Protección Ambiental) has been addressing the issue since 1998. OpEPA's mission is to reconnect children and youth to the Earth so they can act with environmental responsibility. OpEPA works by linking three levels of education: intellectual, experiencial and emotional/spiritual into outdoor experiences. Developing and training educators in the use of inquiry based learning, learning by play and experiential education is a key component to empower educators to engage in nature education.
Elizabeth Dickinson, a faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studied nature deficit disorder through a case study at the North Carolina Educational State Forest system (NCESF), a forest conservation education program. Dickinson called Louv's book "an important call to fix damaged human-nature relationships," and agrees that allowing students to connect directly with nature is therapeutic; however, she argues that it is what Louv's narrative is missing that prevents nature deficit disorder from effecting meaningful change. She attributes the problems described by nature deficit disorder as coming not from a lack of children outside or in nature, but from adults' own "psyche and dysfunctional cultural practices". According to Dickinson, "in the absence of deeper cultural examination and alternative practices, [nature deficit disorder] is a misdiagnosis—a problematic contemporary environmental discourse that can obscure and mistreat the problem."
Dickinson analyzed the language and discourses used at the NCESF (educators' messages, education and curriculum materials, forest service messages and literature, and the forests themselves) and compared them to Louv's discussion of nature deficit disorder in his writings. She concluded that both Louv and the NCESF (both who loosely support each other) perpetuate the problematic idea that humans are outside of nature, and they use techniques that appear to get children more connected to nature but that may not.
She suggests making it clear that modern culture's disassociation with nature has occurred gradually over time, rather than very recently. Dickinson thinks that many people idealize their own childhoods without seeing the dysfunction that has existed for multiple generations. She warns against viewing the cure to nature deficit disorder as an outward entity: "nature". Instead, Dickinson states that a path of inward self-assessment "with nature" (rather than "in nature") and alongside meaningful time spent in nature is the key to solving the social and environmental problems of which nature deficit disorder is a symptom. In addition, she advocates allowing nature education to take on an emotional pedagogy rather than a mainly scientific one, as well as experiencing nature as it is before ascribing names to everything.
- ^Marilyn Gardner, "For more children, less time for outdoor play: Busy schedules, less open space, more safety fears, and lure of the Web keep kids inside", Christian Science Monitor, June 29, 2006
- ^Diane Swanbrow "U.S. children and teens spend more time on academics", The University Record Online, The University of Michigan.
- ^10 Reasons Kids Need Fresh Air by Kevin Coyle, National Wildlife Magazine
- ^Tammie Burak, "Are your kids really spending enough time outdoors? Getting up close with nature opens a child's eyes to the wonders of the world, with a bounty of health benefits[permanent dead link]", Canadian Living.
- ^"ICD 10 Codes For Psychiatry: F00-F09". Priory.com.
- ^Charles, Cheryl; Louv, Richard (September 2009). "Children's Nature Deficit: What We Know – and Don't Know"(PDF).
- ^Stiffler, Lisa (January 6, 2007). "Parents worry about 'nature-deficit disorder' in kids". Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
- ^"Is There Anybody Out There?". Conservation. 8 (2). April–June 2007. Archived from the original on 2008-12-01.
- ^ abElizabeth Dickinson (2013). "The Misdiagnosis: Rethinking "Nature-deficit Disorder"". Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture. doi:10.1080/17524032.2013.802704.
- ^Kellert, Stephen R. (ed.) (1993). The Biophilia Hypothesis. Island Press. ISBN 1-55963-147-3.
- ^Hodgkinson, Tom (2009). The Idle Parent: Why Less Means More When Raising Kids. Hamish Hamilton. p. 233. ISBN 978-0-241-14373-5.
- ^Pretty, J.; Angus, C.; Bain, M.; Barton, J.; Gladwell, V.; Hine, R.; et al. (2009). "Nature, childhood, health and life pathways"(PDF). University of Essex.
- ^Kuo, F. E. (2010). "Parks and other green environments: essential components of a healthy human habitat"(PDF). National Recreation and Park Association.
- ^Townsend, M. & Weerasuriya, R. (2010). "Beyond blue to green: The benefits of contact with nature for mental health and well-being". Melbourne, Australia.
- ^Bowler, D. E.; Buyung-Ali, L. M.; Knight, T. M. & Pullin, A. S. (2010). "A systematic review of evidence for the added benefits to health of exposure to natural environments". BMC Public Health. 10 (1): 456. doi:10.1186/1471-2458-10-456.
- ^ abcdOutside Agitators by Bill O'Driscoll, Pittsburgh City Paper
- ^ abLast Child In The Woods InterviewArchived 2009-01-26 at the Wayback Machine. by Claus von Zastrow, Public School Insights
- ^ ab National Environmental Education Foundation
- ^Jim Barlow, "", News Bureau
- ^American Academy of Ophthalmology (2013-05-01). "Evidence Mounts That Outdoor Recess Time Can Reduce the Risk of Nearsightedness in Children". Archived from the original on 2013-10-04. Retrieved 2013-10-07.
- ^"New research an eye opener on cause of myopia". 2011-06-01. Retrieved 2013-10-07.
- ^Nature Deficit Disorder, No Child Left Inside Archived January 15, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.
- Louv, Richard. (2011) The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder. Algonquin Books. 303pp.
- Louv, Richard. (2005) Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Paperback edition). Algonquin Books. 335pp.
- Louv, Richard, Web of Life: Weaving the Values That Sustain Us.