Some say the future isn’t what it used to be. Here’s a different view. The future is going to be better than it used to be -- at least when it comes to the human connection to nature.
In "Last Child in the Woods," I described what I called "nature-deficit disorder." I hesitated (briefly) to use the term; our culture is overwrought with medical jargon. But we needed a language to describe the change, and this phrase rang true to parents, educators, and others who had noticed the change. Nature-deficit disorder is not a formal diagnosis, but a way to describe the psychological, physical and cognitive costs of human alienation from nature, particularly for children in their vulnerable developing years.
In the four years since publication of "Last Child" (with an updated and expanded edition in 2008), the gap has grown wider.
Consider the 2008 Recreation Participation Report," released this month. The report is based on a survey of more than 60,000 Americans, covering 114 different outdoor activities; it represents a collaborative effort by The Outdoor Foundation, Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association, and other outdoor recreation groups. Among its findings: adult participation is up slightly -- very slightly. But the survey also found a decline of more than 11 percent of participation in outdoor activities among young people age 6 to 17, with the sharpest decline among youngsters ages 6 to 12. We already knew that kids were becoming more disconnected in nature in recent decade -- but that's an additional 11 percent decline in a single year.
Consider, too, the decision by the publisher of the Oxford Junior Dictionary to replace dozens of nature-related words like “beaver” and “dandelion” with “blog” and “MP3 player.” As noted wildlife artist and conservationist Robert Bateman observed, “If you can’t name things, how can you love them? And if you don’t love them, then you’re not going to care a hoot about protecting them or voting for issues that would protect them." In a few words, literally, this story illustrates the urgency to connect children directly to the natural world, and our ultimate goal – deep cultural change.
Still, there's reason for hope. Just look how far the children and nature movement -- or the No Child Left Inside movement, as it's sometimes called -- has come in such a short time. The real miracle is the rapidly growing network of thousands of individuals, families and organizations that have made this movement their own.
We have a long way to go, but the grassroots are growing; and so are the netroots.
We've seen evidence of this miracle in the growth of regional campaigns across the country, as reported and encouraged by the Children & Nature Network. Between 2006 and 2008, C&NN helped galvanize over 50 regional and statewide campaigns in North America. We've watched the environmental organizations take this issue to heart, with the Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, the Conservation Fund, National Audubon, Hooked on Nature, the Trust for Public Land and many other groups supporting more programs that connect kids to nature and promote changes in public policies.
Last year’s most visible legislative success came in September, when the U.S. House of Representatives passed the No Child Left Inside Act, sponsored by the No Child Left Inside Coalition. If approved this year in the Senate, the bill will -- hopefully, in some form -- help the states support environmental education.
In Canada, the Nature Child Reunion and the Robert Bateman Get to Know Program, are quickening their strides. And through the efforts of C&NN President Dr. Cheryl Charles, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, at its World Conservation Congress in Barcelona, officially designated connecting children with nature as an international priority.
These are just a few of our shared milestones.
Now comes 2009, and the beginning of a new era – with new opportunities to strengthen ties and build new relationships.
The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA), for example, has presented recommendations to President-elect Obama. AFWA listed children and nature as No. 2 in their roster of five Priorities of a National Agenda for State Fish and Wildlife Agencies. Other conservation-related initiatives are in the works.
We’re pleased that the incoming Obama administration has indicated there will be expanded federal emphasis on early childhood education.
With that in mind, many of us believe that the child-nature connection and environmental literacy should be considered as fundamental elements of children’s cognitive development, as well as their psychological and physical health. Future education reform must widen the definition of the classroom. To help young people learn in nature, not just about nature, policy-makers must view parks, wildlands, farms and ranches as the new schoolyards. We’ll push for an expansion of the number of nature-oriented preschools, including experiential education and greened schoolyards in Head Start.
This month, in an article titled “Nature Makes a Comeback in Wisconsin Schools,” the Wisconsin State Journal reported: “To reconnect children to nature, school districts are expanding school forests around the state while also developing low-cost, small projects such as rain gardens that can be effective even in poor urban areas.”
Many of us would like to see more progress like that.
In 2009, education reform must also be about a reformation of values, not just the distribution of more information.
Consider the words of Oberlin professor David Orr, one of the world’s foremost proponents of environmental literacy and a leading voice on climate change. In his seminal essay, “What Is Education For,”he describes “the way our education has prepared us for how to think about the natural world.” Orr argues correctly that more education “is no guarantee of decency, prudence, or wisdom. More of the same kind of education will only compound our problems.” The worth of education “must now be measured against the standards of decency and human survival. The truth is that many things on which your future health and prosperity depend are in dire jeopardy: climate stability, the resilience and productivity of natural systems, the beauty of the natural world, and biological diversity.”
Orr has also taken note of nature-deficit disorder -- which belongs on this list, and is linked to each of these priorities. A growing movement will continue to make the case that a meaningful human relationship with nature, shaped in children’s formative years, is crucial to our society’s practice of stewardship, its sense of community, and the strength of family bonds. We also believe that natural play will increasingly be recognized as a key element in any successful effort to turn the tide on child obesity.
The emerging body of scientific knowledge supports these theses, but more research is needed. In November, the first National Children and Nature Research Summit, co-sponsored by Yale University, the University of Minnesota, and the Children & Nature Network, brought together 20 eminent scholars and practitioners from throughout the United States to address the importance of nature in children’s lives, to identify strengths and gaps in current knowledge, and to establish general principles and guidelines for inquiry.
In the meantime, C&NN continues to report the growing body of correlative research. Among the studies published in major journals in recent months: a new one from Andrea Faber Taylor and Francis Kuo showing that children with ADHD concentrate better after walking in a park; UK research finding that living near parks and woods boosts health, regardless of social class; and in October, researchers at Indiana University School of Medicine-Purdue University and the University of Washington reported that greener neighborhoods are associated with slower increases in children’s body mass, regardless of residential density. One reason that last point is important, as Kuo says, is that it dispels the mistaken assumption that more green equals more sprawl.
We need nearby nature everywhere, especially in the most urban neighborhoods.
That principle must be among the central precepts of any planning for the future of urban design, education, and health care – and should be at the forefront of any discussion of child obesity by agencies of the Obama Administration. As Howard Frumkin often says, “Yes, we need more research, but we know enough to act.”
This brings us to the need to examine how we act. In the current economic climate, we need a new model for change – and new tools to stimulate cultural transformation. That transformation is most likely to occur at the personal and neighborhood level, where we live, work and play -- through what might be called "social-nature networking."
Across the country, urban planners, neighborhood organizations and community action groups, along with such organizations as the Trust for Public Land, are beginning to join forces to protect the remaining islands of urban nature – and create new ones. One possibility: neighbors working with conservancy groups to establish what might be called “nearby-nature trusts.”
Using new and old tools of social networking, families can band together to experience outdoors adventures -- two, three, five families agreeing to meet, say, at a county park on Saturdays. Coming soon: an easily downloaded C&NN Family Nature Clubs Tool Kit designed to give families the tools and inspiration they need to take action in their own lives – without waiting for programs or funding. Also coming in 2009: campaigns to engage grandparents and young people themselves as leaders in the movement. These initiatives will be featured as part of the upcoming Children and Nature Awareness Month, in April.
Think how the lives of our children – our lives, too – would improve if such social-nature networking were to spread as quickly as book clubs and Neighborhood Watches did in recent decades or the use of social networking tools did during the 2008 presidential campaign.
In the coming years, young people will discover or create fulfilling careers in the fields and professions that connect people to nature; they will become biophilic architects and urban designers, nature therapists, natural play organizers and natural teachers -- and assume careers that have yet to be named.
Despite the current rash of bad news, we may be seeing the emergence of a new landscape: the fading of our society's nature-deficit disorder, and the rise of human restoration through nature. Farfetched? Maybe. But as the poet Emily Dickinson wrote: “Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul/And sings the tune without the words/And never stops – at all.”
The future: better than it used to be.
Richard Louv is chairman of the Children and Nature Network. He is the author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.”
How important is a walk in the woods to a child's development? It's one of the most burning education questions of the day, and, according to experts, a lack of routine contact with nature may result in stunted academic and developmental growth. This unwanted side-effect of the electronic age is called Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD).
The term was coined by author Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods in order to explain how our societal disconnect with nature is affecting today's children. Louv says we have entered a new era of suburban sprawl that restricts outdoor play, in conjunction with a plugged-in culture that draws kids indoors. But, as Louv presents in his book, the agrarian, nature-oriented existence hard-wired into human brains isn't quite ready for the overstimulating environment we've carved out for ourselves. Some children adapt. Those who don't develop the symptoms of NDD, which include attention problems, obesity, anxiety, and depression.
Louv says while nature shouldn't be seen as the magic bullet to cure all ailments, parents should see the woods, streams, fields and canyons around their home as a type of therapy to keep kids focused, confident, healthy, and balanced. “Kids learn better when they get outside. It's a way to truly help our kids learn in all areas of education,” he says. Studies also show links between nature and behavior: kids with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) thrive when put in routine contact with nature in documented test cases. Louv says this is especially relevant when taking into account the number of kids treated for ADHD with drugs such as Ritalin. “We have to begin to question how many pharmaceuticals we are putting into our kids,” Louv says. “We have to start looking at nature therapy.”
While Nature Deficit Disorder isn't a clinical term, the concept has struck a chord with parents and educators. The child-nature reunion has emerged as a movement, and Louv says this is because the concept rings true for a generation of parents and grandparents who are reminded of their own joyous experiences in nature as children; whether it be summer camp, building a tree house, or, in Louv's case, helping turtles across the road during migration season. “People are so much on the treadmill. They need to be reminded that once upon a time childhood was different. People have prized and cherished memories of their time in nature, and it's disdainful for people to think that this has passed,” he says.
Since 2005, when Last Child in the Woods hit the shelves, several studies have been published backing up the importance of the child-nature reunion. The American Institutes for Research conducted a study of the impact of a weeklong residential outdoor education program on at risk youth. Students involved in the program experienced a 27 percent increase in their mastery of science concepts, better problem solving skills, enhanced self esteem, and improved behavior in comparison with the control group stuck in the classroom.
This new research is prompting action. Several states have launched programs to get children outdoors, and national policy-makers are also starting to take notice. Last year Representative John Sarbanes of Maryland introduced a bill called “No Child Left Inside” which would provide funding for integrating environmental education into K-12 curriculum.
Louv says schools shouldn't just teach about nature in the classroom, they should be sending kids out to nature—even if it's just to the patch of woods behind the school. He says these types of field trips and excursions should not be viewed as “a little break from school,” but as an integral part of the learning experience.
While researchers, policy-makers and school officials wrangle with the issue, what can parents do to help replenish their child's connection with nature? The updated and expanded edition of Last Child in the Woods, out in April 2008, includes a field guide for parents. Here is a sampling from Louv's list of nature activities and community actions:
- Invite native flora and fauna into your life. Maintain a birdbath. Replace part of your lawn with native plants. Build a bat house. For backyard suggestions, plus links to information about attracting wildlife to apartments and townhouses, see the National Audubon Society's Invitation to a Healthy Yard. Make your yard a National Wildlife Federation (NWF) Certified Wildlife Habitat.
- Help your child discover a hidden universe. Find a scrap board and place it on bare dirt. Come back in a day or two, lift the board, and see how many species have found shelter there. Identify these creatures with the help of a field guide. Return to this universe once a month, lift the board and discover who's new.
- Revive old traditions. Collect lightning bugs at dusk, release them at dawn. Make a leaf collection. Keep a terrarium or aquarium. Go crawdadding-tie a piece of liver or bacon to a string, drop it into a creek or pond, wait until a crawdad tugs.
- Encourage your kids to go camping in the backyard. Buy them a tent or help them make a canvas tepee, and leave it up all summer. Join the NWF's Great American Backyard Campout.
- Be a cloudspotter; build a backyard weather station. No special shoes or drive to the soccer field is required for "clouding." A young person just needs a view of the sky (even if it's from a bedroom window) and a guidebook. Cirrostratus, cumulonimbus, or lenticularis, shaped like flying saucers, "come to remind us that the clouds are Nature's poetry, spoken in a whisper in the rarefied air between crest and crag," writes Gavin Pretor-Pinney in his wonderful book The Cloudspotter's Guide. To build a backyard weather station, read The Kid's Book of Weather Forecasting, by Mark Breen, Kathleen Friestad, and Michael Kline.
- Make the "green hour" a new family tradition. NWF recommends that parents give their kids a daily green hour, a time for unstructured play and interaction with the natural world. Even fifteen minutes is a good start. "Imagine a map with your home in the center. Draw ever-widening circles around it, each representing a successively older child's realm of experience," NWF suggests. "Whenever possible, encourage some independent exploration as your child develops new skills and greater confidence."
- Take a hike. With younger children, choose easier, shorter routes and prepare to stop often. Or be a stroller explorer. "If you have an infant or toddler, consider organizing a neighborhood stroller group that meets for weekly nature walks," suggests the National Audubon Society. The American Hiking Society offers good tips on how to hike with teenagers. Involve your teen in planning hikes; prepare yourselves physically for hikes, and stay within your limits (start with short day hikes); keep pack weight down. For more information, consult the American Hiking Society or a good hiking guide, such as John McKinney's Joy of Hiking.
- Invent your own nature game. One mother's suggestion: "We help our kids pay attention during longer hikes by playing 'find ten critters'—mammals, birds, insects, reptiles, snails, other creatures. Finding a critter can also mean discovering footprints, mole holes, and other signs that an animal has passed by or lives there."
- Encourage your kids to build a tree house, fort, or hut. You can provide the raw materials, including sticks, boards, blankets, boxes, ropes, and nails, but it's best if kids are the architects and builders. The older the kids, the more complex the construction can be. For understanding and inspiration, read Children's Special Places, by David Sobel. Treehouses and Playhouses You Can Build, by David and Jeanie Stiles describes how to erect sturdy structures, from simple platforms to multistory or multitree houses connected by rope bridges.
- Plant a garden. If your children are little, choose seeds large enough for them to handle and that mature quickly, including vegetables. 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. Alternatively, share it with the 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.
Louv says parents should see the reconnection with nature not as a chore, like the laundry, or an extracurricular, like soccer, but as an antidote to the stress in their family's life. This type of therapy is widely accessible, free of side effects, nonstigmatizing, and inexpensive. So, in the end, even if it doesn't raise your child's test scores or increase her attention span, all that's lost is an afternoon in the woods with your family. Not bad at all.
Next Article: Does Your Child Have Nature Deficit Disorder?