Whether you grew up in a suburb, on a farm, or in a big city, you probably spent a lot of time playing outside, getting dirty, and coming home happy. Maybe you watched ants making anthills in your backyard, climbed trees in the park, or simply lay in the grass contemplating the drifting clouds. Unfortunately, young children today do not have as many direct experiences with nature, and it’s taking a toll. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, maintains that this disconnect from the natural world is producing ill effects in both mind and body. But he’s optimistic that well-meaning, forward-thinking parents and educators can close the kid-nature gap. “We should not think of a child’s experience in nature as an extracurricular activity,” says Louv. “It should be thought of as vital to children’s health and development.” The editors of Scholastic’s Parent & Child talked with Louv about his book.
Parent & Child: Why do children need a meaningful relationship with nature?
Richard Louv: Research suggests that a connection to nature is biologically innate; as humans, we have an affinity for the natural world. When children spend most of their time indoors, they miss out. Problems associated with alienation from nature include familiar maladies: depression, obesity, and attention deficit disorder. Kids who have direct access to nature are better learners. Exposure to nature has been shown to reduce stress and increase attention spans.
When a child is out in nature, all the senses get activated. He is immersed in something bigger than himself, rather than focusing narrowly on one thing, such as a computer screen. He’s seeing, hearing, touching, even tasting. Out in nature, a child’s brain has the chance to rejuvenate, so the next time he has to focus and pay attention, perhaps in school, he’ll do better.
But even if kids don’t have any of the specific problems mentioned above, kids who don’t get out much lack the sense of wonder that only nature can provide. I’ve taken kids into the woods who’ve never been there. At first, they’re scared because it’s unfamiliar, but then you can see them open up and start exploring.
P&C: What’s changed over the past generation or so that’s caused this disconnect with the natural world?
Louv: There are some obvious reasons, such as the fact that many families are overscheduled, which chips away at leisure time. Parental fears — of traffic, of crime, even of nature itself, such as with Lyme disease or the West Nile virus — also play a big role in keeping kids indoors. What’s unfortunate is that these fears have been overamplified by the media, and the overall effect is that kids spend more time in their homes, or very close to home.
In many places, children’s access to nature has been cut off. The woods at the end of the cul-de-sac were made into a new subdivision. New neighborhoods are carefully planned, and as a result, they often dramatically restrict what kids can do with nature. Even parks are manicured — there may be a nice smooth soccer field or a baseball diamond but no rough edges. Rough edges are the places children gravitate toward to explore, where they find rocks and weeds and bugs. Efforts to provide nice-looking and safe outdoor spaces are well intentioned, but they give kids the message that nature is not something you go out in to get your hands dirty.
P&C: Don’t children in rural areas still have access to nature — and haven’t city kids always been restricted from participating in it?
Louv: Interestingly, the answer is no to both questions. These days, kids in rural areas are just as indoor focused as their suburban peers, and for the same reasons — parental fears, lessunscheduled time, an emphasis on computers and other indoor activities. And while we might think that, historically, kids in cities have had limited contact with the natural world, it’s not always true. In older cities, especially, there are lots of green spaces, lots of unplanned areas like vacant lots. Sure, it’s not the woods, but when we talk about nature it’s not about the kind of nature, it’s about children having the opportunity and freedom to explore what’s out there in their surroundings. That may mean a city park, a farm, a patch of woods in a suburb — even a tiny roof garden counts.
P&C: What can parents do to help their children get the safe outdoor experiences they need?
Louv: You would think it would be ideal to let kids run loose and come back dirty and happy at end of the day, but in reality this is not likely to happen anymore. We have to come up with new ways for kids to have direct contact with nature. This probably means parents have to get out there with their kids, and explore with them. Schools, too, including preschools, can incorporate natural surroundings. In many schools in Western Europe, nature is incorporated into the design of child care centers and schools, and there have been positive results in terms of kids’ attention spans and stress levels.
A lot of parents are already doing the right thing, almost instinctively. Perhaps they remember how they used to play, and strive to provide the same thing for their kids. While they may not let their kids roam free in the neighborhood, they do take their children hiking or let them run around in the local park.
P&C: What are some easy ways to experience nature with preschool-age children?
Louv: The best thing you can do is to be enthusiastic about nature yourself. Go out in your backyard. Instead of a manicured lawn or garden, leave some spots untamed so kids can dig in the dirt and find rocks or interesting weeds. If you have a vegetable garden, have your child help you plant seeds or pick tomatoes. Even walking to your local park can be a nature walk to a preschooler — he can collect leaves, you can point out trees and bushes and show him the bugs crawling along the curb. Let your kids get down in the dirt so they can see at eye level the whole universe there. Nature is good for everyone’s mental health. Nature isn’t the problem; it’s the solution.