Kids, meet your Mother Nature

Why one author thinks youth should bond with the great outdoors

NEXT WEEK’S TOPIC: pimp your green parking-cop ride

The Crest Theatre was bustling on a recent Thursday night. Environmentalist organizations hawked their causes from tables in the lobby while patrons eagerly took their seats, many of them clutching the book that drew this crowd to the theater in the first place. And when the book’s author leaned into the microphone, his voice was not the dictatorial boom you’d expect from someone whose ideology has, in part, sparked an environmental movement.

Journalist and author Richard Louv’s simple, conversational tone delivered a simple message: Kids really need to get out more.

According to Louv, American youths suffer from “nature-deficit disorder.” You won’t find it listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but Louv believes the link between some health problems (attention difficulties, dulled senses, physical illness, obesity), and the absence of nature in young lives should be studied as if it were.

Louv believes that nature fills kids with a sense of awe and wonder, jolting them from a that-which-cannot-be-Googled-does-not-count mentality. But the bigger picture is global: Youth are the future of the environmental movement, of the fight against global warming and other pressing environmental issues.

How can we expect youth to care about the natural world if they haven’t even experienced it?

To air his concerns, Louv wrote Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Published in 2005, the book breathed life into the Children and Nature movement—a coalition of people who hope to prevent future generations of what The New York Times calls “the fully automated child.” Louv is chairman of the Children and Nature Network, a nonprofit organization “created to encourage and support the people and organizations working to reconnect children with nature.”

And the turnout for Louv’s lecture—sponsored by the Sacramento Tree Foundation—indicates that people are tuning into this message.

Louv’s argument may seem like common sense. Of course experiencing nature encourages activity and gives kids a greater appreciation of the outdoors.

We don’t need studies to tell us this, but Louv turns to statistics to illustrate the broad reach of the problem and the urgency of a solution. Like a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that found a correlation between body fat in young children and the amount of television kids watch per week. Or a 2003 study by environmental psychologists at Cornell University, which argued that a room with a view of nature could reduce or prevent stress and promote general psychological well-being in rural kids.

Just what would happen, Louv wonders, if a prescription to Ritalin is substituted for—or at least paired with—a hike along a cool, reflective river?

Troubling statistics aren’t the only catalyst for his concern. Louv also believes that society’s norms contribute to the child/Mother Nature divide: Urban parks that better resemble a map of Midtown, with their grid of organized fields and plastic play structures leaving little room for imagination; suburban sprawl that pushes green space farther and farther away from city residents; overzealous parents who have college plans for their preschoolers and book their kids’ schedules solid; and fear of strangers, of media hype, of the unknown wilderness that too closely resembles the one being combed by a search party on television. All of these elements keep kids indoors, contributing to what Louv calls “a generation under protective house arrest.” He believes that too much time indoors glued to the computer or television screen stifles a child’s sense of awe and wonder.

And it may stifle something else. In 1978, Iowa State University professor of environmental studies Thomas Tanner published this finding about why environmentalists care so much about the environment: “Far and away the most frequently cited influence was childhood experience of natural, rural or other relatively pristine habitats.” In other words, many environmentalists were once children in the woods.

“Because of global warming and other major [environmental problems], in the next 40 years, everything must change,” Louv told the audience at the Crest.

If it takes a childhood relationship with nature to inspire grown-ups to become environmentalists, then we must enable and encourage that youthful experience in nature. Otherwise, how will the environmental movement have a future?

In his book, Louv draws a key perspective from the words of environmental psychologist Louise Chawla. In surveys, Chawla found that, “[Most environmentalists] attributed their commitment to a combination of two sources: many hours spent outdoors in a keenly remembered wild or semi-wild place in childhood or adolescence, and an adult who taught respect for nature.”

Louv himself had a wilderness in his youth: an expanse of woods and farmland in Missouri where he relied on smell, touch and sight to navigate the great outdoors.

“Those woods were my Ritalin,” he wrote. “Nature calmed me, focused me, and yet excited my senses.”

To Louv, a human relationship with nature is more than that which can be measured by science. It’s spiritual.

In addition to a “leave no child left inside” education policy, in which learning takes place both in and outside the conventional classroom, and increased funding for environmental organizations that “help parents and kids get outside,” Louv believes parents can make a huge difference in their individual child’s appreciation for nature.

“We’re not talking about leaning over kids with nature flash cards in the woods. Give them distance [to explore],” he told the audience.

The theater was thick with people on that Thursday night, many of whom appeared to support Louv’s movement upon arrival, evidenced by copies of Last Child in the Woods in hand, and by natural personal aesthetics, the healthy glow of people who embrace the great outdoors. One audience member pointed out that Louv was preaching to the “Children and Nature choir,” a statement that produced knowing chuckles audience-wide. But the bigger the choir, the more powerful the vocals to spread the message.