Nature’s prodigal children

Natural bridges: High-Tech kids aren’t connecting with the outdoorsThe Sacramento Bee, July 21, 2005


Nature is disappearing, and not just where we notice it. Certainly, the natural world is going under the bulldozer at a frightening rate, from the Brazilian rain forest to North Natomas. But that’s not all that concerns Richard Louv.

What worries the journalist and author is that nature is disappearing from inside us. People are spending less and less time in natural settings and, he says, are losing touch with nature in many different ways.

This is particularly true for children and young adults who remain indoors and glued to their computers, iPods, cell phones, video game controls – to a degree that seems weird even to their parents who were TV- and stereo-fixated when they were young.

The reasons are many, the effects of this lack of exposure to nature still being discovered. But in his new book, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder” (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $24.95, 324 pages), Louv gathers together dozens of studies of the effects of exposure to nature and comes up with some startling conclusions.

“There are some changes in society that are so large that we don’t see them,” says Louv. “This is one of them.”

But we’re seeing the effects of this change, says Louv, who ties such con- temporary problems as childhood obesity and attention deficit hyper- activity disorder, in part, to a lack of exposure to nature.

He also worries that a generation with no firsthand experience of nature will not have an appreciation of efforts to save what remains of it.

In his book, Louv pulls together a number of scientific studies that confirm what he says a number of parents and educators have been seeing for some time. Many of the studies, mostly from the United States and Europe, look at the positive effects of exposure to nature, prompting Louv to conjecture that lack of that exposure could lead – or is leading – to what he has dubbed “nature-deficit disorder.”

Among the things that these studies have shown, some repeatedly, is that time spent in nature seems to calm even the most hardened or “hyperactive” children and young adults.

“Kids are particularly vulnerable to environmental shapers,” Louv says by phone from his San Diego home. “A lot of the book deals with what I consider to be good news, that we’re beginning to nail down how essential it is to have children exposed to nature.”

For instance, he cites studies done in Scandinavia that compare children who play on natural playgrounds, designed with hillocks and trees, to those who play on the flat asphalt playgrounds favored in America.

“They found that play was much more creative on the uneven, more natural surfaces, and what was more surprising was that they were also more cooperative,” Louv says.

But in America, he says, the trend is to limit play altogether.

“Forty percent of school boards have either cut or eliminated recess,” he says. “Some schools in Atlanta are being built without playgrounds at all.”

Louv is impressed with a theory of play and creativity called “the loose parts theory,” which posits that the more loose parts one has to move around and take apart, the more creative play is.

And nature is “just about all loose parts,” he adds.

This theory is increasingly accepted, he says, even among designers of video and computer game software. “There are a lot of visual loose parts in current video games,” Louv says. “But nothing has more loose parts than a natural environment.”

Part of the reason for the decreasing exposure to nature is that such exposure is not a priority with many families.

“Families have two lists on their fridge doors,” Louv says. “One list is the nice-to-have list, the things they’ll get to if they get the other stuff done. My hope is that parents and educators will move nature from that list to the ‘must-do’ list, the things you just do as a good parent.”

Louv acknowledges well-meaning attempts in this direction, but he is critical of the whole soccer mom/dad culture in which play is structured and limited to particular days and hours.

He notes that “the greatest increase in obesity in children has happened at the same time as the greatest increase in organized sports for kids. We’re replacing that free-range play, in which kids spent a lot of time moving, with soccer practice.

“In fact,” he says, “the amount of playtime kids have has shrunk by 25 percent in the last 20 years.”

Louv, who has adult children, says there are a number of reasons why play has become so organized and scheduled. But the most important reason, he says, is what he calls “The Bogeyman Syndrome.”

In more than 3,000 interviews with parents, he says, “When I started asking parents why they wouldn’t let their kids outdoors anymore, I expected that lack of access would be the reason,” he says. ” ‘They bulldozed the woods,’ (would be the reason cited).

“But when I went to the edge of a subdivision, where there still were woods, and asked those parents the same question, I got the same answer,” he says. “Even in rural areas, I got the same answer.

“Kids aren’t going outdoors because their parents are scared to death, mainly of strangers, of abduction.”

He says that fear is driven by news media that can turn supposedly random abductions into 24-hour fear-a-thons (when it is well-established that the majority of child abductions are perpetrated by family members). Such fear has resulted in restricted movement for most children.

Says Louv, citing another study, “As a result of that fear, the difference in the radius that kids could go in 1990 had shrunk to one-ninth of what it had been in 1970.”

Louv admits that he understands the fear and felt it himself when raising his boys. But, he says, there were and are ways around the situation.

“As a parent, I felt that fear,” he says. “But I went out there with them. We did a lot of fishing and camping and hiking. We got out there.”

Fear also has a global component, figuratively and literally. Louv says people’s lack of familiarity with nature could cripple an environmental movement already reeling from growing, seemingly intractable, problems.

“Kids know about the hole in the ozone, they’re getting that message,” he says. “But if that’s the only message they’re getting, in the absence of pure joy and wonder at being in nature themselves, then the only association kids have with nature is fear, Armageddon, the end of the world.”

Louv argues that the only way to change that abstract fear is to give children direct, hands-on experience in nature (see sidebar). The days of letting the kids roam the neighborhood may be over – though Louv stresses that they don’t need to be – but however it is accomplished, children need to spend time actually in nature. If they don’t, they won’t know it in any meaningful way.

“If you talk to people who really involve themselves in the environment, they, to a person, had a transformative experience as a kid,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how many Animal Planet shows people watch on TV, if they don’t have a direct experience with nature, they don’t get it.”

Though the problem is large and growing, Louv declares himself optimistic about the issue, since information about this “nature deficit” is only now being studied and understood, and that’s a good first step.

“People can feel overwhelmed with problems, especially environmental problems that they don’t think they can address,” he says. “And they start shutting down. But when I can connect a kid to nature, that can have long-term implications for the environment. I think this is a hopeful issue, I think it’s a wedge into a different, more successful approach to the environment.”

The good news, according to Louv, is that this “nature deficit” is not irreversible, that exposure to nature can have immediate and profound effects.

He describes a personal anecdote.

“I went with some gang members from inner city San Diego to a natural area near the city to do some work with Urban Corps,” he says. “They were hardcore, early-20s gang members. They were tough guys, and at the beginning of the day, they were scared, which is a common response to the outdoors. They were a little overwhelmed.

“One guy said, ‘It’s too noisy out here.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean, you have gunfire!’ And he responded that there were only four or five noises in his neighborhood, and he knew what each one meant, and there were so many noises out here, and he knew they meant something, but he didn’t know what. And it scared him.

“But in the course of the day, their cynicism went away,” he says. “The know-it-all faces fell off, and by the end of the day, they were like 8-year-olds; they were jumping over streams and running around. Imagine what that would do to kids that hadn’t been that hardened.

“I think that the great tragedy is that we’re cutting more and more kids off from that, from the sense of joy and wonder,” he says. “We’re starting to get so depressed about the environment that we start to shut down, and we stop doing the things we could do to help the environment.”

The point, says Louv, is not to ban computer games, but to put them, and everything else, in a larger perspective that only nature can offer.

“I didn’t ban computer games for my kids,” he says. “But I don’t think it’s easy to have a sense of wonder when you’re playing ‘Grand Theft Auto.’ You need to offer your kids something more. You need to offer them that sense of wonder.”