Saving Our Kids From Nature Deficit Disorder

 

As America celebrates Earth Day this month, Natural Awakenings talks with Richard Louv about his insightful book with the curious title: Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. Louv argues that kids of the digital age have become increasingly alienated from the natural world and are paying a price, not only in their physical fitness, but also in their long-term mental and spiritual health.

Richard Louv’s poignant awareness of today’s severed bond between children and nature began in the 1980s. Interviewing more than 3,000 children, parents, teachers and community leaders, he was struck by this comment of a four-year-old boy: “I like to play indoors ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”

Hundreds of youngsters’ comments confirmed Louv’s belief that a sense of wonder is missing from the lives of America’s children. His seventh book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, investigates the increasing degrees of separation between children and the natural world. He explores the social, psychological and spiritual implications of this phenomenon and the impending loss of future stewards of the earth.

Q: What motivated you to write “Last Child in the Woods” and what do you hope to achieve?

A: As a boy, I had an intense sense that nature was important to my well-being. I spent hours exploring woods and farmland on the suburban edge of Kansas City. Later in life, while researching a book, I found myself listening to parents describe their vague sense that something profound was changing in the relationship between children and nature. My continuing hope is that Last Child in the Woods will be a catalyst for cultural change and lead people to take action. This is already happening.

Q: Does scientific evidence support your premise that our children need to be saved from “nature deficit disorder”?

A: Nature deficit disorder is not a medical diagnosis. It’s my term for describing what I believe are the human costs of alienation from nature. Among them are diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illness. This disorder damages children and shapes adults, families, whole communities and the future of nature itself. Last Child in the Woods is filled with empirical evidence highlighting the growing gap between nature play and childhood.

Q: Why is “free” or self-directed play in interesting outdoor spaces more important than playing organized sports?

A: The greatest increase in child obesity in our history happened during the same two decades as the greatest increase in organized child sports. It happens that kids were eating a lot of fast food during that period, some of it after sports practice. But loss of nature play has been largely ignored as contributing to the current plague of child obesity.

We know that nature play encourages more creative play. Children in natural play areas are far more likely to invent their own games than children playing on the typical flat asphalt or turf park. Research shows that nature experiences build cognitive skills.

Q: How can children playing freely outdoors in unplanned landscapes benefit the future of our world?

A: Studies repeatedly show that nearly everyone who cares deeply about the future of the environment enjoyed transcendent experiences in nature when they were a child. If nature experiences continue to fade from current and future generations of our youth, where will caring future stewards of the earth come from?

Q: What do you suggest parents do to get their children outside to play?

A: Rediscover your own nature connection. If you missed out on nature when you were a child, do it now. Certainly consider traditional nature activities like gardening, hiking and fishing, but don’t stop there. Encourage your child to explore and get to know an area at the edge of a field, pond or pesticide-free garden. Look for edges between habitats where the trees stop and grasses begin or where rocks and earth meet water.

What you do is less important than your enthusiasm for doing it. A vital gift to any young person is an innate infectious enthusiasm for the outdoors. It will last them a lifetime—long after the video games have disappeared.

Q: What keeps children indoorswhen they have opportunities to play outdoors?
 
A: Parents cite a number of reasons why their children spend less time in nature than they themselves did. Among these are disappearing access to natural areas, competition from television and computers, dangerous traffic, more homework and other time pressures. They also mention that newer communities, through covenants and restrictions, virtually ban traditional children’s play in nature. Most of all, they cite stranger-danger because of news coverage that leads them to believe in an epidemic of child-snatchings—despite evidence that the number of incidents has been falling.

Q: Please clarify your statement that “as children grow more separate from nature, they separate physically from one another.”

A: Being in nature builds a sense of empathy and connection. Children who do not venture outside and bond with nature will be ill prepared to bond with community. Their lives will increasingly be about what occurs inside their own homes or future workplaces, and about themselves. Young people raised under virtual protective house arrest are missing out on a larger world of possibilities and wonder.

Q: What impact do you believe news media have on our children and their desire to “play”?

A: As part of news media myself, I’m aware that the media’s influence is enormous. We’ve helped create a national climate of fear of strangers and other hazards that won’t go away without a change in consciousness. Media should be educating the public about beneficial research, for example, that connecting child health and well-being to play in nature. When experts at conferences discuss today’s dramatic increases in childhood obesity, attention difficulties and depression, the countering benefits of direct childhood experience in nature should at least be mentioned as part of the solution.

Q: You write that the Baby Boomer generation is the last one to feel a deep connection with nature. How can this trendsetting generation teach its grandchildren that such a connection is necessary to their own well-being and that of the earth?

A: Baby Boomers, entering or in the grandparent stage, can play a pivotal role in turning around the current situation. They remember a time when it was normal for kids to play in nature. Boomers are a cause-oriented generation. Teaching children about the importance of their relationship to nature could be their greatest cause yet. If they don’t meet this challenge, who will?

21st Century Kid Stats

A recent study shows that the typical eight-year-old can better identify game characters from the Japanese Pokemon than local native characters like otters, beetles and oak trees.

Children who spend lots of time outdoors have longer attention spans than those who watch lots of television and play video games. (Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

Last year less than one-third of our children participated in outdoor programs, attended summer camp or participated in outdoor service projects. (Pacific Forest and Watershed Lands Stewardship Council)

In the past 20 years, the numbers of children ages 7 to 11 who swim, fish, play touch football, canoe or water ski, or who ride their bicycle at least six times a year, have all declined by about a third. Little league is down, as are pick-up games, even playing catch. (National Sporting Goods Association)

In the 1960s, 4 percent of U.S. kids were obese. Today that figure has quadrupled, to 16 percent. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Source: by Linda Sechrist
 

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