Getting kids back in touch with nature is critical to raising healthy children, according to author and journalist Richard Louv. His most recent book, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,” focuses on the relationship between children and nature. Louv links the lack of nature in the lives of today’s electronically hooked generation to rises in childhood obesity, attention disorders and depression.
Louv will be the keynote speaker at Valley Forward’s 40th annual luncheon on Dec. 12, at the Phoenix Convention Center.
Louv is also chairman of the Children & Nature Network, an organization fostering an international movement to connect children with nature. He says direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development and for the physical and emotional health of children and adults.
Louv says it’s ironic that the largest increase in child obesity occurred in the past 20 years as organized sports for children expanded.
“It’s not necessarily more activity going to more soccer practices,” he says. “As kids, we got moving as soon as we got home from school. We ran outside. Some started baseball games, others ran into the woods and worked on a tree house or dug a hole for a fort. That activity is different than a couple of soccer practices a week, followed by soft drinks and snacks from parents.”
Part of the problem is a paucity of parks, play areas and even roof gardens in city and suburban neighborhoods.
“All research points in the same direction, that children with attention deficit disorder do much better with a little bit of contact with nature,” Louv says.
But Louv is careful “to not demonize electronics,” joking that he conducted this interview while talking on his iPhone. While it’s true that youngsters are plugged into some kind of device an average of 44 hours a week — a factor in childhood maladies — it would be a mistake to focus too much on electronics and perhaps miss a deeper discussion. He mentions urban design.
“We tell kids to walk, but where are they going to walk?” Louv says. “Communities give us manicured lawns, and then have covenant restrictions that prevent kids from playing. Another issue is the over-structuring of childhood. Parents feel they have to fill every spare minute of their kids’ lives to get them into Harvard. You want your kids to get into Harvard? Tell them to go outside. Kids learn better when they’re outside.”
Going for walks, however, presents another problem.
“Parents are scared to death to let their kids go for a walk,” Louv says. “It’s the stranger-danger thing.”
Louv says child abductions by strangers are rare and the rate has been dropping for the past 20 years. He recommends nature clubs, where several families go on a hike together.
“It’s a practical way to deal with fear,” he says.
Other suggestions for healing the broken bond between children and nature include:
- Maintain a birdbath.
- Replace part of your lawn with native plants.
- Collect lightning bugs at dusk and release them at dawn.
- Make a leaf collection.
- Keep a terrarium or aquarium.
- Encourage kids to go camping in the backyard.
- Give kids a daily “green hour” for unstructured play and interaction with the natural world.
- Take a hike or organize a neighborhood stroller group that meets for weekly nature walks.
- Encourage kids to build a tree house, fort or hut.
- Plant a garden.