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A Primer for Environmental Education

Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2005)

In researching the benefits of grade school environmental education for the new children’s entertainment series we are working on, I ran across an excellent resource entitled Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. This is an important book and I’d like to give you a brief overview of Louv’s innovative thinking on how humanity’s relationship with nature can be improved by helping our kids to build meaningful relationships with the outdoors.

Nature Deficit Disorder Defined

Last Child in the Woods contends that children need exposure to nature to ensure the healthy development of body and mind. Trends in society such as the loss of easy access to natural areas, fear of perceived dangers in unstructured play, and community restrictions, combined with increased attachment to indoor activities such as television, computers and video games, have led to a separation of children from nature that is having detrimental effects on kids’ physical, emotional and cognitive development.

Richard Louv coined the phrase, Nature Deficit Disorder, to describe the phenomenon. Although he admits that it is not a medical diagnosis, Louv defines the disorder as “the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.” Louv offers plenty of studies and anecdotal evidence collected over a 10-year period to support his theory. He writes,

“Nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualization and the full use of the senses. Given a chance, a child will bring the confusion of the world to the woods, wash it in the creek, turn it over to see what lives on the other unseen side of that confusion.”

Louv divides the book into seven sections and walks us through the evolution of the problem, why it matters and how we can get kids back to nature in order to ensure their physical and mental health. All the while, he weaves in personal recollections from his own childhood, which had me reminiscing about my own.

How Did We Get Here?

Humans are a curious lot. We are always pushing the boundaries of what is known, to discover what is possible. Attachment to the land has historically held special appeal for Americans, starting with what Louv calls the “first frontier”, where the availability of free land encouraged the advancement of citizenry westward that not only created our country and the boundaries of the land that it encompasses, but also defined the venturesome spirit of the people who claimed it as their own.

Once the boundaries were set, a “second frontier” emerged that was more a movement of priorities and values, than physical motion. In rural areas, the farm defined our connection to the land and created family legacies that have lasted for generations. In urban areas, land was set aside for public parks to ensure easy access for city residents. This era also romanticized nature and saw the creation of national parks that preserved the most unique and beautiful natural areas of the country for all people to explore and enjoy.

Currently, a “third frontier” is emerging in American culture. Unfortunately, our cultural values are shifting away from a personal connection with natural places to a more intellectualized relationship. Louv defines the events that are shaping the current trends as follows:

“Not yet fully formed or explored, this new frontier is characterized by at least five trends: a severance of the public and private mind from our food’s origins; a disappearing line between machines, humans, and other animals; an increasingly intellectual understanding of our relationship with other animals; the invasion of our cities by wild animals (even as urban-suburban designers replace wildness with synthetic nature); and the rise of a new kind of suburban form.”

This new era is also typified by the reduction of primary experiences…that which we can perceive through our senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. Unstructured play in the natural world is being replaced by passive experiences delivered through an ever-increasing selection of media. This shift matters more than we realize. Louv quotes Robin Moore, a professor at North Carolina State University who directs a research and design program that advocates nature play in the daily lives of children. She states,

“Children live through their senses. Sensory experiences link the child’s exterior world with their interior, hidden, affective world. Since the natural environment is the principal source of sensory stimulation, freedom to explore and play with the outdoor environment through the senses in their own space and time is essential for healthy development of an interior life… This type of self-activated, autonomous interaction is what we call free play. Individual children test themselves by interacting with their environment, activating their potential and reconstructing human culture. The content of the environment is a critical factor in this process. A rich, open environment will continuously present alternative choices for creative engagement. A rigid, bland environment will limit healthy growth and development of the individual or the group.”

Louv adds that our children are being contained in smaller and smaller spaces and live tightly structured lives. Car seats, strollers, even the interior of the family SUV is becoming one of the standard “containers” in which children are exposed to nature. And yet, they need to explore nature and utilize all of their senses…not just sight…to make sense of the world around them and eventually their place in it. They need to stretch their legs (and their minds) or risk becoming depersonalized and detached from real life. Even school recess has been reduced or eliminated due to time constraints, curricular demands and liability concerns. Louv writes, “the detachment of education from the physical world not only coincided with the dramatic rise in life-threatening childhood obesity, but also with a growing body of evidence that links physical exercise and experience in nature to mental acuity and concentration.”

Why Don’t Kids Play Outside Anymore?

I find it paradoxical that parents who experienced such freedom in their own childhood would keep their own children so tightly controlled. However, closer examination reveals structural, cultural and societal changes that have significantly altered how children spend their free time. These changes play a direct role in separating them from nature and limiting the time and space available for them to engage in unstructured play. Louv explains these changes as follows:

Structural Changes to the Family Unit

Today, more families have both parents working outside the home than in any other time in the history of our nation. Daycare and after school care have become a necessity for many families. With so much time spent away from their children each day, parents feel compelled to make the most of the remaining hours by filling it with what they believe to be meaningful and results-driven activities. While music lessons, team practices and service obligations are all valuable childhood experiences, they leave little time for much else.

Cultural Changes

In addition, families are surrounded by a culture of media. Many times, when children do have time between the classroom, after school activities and bedtime, they often fill it with television, computer activities and video games. Parents aren’t immune to the lure of media either. Passive activities in front of a video screen take away from time spent outside experiencing nature. Also, modern networks of communication connect parents with other parents, enabling them to compare parenting styles, thus raising expectations of their own children’s achievement and involvement in extracurricular activities.

Societal Changes

Increased communication has also led parents to believe the world is a more dangerous place than it once was. This contagion of fearfulness has been a significant factor in an increase in parents’ control of their children’s outdoor activities. Twenty-four hour news cycles and TV crime shows have created a phobia of “stranger danger,” and also a fear of crime, traffic hazards and peer-related phenomena such as bullying and drugs. The obvious consequence for parents of young children obsessed with stranger danger is to either keep kids safe at home or make sure they’re in highly structured situations.

Institutional Changes

The boundaries of childhood are shrinking. Rural living has lost its appeal and in urban settings people have inevitably become more and more removed from the natural world. Even in the suburbs, over the past few decades, populations have trended toward highly planned developments. Consequently, the natural world can be off-limits or hard to reach. Planned neighborhoods with manicured green spaces have strict rules of conduct to reduce liability and the destruction of property. Playgrounds, parks and wild spaces can be miles away and parents are much more willing to drive kids to a soccer game or a music lesson than to an unstructured and unsupervised romp in a park. If we can’t send them out the backdoor to play, how can we restore this vital connection?

“The Nature-Child Reunion”

What Louv suggests is not only the evolution of the nature-child relationship, but also the parent-child relationship as well. Louv suggests that parents simply spend time with their kids in nature. Though they may not be able to recreate their own childhood memories of nature play, they should come to understand that their children can indeed readily connect with nature in a meaningful way. And, most parents will benefit from this connection too. He recommends allowing kids to explore wild places with controlled risk, “almost out of earshot, but never out of sight.” While this may not be the dawn to dusk adventures of past generations, it will provide kids with firsthand experiences, partial solitude and valuable exposure to the natural world.

Today’s parents are becoming better educated and informed through a wide variety of media sources. Louv believes that if the back-to-nature movement is marketed as an integral part of a child’s education and a valuable resource for mental health, appreciation of nature will make a comeback. However, Louv cautions that it won’t happen automatically, but will require the help of environmentalists, teachers and community organizers to make it happen.

Environmental Education

Nature-based environments are not only known to facilitate psychological healing, but also have been found to aid learning across a wide range of curricula. Louv cites many studies that outdoor learning experiences increase mastery in science, social studies, language arts and math. Gains were also realized on standardized tests and overall grade point averages. He adds that students in nature-based programs also had better attendance and behavior than in traditional classrooms. One such study submitted to the California Department of Education found a “27 percent increase in measured mastery of science concepts; enhanced cooperation and conflict resolution skills; gains in self-esteem, problem solving, motivation to learn, and classroom behavior.”

Slowly, some innovative teachers with the support of eco friendly parents and open-minded school systems are realizing the benefits of hands-on education that makes learning “immediate and personal”. Schools are beginning to utilize the school grounds as an extension of their classrooms. Two studies conducted in Canada, “Gaining Ground” and “Grounds for Action”, found:

“Children who experience school grounds with diverse natural settings are more physically active, more aware of nutrition, more civil to one another, and more creative. The greening of school grounds resulted in increased involvement by adults and members of the nearby community.”

In order to minimize the financial impact of these new programs, schools are also partnering with environmental organizations and local wildlife preserves. Louv believes that this is a win-win proposition for both the local schools and also the preservation efforts of affiliated associations.

The “Fourth Frontier”

Richard Louv’s “fourth frontier” calls for us to reexamine our values and priorities of urban planning to make room for the restorative cycles of nature within our communities. He also calls for changes to the laws that govern landowners, parks and other public lands to decriminalize natural play in these areas. He writes:

“As long as cities continue to overdevelop housing tracts and underdeveloped parks and other sites for natural play, our regional parks and beaches will be crushed by demand, necessitating ever more stringent enforcement.”

He offers many suggestions for humans and animals to coexist in urban areas and ways to restore nature not only for our children’s sake, but for nature’s sake as well. He envisions entire cities transformed into natural habitats in order to satisfy our need for biophilia, a human’s innate desire to connect with other forms of life. Louv cites many examples of green urbanism that have been adopted in European cities and imagines American cites similarly transformed through thoughtful planning, innovative design and the ecological education of its citizens. He writes:

“Preserving islands of wild land – parks and preserves – in urban areas is not enough, according to current ecological theory. Instead, a healthy urban environment requires natural corridors for movement and genetic diversity. One can imagine such theory applied to entire urban regions, with natural corridors for wildlife extending deep into urban territory and the urban psyche, creating an entirely different environment in which children would grow up and adults could grow old – where the nature deficit is replaced by natural abundance.”

A Personal Connection

Ultimately, Richard Louv believes that nature is a “spiritual necessity” for healthy childhood development. He makes a convincing argument for “faith-based environmentalism”, citing a strong connection between nature and religion that spans the doctrines that divide us. He quotes Paul Gorman, founder and director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, who believes that:

“The purpose of creation really is to bring us – children and all of us – closer to the creator. As a parent, you don’t encourage children to experience nature because it’s pretty, but because your children are exposed to something larger and longer standing than their immediate human existence.”

Louv looks to a future where appreciation of nature is firmly rooted in our daily lives, our education programs and our value system as a society. He advocates that we encourage our children to develop a connection with nature that is active, personal and ongoing. He believes that this will produce greater appreciation, even reverence, for the natural world that transcends current environmentalism, and will create future generations that are healthier, happier and have an increased sense of commitment to preserving and sustaining our awe-inspiring planet.

I highly recommend Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. It is the bible of the back-to-nature movement and validation of my personal beliefs about the importance of nature in childhood, both from my own personal adventures as a child, and also my experiences raising four children in a completely new era.

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