Why kids need time in nature

Why kids need time in nature

Richard Louv is a journalist and author who believes societies need to reconnect with nature in a way that is joyful, futuristic and technological. And it all begins with children.

You’ve been writing about the disconnect between children and nature for decades. How did you become interested in this topic?

Growing up in Missouri and Kansas, I spent many hours in the woods with my dog. Often, my parents didn’t know where I was, but my dog always did. Even as a boy, I realised those experiences were meaningful. 

When researching my 1990 book, Childhood’s Future, I interviewed nearly 3,000 children and parents across the United States. To my surprise, the topic of children’s relationships with nature often surfaced. Even then, parents and others were reporting a divide between the young and the natural world and the social, spiritual, psychological and environmental implications of this change. But at that point, there was little research about the divide or the benefits of nature to human development.

How has your understanding of our disconnection with nature influenced your parenting?

My sons didn’t have the kind of freedom I had as a boy, but my wife and I consciously made sure they had nature in their lives. We lived near a canyon when the boys were younger, and we encouraged them to build forts and explore behind our house. Later, we often hiked or camped. And, when I had interviews that involved the outdoors, I found ways to bring my sons along. My boys also grew up fishing, and those are among our best memories together. 

Fortunately, my parents instinctively gave me a childhood that instilled a love of nature. I hope I’ve passed this love along to my sons.

What issues are children and adults facing regarding their relationship with nature?

Humans have been moving activities indoors since the invention of agriculture, the Industrial Revolution, and the increase in urbanisation. Social and technological changes have accelerated that change in the past three decades, even in rural areas. Among those changes are: poor design in neighbourhoods, homes, schools, and workplaces; media-amplified fear of strangers and real dangers in some communities (including traffic and toxins); and fear of litigation, which contributes to a ‘"play-it-safe’" attitude that creates risk-free environments which that actually create more significant risks later. 

Much of society no longer views time spent in the natural world and independent, imaginary play as enrichment. Technology now dominates almost every aspect of our lives. Technology is not, in itself, the enemy, but our lack of balance is lethal. The pandemic of inactivity is one result.

New research suggests that sitting is the new smoking because it produces some of the same diseases. These trends also have real implications for conservation. ‘Ecophobia’, as researcher David Sobel calls it, occurs when children are conditioned at an early age to associate nature with environmental doom. Several studies found that people who identify themselves as conservationists or environmentalists almost always had transcendent experiences in nature as children. What happens when they no longer have much chance to enjoy nature for the joy of it? In my books, I call the cumulative impact of these changes ‘nature-deficit disorder’. It’s not a recognised medical diagnosis, of course, but a linguistic tool for talking about the impact and the solutions.

What stands out in your global observations of people trying to connect with nature?

I’ve been surprised by how widespread nature-deficit disorder is. The sedentary, indoor child is commonplace in urban, suburban neighbourhoods and rural areas. Though, we’re seeing new appreciation for these issues among parents, educators, paediatricians, and governments. 

In Europe and other parts of the world, many people have been taking action for a long time. All-weather schools are more popular in Europe, and some of the most innovative urban design and architecture is happening there. A few years ago, I came across a design for a three-sided hospital. One side is to be made of solar panel in the colours of an endangered butterfly in that bioregion; another side is a vertical garden; the third side is a green wall, and the lobby will become a butterfly factory to raise and release the endangered butterfly. Even if the design isn’t built, it’s a good metaphor for imagining an anti-dystopian future. What if whole cities could be designed similarly, to be the engine of biodiversity, human diversity, health and human reconnection?

Is technology hindering our connection with nature?

Time spent in the natural world, whether urban nature or wilderness, balances our use of technology. The more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we need. The ultimate multitasking is to live simultaneously in both the digital and the physical world, using computers to maximise our powers to process intellectual data, and natural environments to ignite all of our senses and accelerate our ability to learn and feel. In this way, we would combine the resurfaced ‘primitive’ powers of our ancestors with the digital speed of our teenagers.

I met an instructor who trains young people to become cruise ship pilots. He described two kinds of students. One kind grew up mainly indoors—they’re great at video games and quick to learn the ship’s electronics. The other type grew up outside, spending time in nature, and they also have a talent—they actually know where the ship is. He told me that, we need people who have both ways of understanding the world—people with a hybrid mind. What if that were a goal of our education systems?

Taking technology with us into nature isn’t new. A fishing rod, a compass, binoculars are examples of technologies we’ve used for nature exploration. Today, the family that goes geocaching or wildlife photographing with their digital cameras is doing something as legitimate as backpacking—these gadgets offer an excuse to get outside. The attitude of young citizen naturalists toward technology is bound to be different from that of many older people—and that could be an advantage. However, I’m not keen on the kind of gadgets that take our attention to the gadget over nature. The litmus test should be how long it takes for someone to look up from the screen or forget the gadget, to experience nature and feel wonder. 

How can we imagine a technological future that lives cohesively with nature?

We can stop thinking of nature as something that represents the past. Instead of going ‘back to nature’, think of going forward to nature. Let children know that multitasking is living simultaneously in both the digital and the physical world. The future of our nature connection is not anti-urban and not anti-technology. We all can create new natural habitats in and around our homes, schools, neighbourhoods, workplaces and cities so that, even in inner cities, our children grow up in nature—not  with  it, but  in  it. We need to imagine a future where our lives are as immersed in nature as they are in technology. This includes a new kind of city that incorporates nature into every building and on every block—–restoring residents psychologically, physically and spiritually. That vision requires advanced, even futuristic thinking. We need to go forward to nature.

Playing outside seems natural to many families, but the fear of risk-based play can be overwhelming to others. What are your thoughts on this?

We need to think in terms of comparative risk. Yes, there are risks outdoors, but there are huge psychological, physical and spiritual risks in raising future generations under protective house arrest. Child obesity is just one of them. There is also the risk of growing loneliness. To develop a sense of community and social attachment, a child must go outside the home to know neighbours and the broader family of animals and plants. All of these trends affect children, toddlers, infants and their parents.

Every family wants comfort and safety. But as parents, we also want to raise courageous, resilient children and young adults—with a little help from nature. One reaction to the fear in our society is to shut down; another is to turn the fear on its head to build resilience. Experts tell us most broken bones related to tree climbing occur because the child doesn’t have the strength to hold on to a limb. It is recommended that parents work with their children to develop upper-body strength early to reduce the chance of serious injury. Taking small, manageable risks, which kids need to build their resilience, will also help. In other words: don’t tear down the tree; build up the child.

How important do you think dirt is in nature-based play?.

Outdoor play of any sort is good, but the quality of the nature experience depends on how direct the experience with nature is. Are kids getting their hands wet and their feet muddy? Are they experiencing nature directly? These activities can help kids learn to have confidence in themselves and the power to make independent decisions—the risk-taking inherent in outdoor play plays an important role in child development. Without independent play, the critical cognitive skill called ‘executive function’ is at risk. Executive function is a complex process, but at its core, it is the ability to exert self-control as well asnd control and direct emotion and behaviour. 

What has been the most surprising and heartening of all the research you’ve come across about nature-based play?

Research indicates that experiences in the natural world offer great benefits to psychological and physical health, and the ability to learn, for children and adults. The studies strongly suggest that time in nature can reduce children’s symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, calm them and help them focus. It can also improve cognitive skills, serve as a buffer to child obesity, help reduce myopia, and offer other psychological and physical health benefits. Time spent in nature is not a cure-all, but it can be an enormous help, especially for kids who are stressed by circumstances beyond their control.

Can you expand on this quote of yours?: "The future will belong to the nature-smart—those individuals, families, businesses, and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world and who balance the virtual with the real. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”

Every region is different. So, if we’re going to imagine a future, why not imagine a movement—what I call a New Nature Movement—that includes but goes beyond traditional environmentalism and sustainability.

A first step might be to convene the politicians, policy-makers, partners, volunteers, educators, landscape architects, urban designers and architects, physicians and other professionals to plan the best approaches to re-nature the city or community. The common purpose would be a reunion between humans and nature to create or enhance human and economic potential. There could be a discussion of the scientific evidence supporting nature contact, including the recognition that a healthier habitat increases the human-nature social capital for everyone’s benefit.

These professionals can write a health prescription for a city that will evolve into a rebuilding plan that makes practical sense. They might consider how to rebuild local food webs, or establish an urban forest to help clean the air and provide shade or encourage urban wildlife. They can talk about how to naturalise bicycle and pedestrian paths, offer cleaner public transport, and develop policies to encourage the design of green roofs, green walls, and green schoolyards. Cities can become engines of biodiversity. Such a movement might create a regional scorecard to include the economic benefits of greening the city, with consideration to the way a green city can reshape health care, tourism and law enforcement in positive ways. 

Does climate change and connection to nature go hand in hand?

Without direct physical contact with the natural world, children’s knowledge about the environment is mostly abstract, and they tend to see a world with overwhelming problems. Children may know a lot about climate change and the cutting of the Amazon rainforest but often can’t tell you about what lives in the natural areas in their neighbourhood. 

Increasingly, people who care about the climate emergency or biodiversity collapse make a scientific argument—as they should. But data alone seldom moves people from awareness to action. One missing element in making our case is love — the language of relationship. What happens if future generations are increasingly disconnected from nature, if children never get the chance to fall in love with nature before they know of its loss? As that trend continues, the adult relationship with the natural world will become increasingly abstract. 

Young people need to know about threats to the environment, but they also need direct experience in nature simply for joy. Unless we achieve that balance, many children will associate nature with fear and destruction for the rest of their lives. Connecting ourselves and our children directly to nature is a way to deal with the impact of the loss of nature and also as a way to plant the seeds of a nature-rich future. 

What are your top tips to encourage a reconnection with nature?

Pick a ‘Sit Spot’.

Jon Young, one of the world’s preeminent nature educators, and co-author of Coyote’s Guide, advises children and adults to find a special place in nature, whether it’s under a tree at the end of the yard, a hidden bend of a creek, or a rooftop garden. “Know it by day; know it by night; know it in the rain and in the snow, in the depth of winter and in the heat of summer,” he writes. “Know the birds that live there, know the trees they live in. Get to know these things as if they were your relatives … That is the most important thing you can do in order to excel at any skill in nature.” While finding a sit spot may seem most appropriate for smaller children, adults and teenagers can benefit, too. Everyone can use a special place away from peer, academic, and relationship pressures.

Join a group that organises family nature trips.

This one is handy for parents who have little prior outdoor experience, or recently relocated families. Joining a group can make experiencing the wilderness less intimidating. 

Go on a techno-fast. 

Too much screen time needs an antidote. Research shows multitasking can divide attention and hurt the ability to learn and create. Children and parents need a break. Getting more music, art, yoga, meditation, weight-lifting - whatever - into our lives can help. But technology-fasting while spending time in the natural world may be the most effective antidote to the digital age’s downsides (acknowledging the upsides).

Put nature in the calendar.

If you pre-plan the family’s sports commitments and vacations, do the same for time spent in nature. Also, try skipping organised sports for a season and use that time to get outside.

This interview with Richard Louv was originally published in Lunch Lady Magazine Issue 27. Top photo by Lisa Sorgini.