21 April 2010

Nature Deficit Disorder

I love what he is advocating - although I say we need this for adults as well as kids...

Excerpt from
All In The Mind, ABC 17 April 2010

'Richard Louv argues we and our children are suffering a kind of cultural autism, a sensory deprivation which he provocatively calls 'Nature Deficit Disorder'. And with that, he's seeded a small revolution for change. Also, secret places - remember them when you were a kid?'

'Natasha Mitchell: Could you, your generation, represent the last child in the woods? Are today's children experiencing what we might call nature deficit disorder?

And what does immersion in the natural world offer the developing mind, all minds, your mind, your psyche? Think back to your own early encounters, to those secret places. You'll hear about those today too.

Richard Louv: If when we were young we tramped through forests of Nebraska cottonwoods or raised pigeons on a rooftop in Queens or fished for Ozark bluegills or felt the swell of a wave that travelled a thousand miles before lifting our boat, then we were bound to the natural world and remain so today. Nature still informs our years, lifts us, carries us.

For children, nature comes in many forms. A newborn calf; a pet that lives and dies; a worn path through the woods; a fort nested in stinging nettles; a damp, mysterious edge of a vacant lot. Whatever shape nature takes, it offers each child an older, larger world separate from parents. Unlike television, nature does not steal time, it amplifies it. Nature offers healing for a child living in a destructive family or neighbourhood. It serves as a blank slate upon which a child draws and reinterprets the culture's fantasies.

Nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualisation 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 unseen side of that confusion. Nature can frighten a child, too, and this fright serves a purpose. In nature, a child finds freedom, fantasy, and privacy: a place distant from the adult world, a separate peace.

These are some of the utilitarian values of nature, but at a deeper level nature gives itself to children for its own sake, not as a reflection of a culture. At this level, inexplicable nature provokes humility.

Natasha Mitchell: Ah, I love that line 'inexplicable nature provokes humility' or 'offers humility'. I think that's a very powerful idea. What do you mean by it? What is at the essence of that?

Richard Louv: When I was really little, when I was...my first memories are of feeling that sense of awe and wonder that hopefully most children have the chance to feel when they crawl out through the weeds to the edge of the yard where the trees begin and first turn over a rock and find perhaps for the first time that they're not alone in the universe, and hearing wind in the trees, and voices that are either there or not there but still we hear them. That humility that we feel when we find that world which is larger than our parents and their problems, and that gives us humility and it also gives us strength.

Natasha Mitchell: Journalist Richard Louv's book, called Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, seems to have spearheaded a growing movement. He's chairman of the Children and Nature Network in the USA, mobilising communities to re-engage children with the natural world and address what he calls a kind of cultural autism as a result of our sensory deprivation from green spaces. He's been in Australia this week for the inaugural international Healthy Parks, Healthy People congress in Melbourne. Richard Louv, welcome to the program.

Richard Louv: Thank you.

Natasha Mitchell: Tell me about the four-storey tree house that you built, you and friends built with your very own little hands at age nine or ten. Because in a sense it's emblematic of what you're up to now.

Richard Louv: Well, I was no good at sports. I tried. But the woods and the field behind my house...I lived on the edge of the suburbs outside of Kansas City, Missouri, and I could go through my hedge into the cornfield where my underground fort was (that was terrific too) and then from there on into the woods and the fields that seemed to go on forever. Those were my woods, I owned those woods. They're in my heart now, they were in my heart then, and I felt the sense of ownership to the extent that I pulled out, I think, hundreds of survey stakes that I knew had something to do with the bulldozers that were taking out other woods nearby. But down in those woods was this huge old oak tree, and I pulled together my own team of kids and...

Natasha Mitchell: Construction workers, not kids.

Richard Louv: Well, small, very short construction workers. And we of course took a lot of lumber from the houses that were being built...you'd never do that...they'd shoot you now if you took this stuff, but they kind of meant it for the kids then. And we'd haul all that lumber down and built a four-storey tree house, a huge thing. You could only get into it if you went through the basement or the roof, you couldn't get in. So you either had to go in through this little hole, little trapdoor, or you had to climb up the limbs on the outside of the tree house all the way to the deck on top and then go down it. It was so cool.

Natasha Mitchell: It was cool and it was lethal, and that was part of the attraction probably.

Richard Louv: I guess it was lethal, I guess we could have fallen, but one of the interesting things now that paediatricians say is that they don't see very many broken bones among children anymore, or at least not in the United States. What they do see are repetitive stress injuries, which comes from too many hours spend with a video game or at a keyboard at a computer, carpel tunnel syndrome, that kind of thing, and that's among little kids. That kind of injury tends to last a lot longer than a typical broken bone, which used to be a kind of rite of passage.

Natasha Mitchell: Looking out from the top of that tree house, 40 feet high I gather...what do you think that tree house represented to you and your psychological development as a little being?

Richard Louv: That's a really good question. I think it represented a lot of things. I think it represented creativity, it represented strength because you had to be strong in certain ways to create something that big, but it also represented a view of the world that was higher, that you really could only have if you were near the top of a tree. And I mean that literally and metaphorically. That's one of the things that nature gives kids in terms of that independent, self-directed play, which is really the source of what's called executive function, the psychological phrase for self-control.

Deb Moore: I think a lot of it is to do with this image of the child, that if we perceive children to be in need of constant protection rather than feeling that they are active participants who have their own rights, we're constantly going to want to protect them from what we perceive as might be a dangerous place. If we believe that they can actually make decisions about the sorts of things that they're doing, it's a much better place to be in terms of early childhood education.

Natasha Mitchell: And in terms of the creative life of the developing mind it seems too. Deb Moore was a preschool teacher for more than 20 years, now working in local government in Victoria. For her recent Masters of Education she interviewed children in two preschool centres about their impressions of the play spaces, but what she stumbled on was a whole other secret world of the child's imagination, which she calls 'the secret business of children's secret places'. And she's been sworn to secrecy!

Deb Moore: The adult perception of a play space now is often highly structured, a playground equipment type place that has the rubber matting underneath so the children are not hurt and doesn't have loose materials so that stones can't be thrown and doesn't have rocks that children may fall from.

In fact some of the children that I did some research with in the less natural play space showed fear about some photos I showed them. There were some rocks and logs and they said that that was a dangerous place. So it does seem as if they really are taking on what adults are telling them, that it is not safe.

I've heard many stories about parents not even letting children out to their letterbox out the front of their own houses or parents who do let their children ride their bike to the local park right in their car behind them so that they're constantly watching them. So the barriers are real. Children are feeling increasingly supervised, and I think their need to create these secret places is becoming more in some ways because of that increasing supervision.

Natasha Mitchell: Or perhaps they don't know any difference.

Deb Moore: That may be true. There has been research on an innate intrinsic need to be secret. Yes, okay, it's universal that children want to make those secret places and they need to be in their own places, as I was told by one of the children in my research, that only children can make secret places. She was very clear. Actually a number of children said something similar but she was incredibly clear that adults can grow the plants and provide the loose materials, but the children have to make their own secret places.

Natasha Mitchell: And when you discovered secrecy was an important thing, tell us about what kids were creating. What sort of things did you unfold with them?

Deb Moore: Often it was just using a bush or a shrub or a tree that they would sit behind or in the middle of and it was their perception of being hidden completely. And, as one other child said, lots of people walk through this secret place but they don't know that that's what it is. So it is their own unique construction of that secret place. The one in particular in the centre that had a lot of habitats for wildlife, there were dense bamboo thicket, and a number of children used that as their secret place but at different times, so that they had their own portals in and out that were protected. Their special places were often a swing or a climbing equipment, but the secret places tended to be the natural elements like a tree, and then bringing in loose materials too so that they were creating their own environment themselves.

Natasha Mitchell: So what did they look like?

Deb Moore: I commented to one other child, 'Was this a secret place?'...there was mud, there was water, there were bricks and logs, and this particular child said, 'No, that's not very interesting at all,' so really I can't tell you, as an adult, what every secret place is going to be like, they're so unique, essentially that one child's perception. Another child mentioned that the teacher knows where they are but she doesn't know that it's a secret place. I think this symbolic element of secret places became very apparent as well.

Natasha Mitchell: So in a sense kids don't have a lot of physical control over the way they live or occupy the world but they do have some internal control, they have some control over how they perceive the world and imagine the world. What were kids doing in secret spaces, because they're surrounded by children most of the time, so what were they actually saying about what they got up to in their secret space?

Deb Moore: There was one child in particular who said, 'It's very peace and quiet because it's a little hole, so no-one can see me, not one little bit.'

Natasha Mitchell: I just love that picture you've got of her too, because no-one can see her, not one little bit, and there are these two little legs poking out of the foliage.

Deb Moore: That's right, but she was very happy to just sit in there, and she often spoke about inventing things in her secret place, that it was a place of quiet contemplation, and she was very aware that she used that time to create things and think about things and be imaginative in her thinking and her play. So another child had a secret place on a pile of rocks open to everybody and he would often just go and sit there. This was a child who was incredibly active in all sorts of other play but was also very aware that he needed to just sometimes sit and ponder.

Natasha Mitchell: What do you think the existence of a secret space brings to a child's play and psychological experience of that play?

Deb Moore: I think it adds a whole other dimension to their play and it's more about being able to be responsible for the choices that they make, that they feel that they are able to make changes in their own environment so that they're not just being constantly directed by adults that 'this is the place that we want you to play in'. They feel as if they have in fact the right to make the decisions. One of the children in my research was very clear about saying that he could make his own secret place, that he could change things, that he could just do it, he said to me, and that was just a really significant comment that he made, that it wasn't about constantly being told 'this is where you will play and this is how you will play', that the children have those choices themselves and they're making those decisions.

Natasha Mitchell: Deb Moore, an early childhood educator. We're going wild with the imaginative child on All in the Mind.

Back to writer Richard Louv who's founded the Children and Nature Network.

Nature means many things and, in a sense, it helps us to understand what we're talking about. What do you mean by 'nature' in this quest?

Richard Louv: Again, that's a very good question and nobody has really answered it well. It is no accident that we've mainly left the definition of nature up to the poets. Science has a hard time defining that. A few years ago I worked with a dozen or so neuroscientists who were experts on the creation of brain architecture in young children, and I would ask them, well, you've studied all these other things, how day-care affects it, how early parenting...have you looked at how the natural world affects the architecture of the brain in early development? And they would look at me with this blank look on their face and say, 'What do you mean, 'nature'?' I would say to the neuroscientists, well, this isn't brain surgery, come up with something; 150 trees per acre, I don't know, but shouldn't you be testing how the natural world affects the development of young children?

And the irony was they were creating in the lab what they considered natural conditions. They were testing animals and what stressed them out and the effect of that, and they would put animals in one environment that's highly stressful and then in another environment that the scientists considered natural. So they were already doing it but only in a lab and only on lab animals. The leap to think beyond the box, to think about the natural world itself, to me that's the problem. That's why there's not nearly enough research on this issue, and it has to do, I think, with who funds the research, and in the US you have a lot of people who have their own interests in mind in terms of selling pharmaceuticals et cetera. I'm not against pharmaceuticals but...you know, we have to wonder why there has been this huge gap in the research. We study how everything else affects child development but we haven't really studied how the natural world does very much at all.

Natasha Mitchell: Though that is changing to an extent, isn't it?

Richard Louv: Yes, it is. In the last decade there have been a number of researchers, like Frances Kuo at the University of Illinois and others who have done great research. Some of that research, by the way, is being done in Australia, research, for instance, correlating myopia, near-sightedness, with how many hours kids spend indoors looking at screens.

Natasha Mitchell: I've featured that on the show, as well as Frances Kuo's work.

Richard Louv: Frances and others at the University of Illinois have done work on attention deficit disorder and found that just a little bit of time in nature, a walk through trees, a view from their room of nature rather than a man-made environment will reduce the symptoms of attention deficit disorder. And there's much more going on in terms of the research, finally.

Natasha Mitchell: It makes it provocative that at the very time that the diagnosis of attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder has been on the rise in an exponentially dramatic way, you came up with a provocative term, 'nature deficit disorder'. Obviously you saw a sort of correlation there.

Richard Louv: And people knew exactly what it was when they heard it. The phrase is corny but it proved to be very powerful.

Natasha Mitchell: I guess to push the point home, at one point you said that the woods of your childhood were the Ritalin of your childhood.

Richard Louv: Yes, the woods were my Ritalin. And that's true. I'm sure that I would have been placed on some kind of stimulants like Ritalin or something else as a child. I was the kid that sat in the back of the room and daydreamed watching the trees move, and I was the one that was too active in class and had to move around a lot, and I was also the kid that went down and found snakes underneath the hedge at the school and really came alive when I was outdoors in nature.

I can tell you that over the last few years, moving now internationally, I cannot tell you how many parents and teachers have come up to me and said that Johnny and Judy are different kids when you get them into nature. And oftentimes the teachers will say the troublemakers in class become the leaders in a natural setting, and I've heard that over and over. That's anecdotal, but the research would certainly indicate that that's based on a reality that's out there.

I'm not against pharmaceuticals, I'm not a radical on Ritalin, some kids need medication. But in the US, in some schools 40% of the boys are on Ritalin. What are we thinking? What are we doing? Surely that may have something...at least some of those instances may have something to do with the fact that we took nature away from them in the first place.

Natasha Mitchell: Give some behavioural dimensions to nature deficit disorder. It's a metaphor, it's not a...but it could be, if we think about the diagnostic bible that psychiatrists use, I could see nature deficit disorder turning up in the appendices at some point. But give us some behavioural dimensions.

Richard Louv: I don't know if it will turn up in the canon...

Natasha Mitchell: So much else does.

Richard Louv: ...and in some ways I'm not even sure that would be a good idea, strangely enough, because it really is more of a metaphor. I think of it actually as more of a disorder to society than any one child. But I think what it means is what price do we pay as organisms when we are distanced from nature, when we are alienated from nature. I think this goes very, very deep, it's not just a matter of some behavioural tics, it is who we are, it is part of our humanity. EO Wilson at Harvard talks about his 'biophilia' hypothesis. That hypothesis is that we are hard-wired to be emotionally attached to nature, and that when we don't get it we don't do so well.

Natasha Mitchell: A controversial hypothesis but provocative and evocative.

Richard Louv: You know, it went through a period of controversy, it's not that controversial now. I think we all know that biologically we're all still hunters and gatherers, we've not changed biologically that much, and some of this just has to be common sense. I make the argument that...I'm impressed with some of the science that has surfaced on this issue, we absolutely need more research on this.

On the other hand, not every argument is made entirely based on science. Some arguments have to be moral arguments, and those come from deep down inside us. We know what is right at some level. You know, if we'd waited for 1,000 studies to be done on civil rights there would not have been a civil rights movement. Some of the science can be pointed in the direction you want it to be pointed to too, and it was, on race, for instance, but deep down we knew what was right. And I think deep down we know we need the natural world, not just as a source of energy to power our cars but as a source of energy for ourselves, our brains, our souls, our very beings, that we have a right to that part of our humanity.

Natasha Mitchell: I was interested to read that DH Lawrence talked about the mind in nature. It contrasted between what he described as a 'know it all' state of mind outside of nature and something different happening to the mind that interacts with the natural world. What did he mean by the 'know it all' state of mind? I think that's really interesting.

Richard Louv: Yes, I love that passage. He was writing about his experience of New Mexico. I had actually a park ranger tell me about the four corners of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Nevada, that nowhere on Earth or in few places on Earth was so much of the past so close to the surface. And the 'know it all' state of mind just assumes we've seen it all. You know, when we travel, 'been there, done that'. And what he was saying is that we can be fooled, we can fool ourselves into that belief, but underneath the surface of wherever we go are larger stories. I think that when you're in a natural environment you feel that more than anyplace else. I feel that natural history should be as important to a regions identity as human history, and that our sense of meaning and purpose and connection and place comes from natural history, not just human history.

Natasha Mitchell: Which makes it interesting that you describe the 'know it all' state of mind that DH Lawrence gives us as a vulnerable state of mind.

Richard Louv: I used that in the context of kids. Teenagers, kids, go everywhere now and they think they know it all, it's the 'know it all' state of mind. I certainly had that at that age, it's a natural time that you go through. But to some extent our culture is stuck in the 'know it all' state of mind, our culture is stuck itself in a condition that really belongs to adolescents, and I think it's in large part because of this alienation from the natural world.

Natasha Mitchell: What, then, do you think is at the heart of that alienation? Because it's all happened very fast. In my lifetime, and I'm a gen-Xer, I had free form and free range of my neighbourhood, and there were pockets of bush and wilderness in the city. So what has driven that alienation?

Richard Louv: There are several reasons. One is urban design. Kids get lectured all the time to get away from the tube, and in so many cities, so many suburbs, where are you going to walk? So many of the new developments in the US, and I assume it's true in Australia, there isn't anyplace, it's one house after another house after another house, with yards the approximate size and utility of grave plots. So partly it's urban design.

Partly it is our feeling as parents (almost a fetish) that we need to enrich every moment of our kids' lives. And that's well-meaning, I certainly felt that as a father. But we have forgotten that nature itself, particularly independent play in nature, is enriching, perhaps the most enriching thing we can do. Suzuki violin lessons can come later but you need that independent play.

Natasha Mitchell: You also point to a more psychological phenomenon, not just a material phenomenon, and that is fear, a kind of core essential fear that's come within the life of a generation.

Richard Louv: That's the number one thing that parents talk about, that they are scared to death of stranger danger. What's interesting is when you look at the statistics you'll find that the actual number of child abductions by strangers has been going down, at least in the United States, for two or three decades. What's been going up has been the amount of coverage on 24-hour news channels of a handful of terrible crimes against children that get repeated again and again, and that's the very definition of conditioning.

I'm not saying there's no danger outside your front door, or even no danger in nature, that's one of the attractions of nature actually. I am saying that we need to think in terms of comparative risk. Yes, there's a little danger out there but there is a huge danger from child obesity. Paediatricians are now saying that this generation may be the first in our history to have a lower life expectancy than their own parents. That's a huge risk, a risk to their psychological health, a risk to their sense of community, perhaps even a risk to democracy. Believe it or not, to develop a sense of community you have to go out the front door and know your community, and nature is part of that community.

Natasha Mitchell: But there's also fear of nature. A point that you make, which is slightly paradoxical, is that the rise in environmental education and this generation's awareness of global environmental issues has perhaps compounded that kind of estrangement from nature.

Richard Louv: Certainly I hear from folks who have camps et cetera, kids come on school buses for field trips, they tell me that over and over again the kids get off the school bus and they're terrified to get off the sidewalk, terrified of the lions and tigers and bears. They really believe there are lions out there. In the mountains of San Diego there are, but...but there's another kind of fear though. Glenn Albrecht in Perth has come up with a phrase for that, 'solastalgia', which is a kind of deep homesickness for nature itself. We miss it at some deep level, and the fear of that loss of that nature is always there. There's another phrase for that that David Sobel at Antioch in the US uses, 'ecophobia', that's the fear of environmental destruction. Sobel makes the point that we are programming our kids way too early to believe that the Earth is over, that nature is at an end, because...

Natasha Mitchell: Well, kids are carrying a sort of sense of impending doom into their future.

Richard Louv: And there's nothing wrong later with talking about those things, but in their formative years...these children haven't even had a chance to go out and have that sense of joy and wonder and just playing in nature, just digging a hole in the backyard just for the fun of it, or finding a turtle. Those kinds of experiences, they're having less of those and they're being told more and more at the same time that nature is dying. So if we do that too much too early, for the rest of their lives they associate nature with what? With fear and destruction and the end. That's not exactly going to produce good conversationalists and environmentalists in the future, it's not going to create really happy people in the future either.

We're missing two-thirds of the story, and the two-thirds of the story that we're missing is that, because of those great changes, because of climate change et cetera, everything in the next 40 years must change. To any self-respecting creative 16-year-old, that could be good news, and we better be entering one of the most creative times in human history. That's exciting.

Natasha Mitchell: You're appealing to the collective imagination there. If we come back to the individual, you make the interesting point that in fact we can increase the safety of our children if we let them out the door, if we let them into nature. Just unravel that for me. What is it that increases their safety in terms of their own psychological development?

Richard Louv: First that's a section in the book where I say upfront that it's not based on any research. There should have been some research on this but there hasn't been. It based on what I heard from parents and from kids themselves, and my own experience...

Natasha Mitchell: And, not to underestimate, you've done an awful lot of interviews with an awful lot of children and parents across America and beyond now.

Richard Louv: Yes. Other than a New York subway, when else do you use all of your senses at the same time as when you're in nature? Again, when we're sitting in front of screens all the time we're not using all of our senses at the same time, therefore we're not developing them to the full extent. So one of the basic things about being safe anywhere is to know what's going on around you, to sense it. Scientists aren't talking about the six senses anymore, there are at least 30 of them.

My son and I were fishing in Alaska going up a stream on Kodiak with a wonderful guide, and he taught us how to smell for bears. When you're there, what you need to do is make a lot of noise. You don't want to surprise these big brown grizzly bears, you don't want to surprise them, so you sing for bears, you talk, you rattle your bell that you hang on your vest et cetera. But then he told us how to smell. Once you smell this particular smell, which is a rotting salmon, because they like to roll in it, and bear musk, you don't forget it.

If you smell that on one of those overgrown streams, that means one of two things; either a bear is right there in the bushes next to you, or the bear has been there and has just left. It's informative to be able to have that sense. And what do you do when you smell bears? You sing for bears, you make more noise. That's kind of maybe an exaggerated explanation of why I think we need to let kids develop all of their senses in nature. Small risks now for a child can avoid big unnecessary risks later.

Natasha Mitchell: And build their self-confidence. And I guess it appeals to...nearly 30 years ago now Howard Gardner came up with the idea of multiple intelligences to give the fullness of the dimensions of our intelligence rather than a 'you beaut' standard IQ test. He's more recently added another dimension to his growing list and that is an eighth intelligence which he describes as a naturalistic intelligence. What is that?

Richard Louv: I think it's what we've been talking about, but it's a little tricky. One thing is that Gardner himself says is that he never has been able to devote the kind of research to the eighth intelligence, which is the nature intelligence, as he did the others. He'd like to but he hasn't been able to. The other problem with that is that that suggests that it's a separate intelligence that only some people have, when in fact as biological organisms we all have that intelligence. Whether it's surfaced enough, some people have it more than others, but certainly it's there.

Natasha Mitchell: Just getting to the heart of the mind in nature, there's an idea called loose parts theory in relation to children's play. What is that and what does it add to their psychological experience of the world?

Richard Louv: The loose parts theory in play theory is that the more loose parts there are in an environment, the more creative the play is, which makes common sense. Kids like to manipulate things, so when there's a lot of loose parts lying around...you could make the argument that a computer game has a lot of loose parts, you're moving things around on the screen, but the problem with that environment is that it only goes so far. That environment was created by a couple of programmers who had way too much caffeine and been up night after night and eaten a lot of pizza and their view of the world is going to be somewhat limited, both by the technology and the fact that no matter who makes the environment, it is limited by human limitations. But when you go into a natural environment, that's where the most loose parts are. When you see a tree, when you see the life forms that are in the dirt right below the surface, it's everywhere. So that kind of environment is a creative environment for children.

Natasha Mitchell: Sticks, stones, things they can throw at each other.

Richard Louv: Right. And we make attempts to recreate that environment, and play space designers, for instance...loose parts theory, they're trying to do more with that by putting big plastic boxes that kids can move around et cetera in some of the new playgrounds. That's good, but what if more and more of the play spaces were natural and had the loose parts of nature involved. And even in urban places that can be done now, there are a lot of new approaches to this that can make those places quite hardy.

Natasha Mitchell: But at the heart of your argument there's a regulatory and legal argument as well because we've kind of legislated and regulated loose parts out of the world, and you've come up over your years of research and engagement with communities with some extraordinary examples of how we've been doing that.

Richard Louv: Yes, and I don't know how much this is happening in Australia, I suspect it is, but in the newer housing developments...almost all housing developments built in the last 34 years in the US are governed by CC&Rs, 'Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions', they have private governments called community associations or neighbourhood associations that really control people's lives in way that we would never allow public government to do. What colour you can paint your house, your curtain liner colour, whether or not you can plant a vegetable garden in the front yard. No, sorry, it's not in the CC&Rs.

One woman that I met said that her community association recently outlawed chalk drawing on the sidewalks, which apparently leads to cocaine addiction, I'm not sure. I made that last part up. But these ridiculous constraints on people...just try to put up a basketball hoop in some of these neighbourhoods let alone let the kids build a fort or a tree house. Some of that comes from just the mania for control because we have a fearful society, certainly in the US, so people feel they have to control everything. Another place that comes from, though, is just the fear of...in addition to the fear of strangers is the fear of strange lawyers, litigation, the litigious society. Everybody is afraid of getting sued for anything.

Natasha Mitchell: More so in America but that's changing here too, I suspect.

Richard Louv: That's what I hear, yes, be careful.

Natasha Mitchell: What gives you reason for optimism? Because out of this book came the Children and Nature Network which is now epic, it sounds like, across the States. What gives you hope and what is the Children and Nature Network doing?

Richard Louv: Well, first, a lot is happening. The Children and Nature Network is a non-profit that was created out of the book to extend the work of the book. So many people were coming forward and saying that they wanted to do something in their communities, so we figured there needed to be a clearinghouse of ideas and a map to show what everybody is doing, and the latest news, and there wasn't anyplace like that on the web. So we created that, in addition to bringing people face-to-face.

There are now over 71 regional campaigns, and by 'regional' I mean it can be a whole city, it can be a whole state, it can be provincial in Canada. And these major campaigns are bringing together people who normally might not want to be in the same room; conservatives, liberals, it doesn't seem to matter, they all want to tell me about the tree house they had when they were kids. So this really transcends some of the political and religious barriers in the US. And so that's happening, and then there are these major campaigns.

In addition to that, government has made changes, the new secretary of the interior is creating a youth conservation corps to try to get young people engaged. There's now a bill in Congress called the No Child Left Inside bill which is designed to encouraged environmental education and perhaps even get some of those kids outside the school. Governors have reinstated state parks et cetera, and a lot of this has come in because people really don't want to be in the last generation where it was considered normal and expected to encourage kids to go out and built a fort in the woods or dig a hole and get their hands dirty and their feet wet. That really is happening. It's happening in Australia too. I know that in Western Australia in Perth they're going to start a big network there. And I want to be clear here that people were working on this decades ago, and the book has been a useful tool but in no sense is it the reason for this, it's just a perfect storm, in a sense, the time that we know what we need to do.

Natasha Mitchell: But how much of this is harking back to our own nostalgia about our own youth? Certainly perhaps every generation has felt that their childhood was more free or more...maybe it's a Baby Boomer thing...with a certain nostalgia of freedom about that period between the wars, or after World War Two I should say.

Richard Louv: I'll plead guilty to romanticising certain parts of my childhood, that tree house was pretty neat. But, when you think about it, for all of human history and prehistory, children went outside and either played or worked in nature for all of their developing years. That has been changing radically just within the last three decades. You can make the case that industrial revolutions certainly had an effect and the invention of agriculture certainly had an effect and this began a long time ago, but for the last three decades that pace of change has been much faster. So I don't think it's an exercise in nostalgia when you think that 99% or more of our history and prehistory as a species has been spent outside, particularly children, and that's how they learn.

Natasha Mitchell: Yes, spent outside, but you were lucky to survive your childhood.

Richard Louv: Yes, and nobody is pretending that nature is nice all the time. It would be better not to die of frostbite, sure, and there was a downside and there is a downside to nature. But I'm just saying, as organisms...you know, you can't rush evolution that fast. There has to be some implications in terms of psychological health, physical health and even spiritual health when you change that quickly the environment in which people live.

Natasha Mitchell: Parents and people without children are sort of bereft as to know where to start with their lives often. They're caught up in the chaos of modern working life and they don't know where to start. You've done a lot of hard work gathering stories of where people start to make some changes in their world and in their lives and in their children's lives.

Richard Louv: Well, all of us have to do that. I struggle with that, I'm on aeroplanes way too much and I have to force myself to get outside and go for a hike or go fishing or something. I have nature deficit disorder. So it starts with just the acknowledgment that if I go too long without an experience in nature, I don't feel good. I mean, you can just feel that. So you had to force yourself to do it, just like your kids. But there are new ways to do this. I'm not pretending we're going to go back to the 1950s anytime soon, when you told your kids to go outside and not come back inside until the streetlights come on. That's probably not going to return in many neighbourhoods.

Natasha Mitchell: No, but we do need to shift that profound anxiety, don't we, that parents have about having their children out of their sight.

Richard Louv: Yes. Let me give you just one example of what parents themselves have come up with. A couple of years ago I got an email from a father and second grade teacher in Roanoke, Virginia, who had read Last Child in the Woods and some other material, and he and his wife had decided to get their kids outdoors on weekends. So they started going to the park or doing stream reclamation actually, and a number of other things, going on hikes with their kids. One day his five-year-old pulled on the dad's pant-leg and said, 'Dad, how come we're the only family having this much fun?' So the father and the mother started reaching out to other families, and before long they had a huge mailing list. Today they have over 400 families on their mailing list.

They created essentially what we call a family nature club where families band together and two, three, five families at a time say 'let's show up at the park on Saturday and go for a hike' or 'let's garden' or 'let's do stream reclamation', something together. What that does is several things. One is that it deals with the fear issue, because there is perceived safety in numbers.

Any kind of family can do that. Think how great that would be for single-parent families that have all kinds of logistical issues. Any kind of economic background of the family, any kind of neighbourhood, it could be inner city, it could be outer suburb, can do this kind of thing. And you don't have to wait for funding, you can do it yourself and you can do it now. And here's the neat thing. Adults who do that and many other types of new ways of getting their kids outdoors, they receive all the same benefits that their kids do; apparently a longer attention span, huge stress reduction, a revived sense of awe and wonder. So this is not a bitter pill, this is something that makes everybody happier and healthier and maybe even smarter...'

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please leave your comment here. Please note these stories are posted for information rather than for debate; if you wish to disagree with something posted, no problem, but since I post both things that I do and don't support, it would be appreciated if the criticism was about the issue.