Being in nature has positive effect on children's well-being, research shows

Kids don't get out much anymore

February 02, 2007|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,sun reporter

The idea that spending time in nature is critical to children's physical and psychological well-being has proved to be a powerful one since Richard Louv was among the first to articulate it more than 15 years ago.

Today, the concept that children suffer from "nature-deficit disorder" has launched 12 printings of Louv's book Last Child in the Woods, sparked numerous stories in the media, inspired a national Children & Nature Network and Web site, and sparked grass-roots "Leave No Child Inside" efforts that will soon reach 22 cities.

People "have this in the back of their minds," Louv said. "Where are those kids in the park? Where are the treehouses? This is something we've known as a culture almost subconsciously ... then people start talking about it."

Louv will share some of his insights during a talk Wednesday at Centennial High School in Ellicott City. He will appear as a guest of the Howard County Conservancy, which is working with 12 partners to sponsor the event.

Louv, a San Diego journalist and author of seven books, said that when he started compiling evidence about children's disconnect from nature, he knew he was onto a good story.

He first recognized the trend while researching a book, published in 1990, about the changing nature of American families. In interviews with about 2,000 families, he noticed repeated references to a lack of experiences with the outdoors.

Children and parents said it is not like past generations, when children spent unstructured time - often without adult supervision- exploring the woods, walking, fishing, examining bugs and making up games outdoors.

"Even the kids felt it," Louv said. "They compared their own lives to what they saw on television."

One chapter of his 1990 book focused on nature and childhood and was reprinted in magazines. The positive reception led Louv to write Last Child in the Woods, which brings together his anecdotal evidence and some of the scientific research that has begun to emerge in the past decade.

The research is still relatively new, but studies link time spent with nature with physical and psychological healing, mitigating attention deficit disorder, reducing childhood obesity and improving cognitive development.

The hope, Louv said, is that once parents understand that a lack of nature can be harmful to children, they will embrace outdoor play as a necessity and not a luxury.

In a cultural climate in which parents' fear of strangers or crime keeps them from allowing their children outdoors unsupervised, and where fear of lawsuits is forcing restrictions on playgrounds and parks, an effort is badly needed, Louv said.

People will need to embrace a paradox, he said. "In order for more children to have unorganized experiences in nature, we're probably going to have to organize a lot of them."

That message meshes with the goals of the Howard County Conservancy, said Maryann Alexander, a board member who suggested bringing Louv to speak.

"He's preaching the material that we want parents to hear, and encourages them to get their children outdoors," she said. "The conservancy would like to provide the safe place for children and parents to get outdoors together."

She added: "I think its terrific for us to have somebody like this come with national stature and a well-reviewed book. It reinforces what we're trying to do. It gives us some credibility.

John Quinn, coordinator of secondary science for the Howard County schools, believes Louv's message will also support efforts to increase environmental education.

Quinn is trying to get more schools to become "green schools" that use the environment as a focus for work in many subjects. He also coordinates activities to meet state requirements that students have meaningful experiences with the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

"The conservancy turned me on to Louv's book, which is a whole justification for why we should do environmental education," Quinn said. "We are really trying to raise the awareness level in Howard County of the need for kids to have more nature experiences and for us to be better stewards for the environment."

Meg Schumacher, the conservancy director, said she hopes that working with the school system, the county Department of Recreation and Parks, the Sierra Club and other groups on this event will help draw a broad audience and not just those who are already fans of the outdoors.

Howard County students and teachers can attend for free.

She said the focus is to get parents there "and get them interested in this idea. We want to make it as easy as possible for them to take the ball and run with it."

To that end, a printed list of suggestions for getting kids out into nature, a list of conservancy events and environmental exhibits will be available.

In the long run, Louv says, the goal is not just to help individual children, but to create future generations that care about nature and will work to conserve it.

Children today have a strong intellectual understanding of environmental issues because they learn about them in school, but many young people lack the personal connection and strong affinity for outdoor spaces, he said.

"This is really an issue that has deep political and social meaning to the Earth itself," Louv said.

Richard Louv will appear from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Centennial High School, 4300 Centennial Lane, Ellicott City. Tickets are $5 for children ages 4 to 10 and $10 for those older than 10. Howard County students and teachers may attend for free. Information: 410-465-8877, or

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