Welcome to our Q&A with the experts. For August, the topic is children and nature and we spoke with Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. A former columnist for The San Diego-Union Tribune, Rich is founding chair of the Children & Nature Network and recipient of the Audubon Medal. His most recent book is The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder. We asked him:
Q. As we enjoy these long summer days, what are some easy ways to include a taste of nature?
First, think simple. Or simply, if you want to be grammatically correct. Did you know that the cardboard box and the stick have been inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame?
A few summers ago, Norman McGee, told me he had figured out that a truckload of dirt is the same price as a video game. So he bought a small pickup-load of dirt for his daughter and friends. As McGee’s photo shows, the dirt was a great success.
Up the road in North Carolina, Liz Baird (who started the Take a Child Outside Week campaign) recalled how, when she was a little girl, she would fill her pockets with acorns, rocks, mushrooms and other unrecognizable items. “My Mom got tired of washing clothes and finding these treasures in the bottom of the washer or disintegrated through the dryer,” Liz recalls. “So she came up with ‘Liz’s Wonder Bowl,’ and the idea was that I could empty my pockets into the bowl.” So Liz does the same today for her daughter.
Q. Other ideas?
Put a birdbath in your back yard. Replace part of your lawn with native plants. Build a bat house. For backyard suggestions, plus links to information about attracting wildlife to apartments and townhouses, see the National Audubon Society’s Invitation to a Healthy Yard. You can encourage your kids to build a tree house, fort or hut. But don’t do it for them. You can provide the raw materials, including sticks, boards, blankets, boxes, ropes and nails, but it’s best if kids are the architects and builders. The older the kids, the more complex the construction can be. For understanding and inspiration, read Children’s Special Places, by David Sobel. Also, suggest camping in the backyard. Buy them a tent or help them make a canvas tepee, and leave it up all summer. Join the National Wildlife Federation’s Great American Backyard Campout.
Q. But parents are fearful of strangers, and even nature, these days. How do we cope with that?
First, much of that fear is created by news and entertainment media and, while real dangers from strangers do exist, there are far fewer stranger crimes than we tend to think. One thing you can do is start a family nature club. Download the Children & Nature Network’s free guide to creating a group of like-minded families, who want to get their kids outside, but need the support of others to help make that happen and help us feel safe. This is a new form of social networking. The Family Nature Guide is now available in Spanish, too.
Q. OK, but what about parent stress? Don’t we already have enough to do?
Once parents know the benefits to their own and their children’s mental and physical health and thinking skills, many will want to give the gift of nature to their children and themselves. All the health benefits that come to a child come to the adult who takes that child into nature. Children feel better after spending time in the natural world, even if it’s in their own backyard. So do adults, who can also have Nature-Deficit Disorder. More than 100 studies show significant reduction of stress when people are exposed to natural surroundings and most of those studies were of adults.
Q. Your new book suggests “the more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we need.” Are you anti-technology?
No. In fact, in the book, I suggest a number of potential new products and jobs that could be used by what I call “techno-naturalists.” But “The Nature Principle” does argue for a new balance, so that we can experience the best of technology and nature in our lives. The ultimate multitasking is to live simultaneously in both the digital and the physical world, using computers to maximize our powers to process intellectual data, and natural environments to ignite all of our senses and accelerate our ability to learn and to feel; in this way, we would combine the resurfaced “primitive” powers of our ancestors with the digital speed of our teenagers. What I call the high-performance human will incorporate the best qualities of a high-tech world and the health and different intellectual advantages that come from the natural world. Spending time outside in the summer is one way to build the hybrid mind, or part of it.