Dear Concerned Citizen,

tothesource You talk about “nature-deficit disorder.” What’s that? 

Richard Louv: Nature-deficit disorder is a term I use to describe the human costs of alienation from nature. Among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses. I don’t suggest that nature-deficit disorder represents a medical diagnosis, but the descriptive quality of the phrase helps us get a handle on what children lose when they lose direct contact with the outdoors. It’s not overstating the case to say nature-deficit disorder also affects adults, neighborhoods, whole communities, and the future of humankind’s relationship to nature. The term offers people a useful way to describe in just a few words what so many are experiencing.

tts: Early in the book, you quote a fourth-grader who says, “I like to play indoors better ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” Does that describe childhood today?

Louv: To a large degree, yes, and increasingly so. This book describes the growing gap between children and nature, and its destructive implications. Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is quickly fading. At no other time in our history have children been so separated from direct experience in nature.

Last Child in the Woods also reports some good news. Studies conducted within the past five to ten years indicate that nature can be a powerful antidote to such maladies as depression, obesity and attention-deficit disorder — problems associated with alienation from nature. We also know that experience in nature can increase a child’s (and an adult’s) powers of concentration. In addition, anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that creativity and spiritual development are stimulated by childhood experiences in nature. Everyone who lives with or works with children needs to know about these researchers’ studies, about the growing deficit of nature experience, and the implications for our society as a whole.

tts: What are the top reasons why kids no longer connect with the outdoors?

Louv: Many parents are directly or instinctively aware of the change, and they sense its importance. They typically cite a number of everyday reasons why their children spend less time in nature than they themselves did, including competition from television and computers, more homework and other time pressures, and lack of access to natural areas. And fear plays a part in this — fear of traffic, of crime, of stranger-danger, of nature itself. As a result, the boundaries of children’s lives grow ever tighter. A 1991 study of three generations of nine-year-olds found that between 1970 and 1990, the radius around the home where children were allowed to roam had shrunk to one-ninth of what it had been in 1970.

Good parents are doing their best, but information about the value of nature experience to child development has not been widely available. Indeed, there are many parents out there who have deliberately or intuitively exposed their kids to nature, but without the proof of how important that is. I hope Last Child in the Woods will make them feel very good about what they did or what they’re doing. But the wider societal message often unwittingly teaches children to avoid nature.

tts: You talk about the Bogeyman syndrome — that fear of strangers is the chief reason parents don’t let their kids play outside. You also suggest media have greatly exaggerated the risk of stranger danger. But parents want their children to be safe…

Louv: Of course they do. As a parent,
I feel that way about my boys, as well. There are perils in this world, but they can be surmounted. And there are more certain dangers if nature is removed — threats to our children’s physical, emotional and spiritual health; to the full development of their senses; to their appreciation of beauty and their nascent imaginations; to their understanding of their place in the universe. Last Child in the Woods, by the way, recommends several ways families can sensibly reduce the fear that interferes with children’s involvement in nature.

tts: You note that places of worship could potentially be more important than schools in connecting the young with the natural world. What role might the church play in the child-nature reunion?

Louv: Parent education and encouragement is key. One of the most important gifts a parent can give a child is his or her own infectious enthusiasm for the outdoors. Consider offering an adult class focused on skill building. One barrier often mentioned by parents who want to “get it right”, is that they don’t know even the basics of things like fishing or how to cook on a propane stove. Do some demonstrations and let people practice and then organize a camp out where more experienced people can coach others with less experience. This would also make it more likely children of single parents get opportunities for camping and hiking that are more difficult to achieve for one parent families. “Discovery Walks” could be organized for small groups to explore the natural areas surrounding or embedded in their communities with children. In addition, many churches offer vacation Bible school experiences that emphasize the wonder of the created world and family camps that foster time spent together exploring natural settings.