Photograph by John Johns

Act Naturally: The Benefits of Wet Hands and Muddy Feet

An Interview with Richard Louv

Once upon a time, not that long ago, children went out to play and didn’t come home until the streetlights came on. Not to get too sentimental about this bygone era, but there was something to be said for all of that unsupervised outdoors time spent catching bugs, sledding and climbing trees. Could there be a causal link between staying indoors and the reasons why—to quote the subtitle of Jean Twenge’s iGen—“Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood”?

How do we get today’s kids active and in tune with nature? And if the current generation of young parents missed out on personal experiences with nature, who will teach their children?

“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.”

— RICHARD LOUV

To find out, I caught up with Richard Louv, co-founder and chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, recipient of the Audubon Medal and author of 10 books, including “The Nature Principle: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age” (2011) and “Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life” (2016). Louv’s National Bestseller, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” (2005), sparked a national debate and an international movement to reconnect kids and nature. He coined the term nature-deficit disorder, influenced national policy and helped inspire campaigns in over 80 cities, states and provinces throughout North America. His tenth book, “Our Wild Calling: How Connecting with Animals Can Transform Our Lives–and Save Theirs,” is due out in November 2019.

In this interview, Louv discusses cultural changes, the dangers of “risk-free environments and the far-reaching benefits of wet hands and muddy feet.

Have American children ever been as alienated from nature as they are now?

Human beings have been moving more of their activities indoors since the invention of agriculture and, later, the Industrial Revolution, and through a continuing increase in urbanization. Social and technological changes in the past three decades have accelerated that change, not only in cities but in rural areas as well.

What kind of changes?

Poor design in neighborhoods, homes, schools, workplaces; media-amplified fear of strangers, and real dangers in some neighborhoods, including traffic and toxins; and fear of lawyers–in a litigious society, families, schools, communities play it safe, creating “risk-free environments” that create greater risks later. Also, the “criminalization” of natural play through social attitudes, community covenants and regulations, and good intentions.

Three Ways to Help Young Children Connect with Nature
  • Explore the universe together. 
In your child’s first months and years, and beyond, go to a park together, spread out a blanket, lie side by side for an hour or more; look up through moving leaves and branches at clouds or moon or stars. Bring water, milk and snacks. You may be there a long time.
  • To encourage independent play, meet up
with other families and friends.
 This may seem counterintuitive, but one way that parents can encourage kids to play in unstructured ways is to join other families outdoors. This makes it easier for parents to feel comfortable standing back and letting the kids play on their own. And children are more likely to forget the electronics and join with other kids in spontaneous play.
  • Build forts, dens and tree houses.
These activities help children with problem solving, creativity and planning. They increase the amount of sensory input that they experience, while igniting their imaginations.

What are the underlying cultural assumptions at work here?

Much of society no longer sees time spent in the natural world and independent, imaginary play as “enrichment.” Perhaps the main trend is that technology now dominates almost every aspect of our lives. Technology is not, in itself, the enemy, but our lack of balance is lethal. However, I should add that our culture may be changing. We’re seeing new appreciation for these issues among parents, educators, pediatricians, mayors, and others.

So is there a sliver of hope for those of us who see our kids glued to their smartphones on a beautiful day?

If children are given the opportunity to experience nature, even in simple ways, interaction and engagement follow quite naturally. But parents can sometimes push too hard. Nature time should never be seen by kids as a punishment for, say, spending too much time in the electronic world.

What strategies would you recommend to parents and caregivers?

Perhaps the best way to do this is by example. When parents rediscover their sense of wonder, so do most kids. One thing I should add here is that many parents tell me that the same kids who complained on the way to the camping trip often, later when they’re young adults, recall that camping trip as one of their fondest memories–which, as you might guess, causes mixed emotions in the parents! One thing to keep in mind: people seldom look back on their childhoods and recall the best day they ever spent watching TV.

What are the opportunities when it comes to toddlers?

There are countless opportunities for toddlers to connect with nature, which can be little to no cost, such as playing with sticks, leaves, dirt; sleeping under the stars with the family. 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? Some suggestions can be found in my book, Vitamin N.

How can we make sure that urban kids get exposed to nature and to animals? What are the best scalable solutions?

As of 2008, more people live in cities than in the countryside–in the whole world. This is a huge and largely unremarked moment in human history, and it means one of two things: either the human connection to nature will continue to disintegrate, or we’ll work to create a new kind of city, one with new kinds of workplaces and homes that actually connect people to nature, one in which cities become incubators of biodiversity.

Nearly one in five of U.S. children are obese, and nearly one in ten have been diagnosed with ADHD. How can we make sure that urban kids get exposed to nature and to animals? What are the best scalable solutions?

As of 2008, more people live in cities than in the countryside–in the whole world. This is a huge and largely unremarked moment in human history, and it means one of two things: either the human connection to nature will continue to disintegrate, or we’ll work to create a new kind of city, one with new kinds of workplaces and homes that actually connect people to nature, one in which cities become incubators of biodiversity.

Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life: Activities, Essays, Advice

Book cover of "Vitamin N"

“Both parents and teachers will find this book invaluable.” —Recommended, the National Science Teachers Association

Vitamin N” offers 500 dynamic, fun and interactive ways to engage with the natural world, plus resources and thought-provoking essays. There are creative projects and activities for every stage of life, from suggestions for calming infants through nature, building a nature vocabulary with toddlers and helping tweens become citizen scientists to finding nature-centered schools, medical professionals and even careers. Explore more for easy ways for the whole family to join nature clubs, volunteer to restore damaged habitats, and more.

How is that accomplished?

We all can create new natural habitats in and around our homes, schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, cities and suburbs, so that, even in inner cities, our children grow up in nature–not with it, but in it. We need to imagine a future in which our lives are as immersed in nature every day as much as they are in technology, and this includes a new kind of city that incorporates nature into every building and on every block–which serves to restore residents psychologically, physically, even spiritually. That vision requires advanced, even futuristic thinking.

Is there a connection between being in nature and academic performance? Is mental health the key?

Learning in nature has long been associated with better cognitive functioning. The reasons why are not entirely clear, but one correlation is that nature calms kids and helps them focus, increasing attention span. Also, without independent play, the critical cognitive skill called executive function is at risk. Executive function is a complex process, but at its core is the ability to exert self-control, to control and direct emotion and behavior.

More supportive research comes out almost weekly. The Children & Nature Network website has compiled a large body of studies, reports and publications that are available for viewing or downloading.

Your 10th book will be out in November, 2019. How does “Our Wild Calling, How Connecting with Animals Can Transform Our Lives — And Save Ours” build upon your previous work?

We have an outdated view of our relationship with other animals. How can our species, and each of us, move beyond our current approach, which has reduced our understanding of animals to scientific details and facts; removed us to a habitat separate from other creatures; contributed to an increasingly impersonal and ineffectual environmentalism; threatened the replacement of animal life by technology and robotics; and aggravated a growing epidemic of human loneliness?

What do you hope to achieve with “Our Wild Calling”?

It is meant to start a national conversation exploring how our encounters and relationships with other animals influence our mental and physical health, touch our souls, help us find a path back to the warmth of human kinship and community, and strengthen our resolve to protect other species.


Further reading and watching:

Mark Swartz
Mark Swartz

Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. He lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.

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