5 questions: Does your child have nature-deficit disorder?

Can your child identify a cardinal? A holly tree? Queen Anne’s lace?

If not, “nature-deficit disorder” might be the diagnosis.

It’s not life-threatening, by any means. But it can be quality-of-life threatening.

Research showing the mental and physical health benefits of being out in nature is mounting. One of the gurus of an international movement to get children back outside — away from their couches and screens   – is Richard Louv.  In 2006, he co-founded the Children & Nature Network, a nonprofit aimed at reconnecting families and nature.

Louv, who lives in San Diego and has written several books about the subject, was in the area recently, giving talks for the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership, the Alliance for Watershed Education in Lambertville, and Lafayette College in Easton.

Julie Slavet, executive director of the TTF Watershed Partnership, said Louv’s message is vital. “Our focus is water. Our focus is improving our watershed and creeks.“ For that, they need to connect people to the water so they can be good stewards.

“One of the things we know is that getting people next to a water body and getting people to see a bird in that habitat, people get excited about that,” she said. “And then it lets us take it to the next conversation – do you know that runoff is the biggest sources of water pollution? That if you drop a chip bag on the street it goes into a storm drain and ends up in the creek?”

Many think that to see nature, they have to go to Yosemite National Park, she said. Not so.

“We live in a gritty city,” Slavet said. “But the trees on your street are nature.”’

After Louv’s talk, her group plans to explore more ways to engage with kids and get them to Tacony Creek Park, a corner of quiet – except for the birdsong, rustling trees and burbling creek – in a populous neighborhood.  “We see kids who are in tough neighborhoods with a lot of challenges. We know that our park provides quiet,” she said. “If you can get a kid interested in trees or science, that’s really a gift.”

We recently asked Louv to discuss his message.

Camera icon Eric B. Dynowski
Richard Louv, co-founder of Children & Nature Network, a nonprofit aimed at reconnecting families and nature.

The book that started it all, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature- Deficit Disorder,” was published in 2005.  What prompted you to write it?

In the course of researching my 1990 book, “Childhood’s Future,” I interviewed nearly 3,000 children and parents across the United States, in urban, suburban and rural areas. To my surprise, in classrooms and family homes, the topic of children’s relationships with nature often surfaced. Even then, parents and others were reporting a divide between the young and the natural world, and the social, spiritual, psychological and environmental implications of this change. But at that point, there was little research. Later, it started coming in and has accelerated, even as the gap between children and nature has grown.

Thirteen years later, where are we?

The barriers between people and nature remain challenging. But we’re seeing some change. In the U.S. we’re beginning to see progress among state legislatures, schools and businesses, civic organizations and government agencies. Family nature clubs (multiple families that agree to show up for a hike on Saturday, say) are proliferating. Regional campaigns are bringing people from across political, religious and economic divides, to connect children to nature.

In September 2012, the World Congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature passed a resolution titled “The Child’s Right to Connect with Nature and to a Healthy Environment.” This connection is, indeed, a human right. And the acknowledgement of that is progress.

As research on the value of being in nature mounts, can you discuss any recent studies that seem especially important?

It’s hard to choose the most compelling studies. The research indicates that experiences in the natural world appear to offer great benefits to psychological and physical health, for children and adults. The studies strongly suggest that time in nature can help many children learn to build confidence in themselves; reduce the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, calm them and help them focus. There are some indications that natural play spaces can reduce bullying.

Schools with natural play spaces and nature learning areas appear to help children do better academically. A six-year study of 905 public elementary schools in Massachusetts reported higher scores on standardized testing in schools that incorporated more nature.

Time spent in nature is obviously not a cure-all, but it can be an enormous help, especially for kids and adults who are stressed by circumstances beyond their control. There are many other benefits, and more supportive research comes out almost weekly. The Children & Nature Network has compiled much of it at childrenandnature.org/documents/C118.

What do you think of efforts such as Philadelphia’s to have pediatricians “prescribe” nature experiences for children?

It’s terrific! Many pediatricians are overwhelmed by seeing so many children with morbidities that were far less prevalent a couple decades ago. There is no precise prescription.  I’m skeptical about defining a specific amount of time and specific environment. There are too many variables among people and places. It need not be complex, but some experience in nature is better than none, and more is better than some.

Philadelphia is the first city for so many things.  You’ve already got this great park system.  What if you worked toward five goals chosen by the city? For example, the number of new trails, number of pediatricians who prescribe nature, number of family nature clubs, number of nature centers, number of schools that have learning taking place outdoors, number of school gardens? What if Philadelphia were to become the best city for  “children of all species,” as Craig Johnson, a nature educator who attended the Philadelphia event, has put it. It’s a wonderful phrase.  That, to me, is the definition of a great city.

Then, when you meet those goals, throw a party and declare Philadelphia America’s best city for families and nature.  Give yourself an award and make it part of your marketing DNA.  If some other city’s mayor objects to that claim, great. Let’s see a national competition for the title.

Your most recent book, “Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life,” explores 500 ways to combat nature-deficit disorder.  Could you share a few?

Put nature on the calendar. Make getting outside in a natural area an intentional act – a healthful habit, if you will – that becomes part of your life. Connecting with nature can be as simple as planning regular walks around a local park, or going on a picnic, or keeping a nature journal.

Pick a “sit spot.” Jon Young, one of the world’s preeminent nature educators, advises finding a special place in nature, whether it’s under a tree at the end of the yard, a hidden bend of a creek, or a rooftop garden. Visit it frequently, use all your senses to notice the life in that special place.

Start a family nature club. Going on nature adventures with other families helps kids feel less afraid, more confident – and more likely to get outside. A free toolkit is available at childrenandnature.org/initiatives/families.

Create nature where you live. We can transform our own yards, alleys and neighborhoods by planting native plants that can help bring back butterfly and bird migration routes.  We 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.

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