About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of eight books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" and "The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age." In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal.

NATURE’S NEURONS: Do Early Experiences in the Natural World Help Shape Children’s Brain Architecture?

What role do early childhood experiences in nearby nature play in the formation of brain architecture? It’s time for science to ask that question.

In January, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof reported on the American Academy of Pediatrics’ “landmark warning that toxic stress can harm children for life.” This was, he wrote, a “’policy statement’ from the premier association of pediatricians, based on two decades of scientific research,” and he added that the statement “has revolutionary implications for medicine and for how we can more effectively chip away at poverty and crime.”

Understanding the “plasticity” of the brain is a key to this relatively new approach. While genetics are responsible for the brain’s basic foundation, its architecture – structure and connections – can literally be shaped by factors outside the body.

From conception through early childhood, brain architecture is particularly malleable and influenced by environment and relationships with primary caregivers, including toxic stress caused by abuse or chronic neglect. By interfering with healthy brain development, such stress can undermine the cognitive skills and health of a child, leading to learning difficulty and behavior problems, as well as psychological and behavior problems, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other physical ailments later in life.

“We’re beginning to get a pretty compelling biological model of why kids who have experienced adversity have trouble learning,” according to Jack Shonkoff, a pediatrician and director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard. “You can modify behavior later, but you can’t rewire disrupted brain circuits,” he told Kristof. Does this mean that brain development stops at age three? No. Original circuits may be disrupted, but the brain does have a remarkable ability to create neural detours throughout a lifetime, especially during periodic windows of brain-development opportunity. So don’t write off teen-agers or the rest of us. Still, neuroscientists believe that it’s vastly better to get brain circuitry right the first time, during the first years of life.

To reduce toxic stress in early childhood, Shonkoff and others call for early intervention, including home visitation by childcare experts to vulnerable women pregnant for the first time. Kristof reports on one such program: “The nurse warns against smoking and alcohol and drug abuse, and later encourages breast-feeding and good nutrition, while coaxing mothers to cuddle their children and read to them. This program continues until the child is 2.” In addition, better urban design and public health and economic policies could relieve toxic stresses caused by excessive noise, pollution, traffic, the threat of crime, and unemployment.

Unfortunately, researchers have not focused on the impact a child’s attachment to the natural world may have on brain development. On related fronts, here’s what we do know.

A growing body of primarily correlative evidence suggests that, even in the densest urban neighborhoods, negative stress, obesity and other health problems are reduced and psychological and physical health improved when children and adults experience more nature in their everyday lives. These studies suggest that nearby nature can also stimulate learning abilities and reduce the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and we know that therapies using gardening or animal companions do improve psychological health. We also know that parks with the richest biodiversity appear to have a positive impact on psychological well-being and social bonding among humans.

While we can’t say with certainty that these influences play a direct role in early brain development, it’s fair to suggest that the presence of nature can soften the blow of toxic stress in early childhood and throughout our lives. It’s understandable that researchers have yet to explore the natural world’s impact on brain development because the topic itself is rather new. Also, scientists have a hard time coming up with an agreed-upon definition of nature – or of life itself.

Several years ago, I worked with the Center on the Developing Child, then associated with Brandeis University, to help with communications. When I would ask the neuroscientists how the natural world itself affects brain development, they in turn would ask, rhetorically, “How do you define nature?” Ironically, these same scientists were simulating more “natural” conditions for control groups of animal subjects in their labs. Defining nature may be a scientific stumbling block, but it shouldn’t be an insurmountable problem.

For all of human history and prehistory, experience in the natural world has helped shape our species, including our brains. That huge and ongoing influence cannot be ignored.

So here are a few questions to challenge neuroscientists and other researchers to explore these questions: What is nature’s role in reducing toxic stress early in life and improving parent-child attachment? Does disconnection from nature help cause toxic stress? What is already being done by people in vulnerable neighborhoods to create more naturally nurturing environments? Are proliferating community gardens, especially in urban neighborhoods, already having a positive impact on early childhood development, including brain development? And could one form of early intervention be to assure early, positive childhood experiences in the natural world?

It’s time for science to ask these questions, and more, about the shaping of young brains. Defining nature will be the easy part.

____________________________

Richard Louv is Chairman Emeritus of The Children and Nature Network and the author of “THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting with Life in a Digital Age” and “LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.”
Photo by R.L.

 

Further Reading and Resources
“A Poverty Solution that Starts with a Hug” by Nicholas D. Kristof, The New York Times
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  1. [...] NATURE’S NEURONS: Do Early Experiences in the Natural World Shape Children’s Brain Architecture?… Field Notes from the Future: Tracking the Movement to Connect People and Nature [...]

  2. Thank you Richard, for another inspiring blog. This is exactly what we work with in our early intervention programme Nature Nurture. We track each child’s development through the programme and record the impact nature, nurture and free play have on their health, wellbeing and resilience levels through an assessment tool we have developed called the Seven Building Blocks of resilience. We can’t do brain scans, but we can evidence huge changes that must be the result of neural development. We provide early and preventative intervention to children from18 months to 13 years of age. We would like to start a programme for vulnerable pregnant mothers and then continue with them and their infant during the first year of their infant’s life. Your work is a constant inspiration to us, thank you.

  3. Hannah says:

    Thank you for a thought-provoking read!
    Would it be at all possible for you to attach more specific references to some of the assertions you have made, please? I am studying Education, so being able to read further on particular points would be useful for me…
    I realise you probably have enough to do as it is(!), so will of course understand if you are unable to spend the time doing this. I will endeavour to read through your suggested further reading list in order to source direct references for your statements about what “We know…” etc.
    Regardless, thank you for sharing your ideas- I certainly see enough anecdotal proof of the points you make in my work in Early Childhood Education (in Melbourne, Australia.)
    Kind regards,
    Hannah.

  4. Hannah says:

    On second thoughts, I will read your books and seek the references through them… Thank you again, Hannah.

  5. At our school and Institute, headed by Geoffrey Bishop, we follow your work and writing closely, committed as we are to spread the vital connections between the healthy development of a child’s brain and Nature. Our program and classrooms follow the “bring outdoors indoors and take the indoors outdoors” philosophy. Not only have we found it extremely beneficial for typically developing children, but have found this has extraordinary impact for children who learn and interact differently. What has been most wonderful to witness is how unobtrusively Nature “works on” children – providing intervention like benefits quietly,deeply and in the manner that each child needs. Your work continually inspires us and we would be greatly honored if you visited with us when you are in the neighborhood!

  6. Richard Louv says:

    Hannah, an addendum or expansion of the books, in terms of resources, would be our C&NN research section, assembled primarily by Dr. Cheryl Charles, C&NN president & CEO. It’s here: http://www.childrenandnature.org/documents/C118/

  7. Fred L Farha says:

    Richard, my team and I were greatly inspired by your deep and well researched and written books about nature and children. In particular your “Last Child in the Woods”. I am pleased to mention that your authoritative writings on the essential beneficial role and impact of nature on children was indispensible for our understanding and appreciating the true value of physical activities especially in the outdoor. My team and I were seeking to find the root causes of the alarming spread of obesity that is not attributable to bad diet. Our aim is to structure sustainable solutions to increase and maintain family interest in outdoor community sport and recreation, to add fun and joy to physical activities, taking place very much in harmony with both human nature and nature itself.

    I am delighted to announce the end of more than seven months of intensive research and studies and the launching of Family Nature Parcs IncTM. The company is planning to start building the first of several Family Nature ParcsTM soon on a 138.44 acre parcel of land located in the beautiful old village of Ashton in the City of Ottawa, Ontario Canada. We will provide unparalleled, one-stop, state of the art multi sports, games, leisure, recreation and wellness, outdoor facilities, specially designed for male and female adults and for children of all ages, according to age group. For more details, please visit our website: http://www.familynatureparcs.com

    Richard, I would be very pleased if you will allow us to post some of your videos and writings on our website.

    Kind regards,

    Fred Farha
    Ottawa Ontario Canada

  8. Great post, Richard! If solid research about the value of free outdoor play and the costs to society of Nature Deficit Disorder is so hard to come by, the question that persists for me is why? What incentives do researchers need to get busy and do it?

  9. Richard Louv says:

    Good question, Jeffrey. I do think we have some good research (though we need more) on health and cognition benefits, but we have little to none on early childhood brain development. Part of the answer to your question is the funding stream for research, which is often focused on products that can be sold.

  10. Walker Korby says:

    Ah, the definition of Nature! I’ve always been firmly in the camp that everything is Nature so using it as a term is kind of a moot point. Differentiating some things as nature and some things not as nature I think perpetuates our disconnection to the fact that we as human beings are in fact part of the Natural World. That perspective however gives us quite the communications issue when we are trying to differentiate that intuitive difference between the morning glory growing outside my window and the wireless keyboard on my desk.

    For teaching purposes I like to talk about “human designed and non-human designed Nature” – tremendously unappealing terms, but they tend to get my point across. The terms call out the fact that we are necessarily human-centric in our perspectives of our world – How could we truly experience the world from the perspective of anything but ourselves? With that understanding it makes sense that things that move, grow, reproduce, or just otherwise exist without our influence, seem somehow different than things born from our own intellect.

    So the bottom line is when most people say that something is “nature” or “natural” it seems as though they are usually referring to an object, system or experience that appears to be primarily designed or created by forces initiated outside of the human mind. I know it sounds odd to define “nature” so human-centrically, but if we are going to bother having the term at all, then I think we must.

  11. Toni DeMarco says:

    Thank you for another great post! I am so happy to see the cross over of neurdevelopment and nature/horticultal interventions happening more and more. In my county Health system I am part of a training group that is studying with Dr. Bruce Perry(Child Trauma Academy), and learning his Neurosequencial Model of Therapeutics. His work, I believe, helps to give additional information to the question in your post about how nature can help off set the impact of toxic experience as an intervention that aids in neurological regulation and healing. He reqularly identifies sensory interventions like gardening, hiking, outside play, as important and therapeutic activities that often need to come with, if not before, other “traditional” therapies and medications. So my constant mantra here as a manager/supervisor has been and will continue to be..”prescribe Green Time before medication!”. Thank you for the work you are doing, I pass it along to other therapists and psychiatrists in my system all the time.

  12. The late night Charlie Rose Brain team, headed by Dr. Eric Kandel,
    has been presenting related research for weeks.

    Not just outside experiences but the whole of how children learn has been impacted by the findings.

    At Treetops-in-the-Forest, we have set up an entire area to be
    our QUADRIVIUM where children have opportunities to connect nature and the humanities in an exciting “life connections way”.

    One significant result is that “testing for memorized facts” must be replaced by experiences which build understanding of what and how
    those “facts” feel, and sound, and move, and connect our whole brains with the synapses that will greatly minimize the memory problems of
    older folk.

    The implications are tremendous! Thank you for drawing our attention
    to this highly significant awareness!

  13. Richard Louv says:

    Wonderful. It would be great to hear more.

  14. I found this post to be very interesting. It almost seems like common sense but I never really thought about the connection with Nature and the effect on our brains in the ways that you describe. Every day I learn something or at least try to and today I thank you.
    I look forward to following you on FB and Twitter to learn more.

  15. Richard Louv says:

    As with the prior post, it would be great to hear more about your program and Dr. Perry’s work, here. Thanks so much for the comment.

  16. Richard Louv says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Walker. You’re right, its too easy to see nature as the other. The definition is slippery, which is why we’ve mainly left that up to the poets. I understand that nature is literally…everything. I like your phrase “human designed and non-human designed nature.” My own way of identifying nature — or at least the kind of nature I have in mind — is: Nature is anywhere that multiple species are in meaningful relationship (and I sometimes represent one of those species). I realize that definition leaves out, say, rocks — or does it? In places that nourish biodiversity, one can usually find rocks and other inanimate objects that make for good habitat. The more biodiversity, the more nature.

  17. Walker Korby says:

    Yes, I think that necessarily everyone has their own criteria for what is “nature”. Since each person has their own sense of what “non-human dominated” is, there can be no universal litmus test as to how natural something is. But I think we can agree that the lens people look through when deciding if something is “nature”, is their perceived level of human involvement.

    In my quest to understand the complexities of how our culture effects our connection with the rest of nature, I’ve found the following question reveals some very interesting data for analysis:

    What is more natural, a round piece of sea glass originating from a broken beer bottle, or piece of obsidian polished in a rock tumbler?

    Each person’s answer can reveal the criteria they tend to use in determining what aspect of something needs to be affected by humans in order to be un-natural.

    So, for researchers trying to determine whether or not spending time in “nature” is beneficial, I imagine they must first understand the perspective of their subjects. I would propose that if a subject believes they are in a “natural” setting (meaning one that they are experiencing as being dominated by non-human designed objects, systems, or phenomena) then that is what matters. A child, playing in a pile of dirt in the back yard very well could be experiencing the same emotionally therapeutic effects of spending time in nature, as an adult climbing to the top of a mountain in the wilds of Montana.

    I would imagine any research methods would be similar to ones used to determine people’s level of happiness because it is all relative.

    Walker
    Montague, MA

  18. Richard Louv says:

    Walker, this is brilliant. Thanks.

  19. Toni DeMarco says:

    The first time I heard you speak was at Foothill College in California. I work for the San Mateo County Health System, and oversee a number of programs for youth and their families that are also involved in other county systems like Probation and Child Welfare, and our local Prenatal to Three program. So your post really resonated with the work that team does.

    Your writings have inspired me to continue to train our teams to include access to nature and unstructure outdoor play time into their mental health assessments, and to consider them in their treament interventions.

    Dr. Perry’s work really underscores this. His reserach, like many others you cited, focuses on recent brain science and looks at the impact of neglect and trauma to developing brain architecture and the subsequent behavioral/emotional struggles of many children who have been exposed. The recommendations which are generated from this functional assessment highlights the importance of somatisensory activities and interventions to support brain development, which help children learn to self-regulate and form emotional attachments, among many other things. As I mentioned before, activities like gardening, hiking, yoga, music movement, are important interventions.
    It is wonderful for me to see these two very important disciplines coming together.
    Toni
    San Mateo, CA

  20. Nancy Herron says:

    @Walker–thank you for your excellent “definition” of nature! All of us, but especially children, can get lost in imagination and exploration of small worlds. A pile of dirt–soil, actually–is a perfect example. Soils can teem with life; plus the fun of climbing, sliding, digging, building, discovering…all sorts of physical and mental developmental contributions.

    Rich, a thought-provoknig article and hopefully inspiring to researchers to study nature-base interventions in early childhood. Looking forward to learning more on the Harvard web site. Thank you!

  21. Sunny says:

    I would be very much interested to get the guidelines on how to form a positive character, help them protect from bad habits and so forth to our children from the grassroots. I am the resident of Addis Abeba- Ethiopia, my qualification is BA degree on science of Education, specializing on school pedagogy and social communication.

    Thanks

  22. [...] NATURE’S NEURONS: Do Early Experiences in the Natural World Help Shape Children’s Brain Architec… [...]

  23. [...] just bookmarked and read a speculative piece by Richard Louv, (Nature’s Neurons) who wonders aloud about the impact on young brains of growing up apart from the natural world. As [...]

  24. Kathy Chesney says:

    At my daughter’s school the word recess is replaced by the words outdoor time. Recess implies a break from work. Outdoor time is simply an extension of the learning day. Our education system needs to understand how important it is for children to spend time in the natural world! Thank you for your insights!

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