On Jan. 25, when Former First Lady Laura Bush gave the keynote address at a Texas summit on children and nature, she was “moved to tears,” according to the San Antonio Express-News, when she “talked about looking forward to spreading a blanket on the grass and pointing out constellations in the night sky to her grandchild.”
She was in San Antonio that day to help launch the statewide Natural Resource/Environmental Literacy Plan, developed by more than 30 organizations, including a nonprofit she started, Taking Care of Texas. In an op-ed that ran that morning in the San Antonio Express-News, and later in the Austin and Houston papers, she eloquently described the special places in nature of her own childhood.
“In Midland, my first playgrounds were vacant lots covered with mesquite trees,” she wrote. “In the summers, I would travel west, to visit my grandparents on the outskirts of El Paso, gazing out upon the Rio Grande River and the Franklin Mountains, surrounded by the searing desert light and heat, or take family trips to swim at Balmorhea or to the Gulf of Mexico at Galveston.” She wishes for similar experiences for her grandchildren and the children of others. She continued,
But increasingly, the Texas outdoors is being lost to our children… Nature and the natural world are like a foreign language to many of today’s kids, in Texas and around the nation…”
The Texas Children in Nature coalition helped shape the environmental literacy plan. They also helped plan the summit, which could be a pivotal moment for the state. No one knows how all of this will work out, especially in a state where 95 percent of land is owned privately. But getting so many disparate interest groups in one room is an excellent start and a good example for other regions.
Across the country, the cause of connecting children to nature has a peculiar, almost primal power to bring people together. When the topic of childhood and nature comes up, people — regardless of their political or religious views — invariably begin to talk about the tree house they had when they were a kid, about their own special place in the woods or fields or along a stream. A few years ago, I gave congressional testimony about this issue, in part to urge a No Child Left Inside approach to education. The congressmen at the table – conservative, liberal – talked quite naturally and movingly about their own special childhood places in nature, and how formative those places were.
In those moments, in that room, there were no Democrats or Republicans.
Nationally, members of both parties have taken action and continue to do so. Two Interior Secretaries – Dirk Kempthorne in the Bush years, and Ken Salazar in the Obama administration – have supported the cause, not just with talk, but with action. (Sally Jewell, who heads REI and was nominated today to become the new Interior Secretary, has worked for years to support our cause; she was instrumental in connecting both Dirk Kempthorne and Mrs. Bush to the issue of children and nature.) And of course First Lady Michelle Obama has introduced an array of initiatives to encourage gardening and outdoor activity.
Promoting the Let’s Move Outside campaign, administered by the Interior Department, Mrs. Obama said, “The great outdoors is America’s first and best playground.”
That playground, as the Let’s Move Outside Web site puts it, “helps kids maintain a healthy weight, boosts their immunity and bone health and lowers stress.”
Laura Bush would agree with that. In her op-ed, she wrote, “Unstructured, natural play helps stimulate creativity and improves problem solving. The more time spent outside, the better the achievement levels inside our state’s schools and classrooms.” But the issue “goes beyond achievement,” she adds. “If we do not instill a love of the natural world and its care in our children, who will care for Texas in the years to come?” She added, “We all, parents, educators, community leaders, and every Texas citizen, need to come together to find new ways to engage children with the natural environment.”
New ways, not nostalgia. We can agree on that.
Again and again, I’ve seen people from different creeds, economic backgrounds, and races enter a room, sit down at a table, and figure out ways to connect more children to nature. This issue can and does bring together environmentalists and developers (who perceive nature-focused development as a new market), religious conservatives and liberal humanists, community organizers and business leaders, park rangers and pediatricians. As the discussion evolves, these good people begin to look at education, health care, conservation, urban design and architecture in new and different ways. And they often discover innovative solutions.
This is not to say that the conversation and actions lead to agreement on every aspect. Far from it. But during a time when vilification trumps cooperation, or seems to — we need the opening power of this issue. For many, the opening starts where Laura Bush began, with stories of a distant childhood, and special places where we first sensed the largeness of the world, seen and unseen.
Richard Louv is chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network and author of THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age and LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.
Other reading and resources: