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.

HOW DO WE FIGHT NATURE-BLINDNESS?

Not long ago, from a vantage point on a high bluff above a shoreline, Carol Birrell watched a group of high school students as they hiked through a park that was bordered on one side by a bay of the blue Pacific and on the other by a subtropical ecosystem.

​Birrell, who teaches nature education at the Centre for Education Research, University of Western Sydney, described the scene: “All had their heads lowered and backs bent with eyes focused on their feet like blinkered horses.” The scene also reminded her of how children walk along fixated on their cell phone screens.

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Not more than 100 meters from the hikers, in the bay, a dolphin was slowly circled by three other dolphins. They were splashing loudly. And then it happened.

“A tiny vapor spout joining the group of larger spouts. A dolphin had given birth!”

​The students never saw it. They had walked right past this once-in-a lifetime event without looking up.

​Surely many other people on such an outing would have turned and looked. But in an increasingly distracting, virtual environment, many of us spend as much or more time blocking out our senses than using and growing them.

​“What are all of us missing out on when we rush through the bush, rush through life?” Birrell wonders.

​At least these students made it to the sea.

​In San Diego, where I live, Oceans Discovery Institute, a nature education organization, conducted an informal study of local inner-city children and found that approximately 90 percent of these children did not know how to swim, 95 percent had never been in a boat, and 34 percent had never been to the Pacific Ocean – less than 20 minutes away.

Among the similarities between Americans and Australians is a shared reputation for being an outdoors-oriented people. But Australians (who live in the world’s most urbanized nation), like Americans, are experiencing what I’ve called nature-deficit disorder. That’s not a medical diagnosis, but a metaphor.

  • ​In both countries, physical activity is decreasing and screen-based activity is increasing. The pace of that change increases as children get older, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. One in ten children today play outside once a week or less, and nearly one in four parents say their children have never climbed a tree, according to Australia’s Planet Ark.
  • ​In 2007-08 the ABS National Health Survey found that one-quarter of Australian children ages 5 to 17 years were either overweight or obese. This proportion has remained stable with updated results from the 2011-12 ABS Australian Health Survey.
  • In Sidney, researchers found that 12-year-olds with the highest levels of close-up work activity and lowest levels of outdoor activity were two to three times more likely than their peers to develop myopia.

​We also know more about the up-side of nature experience, specifically.

  • ​Research around the world indicates a correlation between time spent in nature with reduced symptoms of ADHD and depression, and improved mental cognition and creativity.
  • ​A study by Kathleen Bagot, a researcher at Monash University in Melbourne, suggests that the higher the level of vegetation around the school, the more highly children rate that environment as “restorative.”
  • ​Nature experiences can also build social capital. Researchers at the University of New South Wales found that community gardens were effective in promoting neighborhood renewal in public high-rise housing estates in inner Sydney, and determined that the gardens created “a greater sense of belonging, friendship and generosity amongst the gardeners and a sense of community,” breaking down cultural barriers as well as promoting “good nutrition principles.”

​​​Public awareness about such benefits is spreading. Across Australia and several other countries a multitude of inspiring campaigns and programs is springing up. Pediatricians are beginning to prescribe nature. Urban planners are once again considering the nurturing of nature-rich neighborhoods as a way to prevent disease and restore health. Conservationists are viewing urban regions as potential engines of biodiversity.

​As for education, University of Western Sydney associate professor Tonia Gray argues for more nature-based experiences in the national curriculum and a mandate for every child to experience the natural world based not only on science but “on direct, visceral and personal engagement with nature.”

​In addition to the benefits of nature experiences to health and our ability to learn, we must also recognize the suffering associated with our withdrawal from nature or its destruction around us. Australian professor Glenn Albrecht, director of the Institute of Sustainability and Technology Policy at Murdoch University, has coined the term solastalgia. He combined the Latin word solacium (comfort — as in solace) and the Greek root – algia (pain) to form solastalgia, which he defines as “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault.”

​Now comes a new nature movement to connect children, families and communities to nature.

Momentum is growing. We see it in the new vigor of organizations around the world that have worked for years to achieve that goal. We see it the hundreds of new regional campaigns — including the major Nature Play initiatives spreading across Australia’s states.

​We see a growing recognition of this idea: our positive connection to nature is fundamental to our humanity, and therefore should be considered a human right. Last year, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, representing thousands of conservation organizations from around the world, passed a resolution called the “Child’s Right to Connect with Nature and to a Healthy Environment,” which recognizes that “…children, since they are an inalienable part of nature, not only have the right to a healthy environment, but also to a connection with nature and to the gifts of nature for their physical and psychological health and ability to learn and create …”

​As a species, our responsibility to care for the natural world, and our hope to help grow new natural habitat, will be linked to a worldwide realization of that human right.

​A few words of caution. Without an even stronger worldwide movement, concern could fade. More and even better research — causal, not only correlative — is needed. So are new, creative ways to connect children to the natural world through nature education, but also through direct, unorganized experience.

​As Carol Birrell’s story suggests, you can lead young people to water, but without a deeper understanding of the wonder of nature, without the joy of it, you cannot make them see.

 Richard Louv is the author of “The Nature Principle” and “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.” He is also Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network.

This week, Richard Louv is on a speaking tour in Australia, sponsored in part by the Australian Conservation Foundation, where a major new effort to connect kids to nature is being launched.

Who’s Leading the Movement in Australia? A resource list.

Photo by R.L.

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  1. Claire says:

    If the children had been staring out to see in the hope of seeing dolphins (that were possibly non-existent on this trip) and had missed some fantastic natural phenomenon right below their feet…they would still be in a similar boat.
    You can’t look everywhere and see everything. Sometimes you need to concentrate on the small things nearby instead of trying to look for the big and astounding things occurring far away.
    This happens so often these days with fantastic things filmed on the other side of the planet and shown on the small(and increasingly not-so-small) screen, when – as you’ve mentioned above, looking after your own wee corner of the world can be equally, if not more, important.

  2. Karen says:

    it just saddens me so much when I see youngsters so close to nature but seemingly totally oblivious to the wonder and the beauty of it. Locally to me where I walk out every day with my dogs I see wanton destruction of small copses where kids have built fires and chopped down the young saplings, leaving their takeaway plastic wrappers and often beer cans all over the place. What on earth is possessing them to do such awful things? They are completely detached from the natural surroundings.

    I am building my social enterprise business with all my profits dedicated to green schools for the future. It’s the best way I can give something back right now and I hope that the children will learn and grow up with nature all around them loving it and learning from it every day

  3. Lang Elliott says:

    Is it possible to help engender a sense of awe and wonder online through captivating, high quality videos of natural subjects? Will watching such content encourage kids and adults alike to spend more time outdoors? Is the internet our friend, or is it our enemy?

    In the months to come, we will be officially launching miracleofnature.org, a 501(c)(3) dedicated to celebrating nature near at hand. High quality video footage and sound will be our core content. Our effort will have as much to do with art as with science … with affecting viewers emotionally through powerful media experiences.

    We hope to provide engaging, immersive media that will be appreciated by anyone who spends time outdoors, including parents who are spearheading the effort to counteract the nature deficit disorder. What could be more fun than going outdoors to listen to the calls of frogs and toads, spotting singers with flashlights, and then returning home to watch great closeup videos of all the species heard?

    Please visit our website and sign up for our free newsletter. I assure you … LOTS will be happening there in the weeks and months to come.

    http://miracleofnature.org

  4. Lang Elliott says:

    So rightly put by Claire:

    “Sometimes you need to concentrate on the small things nearby instead of trying to look for the big and astounding things occurring far away. This happens so often these days with fantastic things filmed on the other side of the planet and shown on the small(and increasingly not-so-small) screen, when – as you’ve mentioned above, looking after your own wee corner of the world can be equally, if not more, important.”

    How correct this is!

    We’ve created miracleofnature.org in part to counteract the emphasis on creatures in faraway lands … why not instead film fantastic things that happen in our own backyards, be they birds, frogs, insects, slugs, wildflowers, ferns, or whatever. Emphasis on the tiny world is important because kids in particular have great eyes and can squat down and focus-in on little things. A child, or an adult with a childlike attitude, can become totally entranced by a little ant on the sidewalk. Often, the most spectacular and miraculous life forms in our surroundings pass unnoticed to all but those who have trained themselves to really pay attention.

  5. @PaulKelba says:

    I can’t help but be the devils advocate here, students had similar tendencies, like staring at the ground when hiking, well before smartphones. As teacher of 20 years experience deepening students relations with nature, I have witnessed similar “rush through the bush” since the beginning of my career, before the latest digital evolution.

    A proper outing to deepen students relationships with the natural world is not a hike from A to B. It is the responsibility of the educator to “make students feel alive” (as Louv wonderfully states in other posts).

    It seems such a thin argument to blame technology for students being students, as educators we must tease through this and create students experiences where they seek out, wonder and inquire, NOT listen and do.

    Outdoor and environmental education is not the answer to nature deficit disorder. Good experiential instruction within any discipline is, one where students are engrossed within intense projects, using their phones for research and are able take it upon themselves to not be distracted by technology all the time.

  6. Gloria Fester says:

    As a child I along with my siblings spent the majority of our time exploring nature on the native prairie that was close to our parent’s farm. I feel that we were lucky to have this experience. When I have a chance we do a walk through this prairie which still exists. Kids are overwhelmed with their experience they are lucky as so many do not have the chance to explore this ecosystem.

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