Last Child In The Woods

Last Child In The Woods

The benefits for your child when you take them out into nature are clear. But all those benefits come to YOU, too! Physical benefits, mental-health benefits, stress-relief benefits, spiritual benefits. And it’s immediate! You don’t have to wait – this isn’t delayed gratification.

Are humans hard-wired to need the natural world?

New Zealand’s a remarkably green country. Some may debate whether our 100% Pure marketing-tag is entirely accurate, but there’s no question Godzone boasts a great outdoors. We have forests and rivers everywhere, wide open spaces and scenery to die for – all in close proximity to our cities. And you don’t have to travel far to climb a tree.

But look a little closer and you’ll notice that a worldwide trend is infiltrating little-old NZ. A growing number of Kiwi kids (and adults!) are spending much of their life in the not-so-great indoors. Trees are going unclimbed, huts un-built and bush unexplored. Fears of injury, lawsuits or even abduction are causing well-meaning parents to pull-the-plug on unstructured outdoor adventure. Instead, kids are plonking themselves down in front of the TV or computer, where risks are limited to getting cramp in their fingers from the Xbox control.

This lack of nature-time is having an effect, according to some experts. And the news isn’t too flash! We tracked down author and staunch nature-advocate, Richard Louv, and asked him what’s going on. His book Last Child in the Woods won him critical praise (and a couple of awards) for bringing nature-deficit disorder to public attention …

GRAPEVINE: Before we get ahead of ourselves, can you please explain ‘nature-deficit disorder’? It sounds like some sort of scary neurological disease!

RICHARD: Well, it’s not a known medical diagnosis, although perhaps it should be! It’s simply a way to talk about the price we’re paying – kids and adults – for our alienation from nature. There’s more and more research to show that the natural world has a profound impact on human development. But over the last 20-30 years kids, especially, have had less and less contact with nature. These two things have been happening at the same time: a growing awareness of how good nature is for kids – and a growing disconnection between kids and the outdoors.

GRAPEVINE: What first got you so motivated about all this?

RICHARD: Well, I was a kid once, and I had my woods. I grew up outside Kansas City, and I had such a sense of ownership of those woods that when the bulldozers arrived, I recall pulling out hundreds of survey stakes that marked the areas they were going to destroy! I had a real appreciation that this was very important to me – and I guess a lot of kids did.

Much later – towards the end of the 80s – I was doing research for an earlier book, and I interviewed 3000 parents and kids about the changing realities of family life. One theme that kept coming up was the profound discomfort many parents felt over the increasing struggle they had to get their kids to go outside. Now that was based on anecdotal evidence, but over the next decade or so, lots of scientific evidence began surface regarding the benefits of nature – and the ‘disconnect’ that was happening with too many kids.

GRAPEVINE: Has much changed since then? Where are we at today?

RICHARD: Well, firstly, it’s pretty obvious that electronics are playing a role, competing for our time.

I have a hard time tearing myself away from my iPad, even though I know better! So it’s not just kids. But a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that kids were spending over 53 hours a week plugged into some kind of electronic medium!

However, I’m always careful not to demonise electronics. Every time adults demonise anything, that’s what kids want to do more of! And it’s not just electronics that are causing this ‘disconnect’ – there are other things which are keeping families indoors, too.

GRAPEVINE: Like what?

RICHARD: Like fear. Fear of strangers, primarily. This fear is broadcast mostly by TV. Our news media take a handful of terrible crimes against kids every year, and then repeat them over and over – again until we think there’s a ‘boogie-man’ lurking on every street corner and in every woods!

The reality is that the number of abductions in the US has been going down for 20 or 30 years – and yet this sense of fear just keeps growing and, sadly, permeates almost every part of our lives.

Another factor is changes in urban planning – which are not only reducing our chance to have encounters with good people, but also restricting what we can do outside. Lots of housing developers over the past 20 or so years have assumed power over people’s lives that we’d never give the Government. They can control the design of your house … what colour it’s allowed to be … whether or not you can plant a vege garden or have pets … a whole list of things!

Now, these communities may have lots of green in them. But try to step on it, or put up a basketball hoop, let alone allow kids to build a tree-house or a fort – it’s just not going to happen!

GRAPEVINE: Would we be right to say that a fear of lawsuits is a factor as well – especially in the States?

RICHARD: Absolutely! The one thing parents fear as much as strangers, is strange lawyers! If you think for too long about putting up a tree-house for your kids and their friends, you probably won’t do it – because of the possibility of being sued if a kid falls out. And, certainly within our preschools and schools, much of the restriction on children’s lives now comes from that fear of litigation.

You still have a chance to avoid these extremes in New Zealand. The way things are going in the US and the UK should serve as a warning for the places in the world that still encourage children to go outside and play. If it can happen to us, it can happen to you if you’re not careful …

GRAPEVINE: How do we as parents face the ‘boogie-man’ – and other often-unfounded fears –without getting scared indoors?

RICHARD: It helps to realise that most of these fears are created by news and entertainment media. But you can’t just preach at parents about being unnecessarily fearful, even if the stats don’t add up. I had that same fear when I was raising our boys – and I knew about the stats. So it’s not rational. It’s just that these messages are sent to us almost daily – and from every direction.

Now, I’m not saying that there’s no risk out there. Of course there’s risk in nature – that’s one of its attractions! It’s good for kids to climb a tree, or encounter wild animals, because that prepares them for the larger risks they’re going to face as adults. If they don’t encounter these smaller risks while they’re young, they’ll be in danger of more risky behaviour later on.

Another way to deal with those fears is for YOU to take your kids outdoors …

Take them into nature, but stand back a bit – let them lead the way, dig the hole, whatever. Encourage their play to be as independent as possible, particularly when they’re small, and used to having their parents do everything for them.

Also, if you can show a degree of excitement about being in nature, then they’ll pick that up too.

GRAPEVINE: How about heading outdoors with others? Safety in numbers, and all that?

RICHARD: I agree! We’ve been encouraging parents to create family nature clubs, where multiple families band together to organise nature-play-dates. They agree to show up at the park on Saturday, to take a hike in the woods, to go fishing together … often a number of families at a time. This deals with the fear to an extent, because, as you say, there’s perceived safety in numbers. And any kind of family group can do this, no matter where they are on the economic-scale. They can do it themselves, and they can do it now!

We have over 100 of these grassroots family nature clubs linked with our organisation, Children & Nature Network. And they have hundreds of families as members – one has over 700! If parents can learn to stand back and let the kids do what kids do, it’s so good for them. And these clubs aren’t just being nostalgic about the past! We need to come up with ever more creative ways for our children to engage with nature.

GRAPEVINE: What are some of the known benefits from having kids more involved in the outdoors?

RICHARD: Well, one of the more interesting benefits is the effect on ADHD. A study from the University of Illinois showed that just a little bit of contact with nature – even something as simple as taking a walk through a park – can reduce the symptoms of ADHD pretty significantly.

Another obvious benefit – for both children and adults – is stress reduction. Encouraging their kids to get out into nature shouldn’t be yet another thing that adds to the stress that mums and dads feel – another thing they ‘should do’ as parents. Instead, it should be viewed as the ANSWER to parental stress – because getting kids and their parents outdoors results in tremendous stress reduction. And it works very quickly!

Then there’s the benefit to physical health. Getting outside and doing anything active is good. We have a real obesity epidemic in the US – but we’ve recently found that the greener the urban neighbourhood is, the lower the BMI (measuring body-fat) is with kids. And these findings are independent of population density. You can have a very dense neighbourhood in terms of human population, but it can still be green. And that appears to result in a lower incidence of child obesity.

GRAPEVINE: Sounds like a great challenge for town planners, eh?

RICHARD: For sure! We really have to think differently about our cities. Nearby-nature is every bit as important to humans as the wilderness – especially these days, when more people live in cities than in the countryside. This worldwide migration means one of two things: either the human race will slowly and inevitably lose any sense of meaningful contact with nature – or we’ll see the beginning of a new kind of city. One that incorporates nature into every aspect, every building and every neighbourhood – not just our parks but even weaving nature into our workplaces (which, for instance, has been shown to improve productivity and lower sickness and absenteeism).

So there are lots of benefits to this. But we have to start thinking differently …

GRAPEVINE: You mentioned earlier that risk-taking is an important part of children’s development. What’s the link between a child’s development and spending time in nature?

RICHARD: A lot of it is fairly obvious. For example, the more small risks you take – like climbing up on a tree stump – the more prepared you are for managing big risks. But it also has to do with tuning of the human organism. One thing that’s true about going outside in nature, is: when else do you use all of your senses at the same time? People who study human senses no longer talk about five, but as many as 30! And being in the natural world can activate them all.

If we’re staring at the computer screen all day, most of the senses we’d use in a natural setting are being blocked!

Look, there’s still much that we don’t understand about the impact of nature on human beings. But I think that the activating of those senses helps develop our self-confidence.

It’s no accident that people often have spiritual feelings when in natural settings … that sense of something larger than themselves that is somehow connected to beauty. It’s certainly what I found when I was a kid, and one of the reasons I spend so much time outside.

GRAPEVINE: Is this spiritual experience something that transcends all religion?

RICHARD: Yeah, I think it does. There is a line that I am particularly proud of in my book Nature Principle. Personally, for me, when it comes to matters of the spirit, ‘specificity is the enemy of the truth.’ The more words people use to describe their spiritual life the less I believe them. The more code that we have to live up to, that we have to sign-on to … the more complicated it gets.

I think that all spiritual life, no matter what kind it is, begins with a sense of wonder and awe. And what’s one of the earliest windows that opens you up to wonder? It’s when you’re really little and you crawl out through the grass … and you hear wind in the trees for the first time … and you turn over a rock and see other creatures … and you find out that you’re not alone in the universe.

That sense of awe and wonder that you feel at those moments – most of us feel it first in nature, even if it’s in a backyard!

GRAPEVINE: There’s a word you use – ‘biophilia’ – which sounds a little like another disease! Can you please explain?

RICHARD: The term was popularised by a scientist, Edward Wilson, in his book Biophilia. The word literally means ‘love of life or living systems’ … and Wilson suggests there’s an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems, that we’re hard-wired genetically to need the natural world.

In recent years they’ve started applying this idea to things like architecture. If you designed, as I mentioned earlier, a workplace with nature around and in it, (and you can do that in many ways), you’ll get higher productivity out of your workers. This effect that nature has on us is not yet fully understood, but a recent study compared adults exercising. One group were put on treadmills inside, while the others were outdoors doing ‘green’ exercise like hiking. The two groups were expending the exact same number of calories – and those on the treadmills got healthier, both physically and psychologically, better heart rates, lower blood pressure, etc. But the people exercising outside in nature improved on that and did even better!

I think it’s fascinating. There’s something going on there that we don’t yet really understand – but the benefits are undeniable.

GRAPEVINE: You are a big advocate of bringing nature into schools. But shouldn’t schools be focused primarily on Reading Writing & Arithmetic – rather than sending their kids off to play in the grass?

RICHARD: Well, if you really want to focus on the three ‘Rs’, get the kids outdoors to learn it! It’s not one or the other. There’s plenty of research which demonstrates the cognitive benefits to learning – how kids learn better outside. And it’s not just some kids, who happen to love nature: it seems to have this effect on human beings period! I think it’s related to that full use of the senses – when your senses are all activated at the same time, you’re in the best possible state to learn.

In the 1970s and 80s, schools were being built without windows – and unfortunately we’re still seeing them built with a minimum number. The thinking behind this was, if you block out the outside, kids will concentrate better. But we now know that the opposite is true: schools with gardens, field trips into nature, all of that sort of thing … actually stimulate learning!

GRAPEVINE: So what do these ‘eco’ schools look like?

RICHARD: Some of it, obviously, is focused on learning about nature, and that’s important. But the schools that are seeing this impact grades are the ones where kids are learning about lots of subjects in nature. So, for example, when planting that garden, kids are learning all kinds of other things as well.

This is starting to catch on in the US with nature-based preschools – which in Europe are called ‘forest schools’.

Some of them just make sure they get the kids outside into nature for a couple of hours a day – but others (like in Sweden) have these all-weather schools. Some of them literally have no buildings, or at least very few. The kids spend all of their day in the forest.

I visited one in Scotland. They learn all the usual kinds of things: maths, reading, etc … but they do it in a very different environment. And, interestingly, the kids at these schools have fewer colds or flu!

I’m no expert on how far you need to go with this. But it does seem that, when schools get their kids outdoors, the students do better on lots of different levels.

GRAPEVINE: In you book, Last Child in the Woods, you claim that the most effective way to connect our kids to nature is to connect ourselves to nature. But if, as adults, we’ve never had a meaningful outdoor experience, where do we start? Or is it too late?

RICHARD: Obviously, it’s easier to learn things when you are little – whether that’s a new language or connecting with nature. But those who study the function of the brain came to the conclusion some time ago that, although the first three years are important, there are windows of opportunity throughout our lives where the brain can reconstruct itself.

So during our teen years, for example, or into our adult years, the brain can create new neural pathways. So we get a second-chance throughout our lives to grow better brains!

GRAPEVINE: Phew! That’s got to be good news for some of us …

RICHARD: Absolutely! And if Edward Wilson is right about his biophilia hypothesis – that we’re hard-wired to need the natural world – then it’s all there in our genetics, and it hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s kind of like riding a bike: you’re going to be pretty shaky the first time you get on it after many years, but pretty soon you’ll be riding it confidently!

Today, sadly, we’ve got a whole generation of parents who’ve had little experience in nature. Even if they realise how important it is for their kids, they don’t have a clue where to start. So that’s why nature centres and similar organisations need to focus as much on parents as they do on kids. It’s also why these family nature clubs are so vital: if you’re an adult who wants this for you kids – and you want it for yourself (because you have learnt about the stress reduction!) – then these outfits are a great place to start.

GRAPEVINE: How do we deal with the complaint often voiced by kids – “I’m bored!” – especially when we’re dragging them from the TV to the outdoors?

RICHARD: When I was a kid, I used to go into the woods and sit next to this creek. If you can imagine: when you first arrive at the creek, all the frogs go quiet and all the life disappears … but you still sit down, even though nothing’s happening. Now, if you sit there long enough, very still, the frogs start to poke their noses up in the water again … life comes back to the stream … and suddenly you are not bored! Something has come back.

And I think that’s often what happens in nature. Your kids may be bored for a little while, but if you wait …

There is a concept in the study of play called the ‘loose parts theory’. Essentially, the more loose parts there are in an environment, the more creative the play. Well, there’s no environment with more loose parts than the natural world – so if you put yourself there and put your kids there, sooner or later you’ll start to notice those loose parts. And it’s hard to be bored once you do.

GRAPEVINE: Some final advice to parents?

RICHARD: Try to realise how great this is for YOU as a parent …

The benefits for your child when you take them out into nature are clear. But all those benefits come to YOU, too! Physical benefits, mental-health benefits, stress-relief benefits, spiritual benefits. And it’s immediate! You don’t have to wait – this isn’t delayed gratification.

Even if you didn’t experience much nature as a kid, you’ll soon realise how great it makes you feel. And you’ll want more.

Nature’s no longer just for kids – it’s for adults too.



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