The Nature of Nature-Deficit Disorder—Land&People

Three years ago, Richard Louv was a San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper columnist and book author who wrote often about social trends. Today he is chief spokesman for a rapidly growing movement that seeks to reconnect children with nature. Published in 2005, Louv's Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder details the many ways in which modern children are disconnected from the natural world. Now in its 14th printing, the book makes a powerful case for the importance of experiencing nature in childhood. Such experience, Louv contends, is essential for both the good of the children and the future of the planet—a message that has hit home with the American people. Louv speaks before packed houses nationwide, and the nonprofit he started, the Children & Nature Network, works tirelessly to promote programs that give children access to nature. Recently he shared with Land&People his thoughts on this work and its meaning for conservationists.

Your book and work call attention to the fact that children get a lot less outdoor play and time in nature today than they used to. Can you tell us a little about your own childhood experiences in nature?

Well, I grew up in the 1950s on the edge of Kansas City and spent hours outside. This was where the suburbs met farmland and woods. I write in the book how many of the farm fields had trees planted between them as windbreaks, and my friends and I would climb high up in them, to look out over the fields and mountains. Or sometimes I would climb alone, and I would imagine I was Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli—the boy raised by wolves. High up, the tree would sway in the wind, and it was both frightening and wonderful to surrender to its power. We had a creek to explore. And I built various outdoor shelters and tree houses. Looking back on it now, I realize that nature was both exciting and calming, and it helped me to focus.

In Last Child in the Woods you write about how when you talked about your childhood to your son Matthew, he would ask why it was "more fun when you were a kid." Was this what got you thinking about how nature is experienced so differently by today's children?

That was one of many things that got me thinking about it. I have been writing about children and parenting and nature for years, and the more I researched this topic, the clearer I saw this growing and destructive gap between children and the natural world. Today's kids are aware of global threats to the environment but at no other time in our history have children been so separated from direct experience in nature. At the same time, we are beginning to learn the importance of such experience. Recent studies show that nature can be powerful therapy for depression, obesity, and attention deficit disorder. Experience in nature can increase the ability to concentrate in both children and adults. And studies here and in Scandinavia strongly suggest that childhood experiences with nature increase creativity.

You use the term "nature-deficit disorder" to refer to the human costs of alienation from nature. What's changed for kids these days?

Parents typically give a number of reasons why their children spend less time in nature. There's more competition from television and computers; children have more homework and activities that demand their time. And in some instances, they simply don't have access to natural areas. Fear plays a big part, too—fear of traffic, of crime, of stranger-danger, or of nature itself. In some areas, neighborhood covenants and government regulations seem almost to criminalize natural play and put nature off limits. But it's not only children who are subject to nature-deficit disorder. It's a much bigger concept than that. You could say that nature-deficit disorder also affects adults, neighborhoods, whole communities, and the future of humankind's relationship to nature.

Can you say a little more about what today's kids lose by being cut off from nature?

Health is one thing that can be damaged. Also an understanding of where we fit into the natural world and our communities. Without contact with nature, kids may also fail to develop what Harvard Professor Howard Gardner calls "naturalist intelligence"—an ability to identify and classify patterns in nature that have been with us through all of human evolution. There is also a sensual loss. Direct experience in nature simultaneously stimulates all of a child's senses, and the use of our senses is essential to learning. By moving childhood indoors, we deprive children of a full connection to the world.

But most of all, I think our plugged-in kids, who spend so much time in front of the TV and computer screen, are missing out on many chances to feel a sense of wonder. What I'd really like to communicate to fellow parents is that we shouldn't think about a child's experience in nature as an extracurricular activity but as a vital element for healthy child development. That's what the new research strongly suggests.

Your work has certainly struck a chord. Last Child in the Woods continues to sell well and a new edition is coming out next year. You are speaking to large crowds around the country about an emerging "children and nature" movement. Have you been surprised by the reaction?

Well, I have been immensely gratified by it, and it has given me hope. The issues in the book touch something deep within us, both biologically and spiritually. When I speak around the country, I like to tell how, as a boy, I would pull up survey stakes to discourage development of the farms near my home. At one speech in New Mexico, a rancher, probably in his sixties, stood up to say that he did the same thing when he was a boy. Then he started to cry. Despite his deep embarrassment, he continued to talk about his fear that his might be one of the last generations of Americans to feel a sense of attachment to land and nature. So many people feel that, and it's what's powering the interest in this movement. Many of us sense that something has been taken from our lives, and we know our kids are missing out. I think that once parents and other adults understand not only what is being lost but also what can be gained by reconnecting our kids, and ourselves, to nature, that great change will follow.

TPL and its supporters work to create neighborhood parks and other close-to-home natural places. What lessons does your work have for conservationists like those who support TPL's work?

Well, of course, we need places for kids to connect with nature, and we need the help of TPL and all conservation groups to make that happen. TPL's Parks for People program in cities is particularly helpful in putting nature where kids live. But we also need to think about specific ways to support children's use of natural areas. One idea would be to dedicate a portion of any proposed open space to children and families, where there could be nature centers, outdoor-oriented preschools, nature education programs, and other offerings.

And no matter how good a job they are doing now, conservationists and environmentalists need to do more. They need to realize that the future of the environmental movement—indeed of the planet itself—may depend on this work. Studies show that people who care deeply about the future of the environment almost always enjoyed transcendent experiences in nature when they were children. If nature experiences for children continue to fade, where will future stewards of the earth come from? I hope that Last Child in the Woods challenges conservation groups and environmental organizations to ask that question—and then bring their own creativity to the protection of Western society's keystone endangered species: the human child in nature. Ultimately, this is a matter of common sense.

More information on Richard Louv, the children and nature movement, and the Children & Nature Network can be found at