Most of us born before the internet remember long days spent outside playing with friends or even just silently exploring the backyard. We remember turning over that rock outside for the first time and realizing we are not alone in this world, or the beautiful rustling sound of the leaves in the wind. How about the countless trees climbed, games of tag played and all the forts built?
There is something vitally essential about the connection between the human spirit and the natural world, with the systems that support all life, like water and soil. Spending time outdoors in nature connects us with the magnitude of the world we’ve been given and our place in it. We know this on a subconscious level, even as children. Anne Frank wrote during her short life, “the best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be.”
Richard Louv, award-winning author of Last Child in the Woods and Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life, is the leader of the movement to get our children back outdoors. In 2005, Richard published Last Child in the Woods, a best-selling guide to returning our kids to nature based on 20 groundbreaking studies. He coined the term “nature-deficit disorder,” which is not a medical condition, but a description of the human costs of alienation from nature. This alienation damages children and shapes adults, families and communities.
The removal of children from unstructured play in natural environments has serious consequences on the mental, social and physical health of our children, including lasting impacts on the developing brain. Last Child in the Woods is the first book to bring together cutting-edge research showing that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development – physical, emotional and spiritual. Research shows nature is a potent therapy for depression, obesity and ADD. Environment-based education dramatically improves standardized test scores and grade point averages and develops skills in problem-solving, critical-thinking and decision-making. Creativity is also stimulated by childhood experiences in nature. Research shows that when children play in nature, the leaders that emerge are most often the smartest children, whereas when they play on flat turf, like cement, the leaders that emerge tend to be based on physicality.
Spending time in nature enhances educational outcomes by improving children’s academic performance, focus, behavior and love of learning. childrenandnature.org. Photo courtesy C&NN.
After publishing Last Child in the Woods, Richard went on to cofound the Children and Nature Network (C&NN), a nonprofit organization leading the movement to connect all children, their families and communities to nature through innovative ideas, evidence-based resources and tools, broad-based collaboration and support of grassroots leadership. On their website, they host a huge database of curated and summarized peer-reviewed scientific literature to help build the evidence base for advancing the children and nature movement, including up to 650 medical health studies (childrenandnature.org/research-library/). The evidence is overwhelming on the health benefits of time spent in nature, both preventative and applied.
This is becoming increasingly important as urban populations grow and the access to outdoor space becomes ever more parceled off. Kids living in urban settings are far more likely to suffer the consequences of nature-deficit disorder. This is one reason why advocating for putting more nature back in our cities is critical, like parks, greenspaces and community gardens.
Laura Seydel and Richard Louv
In his most recent book, Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life, Richard provides a complete prescription to nature-deficit disorder and how to connect with the power and joy of the natural world right now. Vitamin N has 500 activities for children and adults, dozens of inspiring and thought-provoking essays, scores of informational websites and down-to-earth advice. In tandem with his book, you can take the Vitamin N challenge on C&NN. There are no concrete rules to the challenge, you’re simply asked the question where can you insert more Vitamin N into your life, and how can you do it? The scale and design of your challenge is up to you, but the C&NN website offers inspiration, tips and support. From there you can share your Vitamin N challenge and inspire others to do the same! Here in Atlanta, Fernbank Forest and the Atlanta Botanical Gardens have great programs to get families and children outdoors!
According to a recent study conducted by Melissa and Doug, a U.S. toy company, and survey company Gallup, 1,200 families with children from ages 2-10 from all 50 states were asked how they wish their kids spent their time. Playing outdoors was the number one result with a whooping 62%, but according to those same parents their children only spent 10.6 hours on outside play and a whooping 18.6 hours on screen-based play and 14.6 hours on indoor play.
There are many reasons this is happening, although Richard primarily blames modern parents’ perceived fear of natural and human threats. Although incidents of child abduction continue to decrease, news and entertainment industries stoke these fears. Modern life is busier than ever, and technological advances are more distracting than ever. But can we really afford to ignore the rising rates of obesity, attention disorders, cognitive decline and decreased socialization in our children? What’s more, studies show children who experience the deep wonder that is nature, by camping or hiking for example, are much more likely to grow up to be environmental stewards.
Fortunately, Richard’s movement is growing! Their C&NN conference in Vancouver this year was attended by more than 1,000 people from 29 countries, including China.
Join the movement! No matter how old you are, your career, or even whether you are a parent, I hope you’ll take the Vitamin N challenge and nourish your soul with this great gift we’ve been given.