In 2005, journalist Richard Louv published the groundbreaking book, “Last Child in the Woods — Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder.” In it, he diagnoses that children, families — and, in fact, all of us — increasingly loose our innate connection to nature. Louv points to a plethora of scientific research that shows that as a consequence of this Nature Deficit Disorder phenomenon often comes a loss of healthy physical and emotional development, leading to a rise in problems such as obesity, attention disorders and depression.
But instead of turning in a depressing doomsday tome, Louv in “Last Child in the Woods” laid out a hopeful path forward for how governments and individuals like you and I alike can all do our small part to overcome Nature Deficit Disorder, a path centered around the idea of making more space for nature in our lives — even when we are busy — and putting it back where it belongs in order for our children and families to be happy and healthy: Front and center in our lives.
“The children and nature movement is fueled by this fundamental idea: the child in nature is an endangered species, and the health of children and the health of the Earth are inseparable,” Louv writes. His recommendations sparked an international movement, and he has since written a series of additional books examining the issue further — all of them worth a read. The other day, I reached out to Rich to ask him how he thinks we are doing in our quest to overcome our collective Nature Deficit Disorder. (read on below)
Richard Louv, author of "Last Child in the Woods" who diagnosed Nature Deficit Disorder.
WHAT IS THE STATE OF OUR NATURE DEFICIT DISORDER?
Lars: Richard, thank you for taking the time. So... How is the patient doing these days?
Richard Louv: The children and nature movement (or the new nature movement, as I prefer to call it, because it includes families and communities) continues to grow, internationally. But the barriers between people and nature remain challenging. Yet we’re seeing some change. In the U.S., we're beginning to see progress among state legislatures, schools and businesses, civic organizations and government agencies. Family nature clubs (multiple families that agree to show up for a hike on Saturday) are proliferating.
In September 2012, the World Congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature cited “adverse consequences for both healthy child development (‘nature deficit disorder’) as well as responsible stewardship for nature and the environment in the future,” and then passed a resolution titled “The Child’s Right to Connect with Nature and to a Healthy Environment.” This connection is, indeed, a human right. And the acknowledgement of that is progress.
In September 2015, the new White House initiative called “Every Kid in a Park” went into effect, where all 4th-grade students and their families have free admission to National Parks and other federal lands and waters.
In terms of cities, Cities Connecting Children to Nature (CCCN), is a partnership between the Children & Nature Network (the nonprofit that grew out of “Last Child”) and the National League of Cities. It’s a major initiative working to help U.S. municipal leaders better connect children to nature, particularly children who have had little access previously. (read on below)
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HOW CAN WE CURE NATURE DEFICIT DISORDER?
Lars: It seems to be increasingly common knowledge that being outside is good for us. But what can we do to cure Nature Deficit Disorder when we are at home or in the office?
Louv: The answer would be quite long. In my book “Vitamin N,” I’d refer you to the section on things that kids, families and communities can do during so-called bad weather, or when disabilities keep people indoors (note from Lars: Some of my favorite recommendations in this section include setting up a world-watching window, taking up cloudspotting and starting a windowsill garden). Beyond that, bringing nature-based Biophilic design to your home or office is a way to bring nature home, and focusing more on nearby nature than on wilderness. (read on below)
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Lars: So awareness of our increasing Nature Deficit Disorder is rising. But has it risen beyond a theoretical understanding? Do you see a change in behavior?
Louv: A few years ago, a study in the U.S., “The Nature of Americans,” suggests that we appear to be much more knowledgeable than a decade earlier about the connection between nature experience and health; but are somewhat less aware of the connection to cognitive functioning and education – and that the barriers to nature experience are still substantial. We now need to move more quickly into a mode of greater action, which goes beyond awareness, both at the family and the community level. The barriers are still there, but I do believe there’s more hope in the air, if you look for it.
HOW CAN WE AVOID NATURE DEFICIT DISORDER?
Lars: What motivates me to create my photographic artworks of nature is to help people connect to nature inside by creating spaces that invite them to dream. Where do such abstract concepts as daydreams and sparking our imagination fit into overcoming Nature Deficit Disorder?
Louv: Imagination is underrated. It has its dangers and capacity to mislead. But imagination leads us to perceive what we would otherwise miss. In “Our Wild Calling,” I write about a scientist who argues that if you’re going to study a snake, you must become the snake. He sees this in two stages. When watching the snake, first conjure up all the hard science you already know about the snake; the second step is to use your imagination – in the form of empathy – to feel, to the best of your limited ability, what it might be like to be that snake. Imagination and dreams have been essential to nature experience, for millennia, among Indigenous peoples and most of our distant ancestors. This is a new frontier for the exploration of nature connection.
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Lars: I photograph nature professionally and I read tons of books and studies on the importance of connecting with nature as much as possible in all areas of our lives, and I still find myself struggling most days to overcome my own Nature Deficit Disorder because I get so busy. In today’s world, have you found many people who live up to the ideal you write about?
Louv: I think you’d first have to define the definition of ideal. I also have difficulty disengaging from electronics, but those of us who have learned about the importance of nature connection are making some progress in our own lives, as I’m sure you are. Related to this, researchers have been trying to pin down the right “dose” of nature. I doubt any one definition will suffice. My own goal is: some is better than none, and more is better than some.
IS NATURE DEFICIT DISORDER STILL A PROBLEM?
Lars: Let me play devil’s advocate for a minute: If even the “enlightened few” have a hard time living up to the ideal of being truly grounded in nature, then what makes you confident those who don’t spend their days studying this will bother? Why should they try harder to fit nature into all areas of their lives?
Louv: The growing amount of research connecting nature experience to mental, physical and cognitive health is growing by the day. On the Children & Nature Network site you can now see over 1000 studies pointing to nature as fundamental to our humanity. Having said that, the goal is always an enlightened few more, and then more beyond that. The children and nature movement may not and will not reach all children and families, but for those it does touch, life will be better. And, in fact, the movement is moving at a faster pace than I would have imagined. (read on below)
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Lars: You have spent the better part of the last two decades writing and speaking about our increasingly endangered connection with nature. We have just suffered through a multi-year pandemic that had us locked up at home for even more time while outside, the climate is changing, steadily increasing the number of days where it feels like a complete drag to set foot outside. Can you tell me how you stay hopeful that overcoming our collective Nature Deficit Disorder is not just theoretically possible but will actually happen?
Louv: The pandemic has offered an odd mix of good and bad news regarding nature connection. During the first months of the pandemic, many people recognized how hungry they were for nature, and my sense is that the awareness of this hunger will grow (in addition to increased commitment to nature-based education and green schoolyards). The LA Times asked me to write about that, and here’s the piece. I believe the response to the growing awareness of the human-nature connection has gone beyond the theoretical to real change, but there’s far more to do. Making that connection is essential if we’re going to make any progress toward progress on climate change and biodiversity, and if we’re going to reduce the epidemic of human loneliness (something I write about in “Our Wild Calling.”) At the Children & Nature Network’s website, you can read about hundreds of examples of progress made just in the past few years. Is it enough? No. It’s the beginning.
ABOUT THIS BLOG
THE HOMEWARD JOURNAL explores all the positive energy we unlock when we bring nature home to create the space of our dreams. Every day, I experience firsthand the power of nature on the body and the mind. Now I want to put my education as a former journalist to good use and share with you advice from the field of Biophilic Interior Design, asking how art and nature can holistically improve our lives even when we spend more and more of it inside.