On the phone from his home in San Diego, Richard Louv says he only has a half-hour for an interview because he and his son are going fishing. These few words, in many ways, say everything about who Louv is and the work he does.
The 59-year-old journalist and author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder believes in the power of nature in our lives, and more specifically, the importance of getting children back out into it. He says the past three decades have seen a dramatic shift, taking children away from outdoor play.
"When people ask why this has happened, many folks will answer the question first, before I get a chance, and they'll say, 'It's computers, isn't it? Video games?' And it's true that Kaiser Family Foundation says that kids spend about 44 hours [a week] plugging into ... something that's electronic," he says.
But Louv thinks it's a mistake to simply attribute it all to electronics. First of all, when adults do that, it's exactly what kids want.
"Some of us remember rock 'n roll and how much it was demonized," he says, "and that's exactly what we wanted at that point even more."
Secondly, he adds, it's inaccurate.
"Too much emphasis on [electronics] will distract us from looking at some of the other issues involved, that I think are deeper. One of those is the over-structuring of childhood, which has been increasing, so that children have very little time for any kind of unstructured free play, let alone play in nature."
There's one issue, though, that may even top this.
"I think that the thing parents talk about with the most intensity," Louv says, "is that they're scared to death."
Louv understands parental fear he's felt it in raising two sons. And he acknowledges that there's risk outdoors; it's one of the reasons why children have long been attracted to outdoor activity, and it's what the media often plays up on the evening news and newspapers' front pages.
But statistically, the fear doesn't necessarily make sense. For instance, child abductions have been going down over the past 20 years, and almost all of them now happen at the hands of family members or acquaintances, not strangers.
Besides, Louv says, as families and as a society, we all need to think in terms of comparative risk.
- Richard Louv
"Yes, there's risk outdoors," he says, "but there's also huge risk in raising a future generation of kids under virtual protective house arrest: a risk to their psychological health, a risk to their physical health and a real risk with childhood obesity."
Eric Cefus, executive director of the local nonprofit Catamount Institute, agrees that nature plays a role in child development that cannot be overlooked. The health and well-being of our planet depends on the health and well-being of our future generations.
"We're looking at creating the next group of critical thinkers in our society," Cefus says. "To stress the importance of this issue, how it relates to so many different facets of our population and it does tie back into economics, health care, standardized testing scores, to transportation, to everything.
"We solve problems of the world through education, and unless we create those critical minds, who will be the people who will solve our problems as we go forward?"
Louv asks a related question.
"Several studies show that almost all conservationists, environmentalists, whatever we want to call them, had a transcendent experience in nature when they were kids. What happens when that fades away?" Louv asks. "We'll always have environmentalists, but increasingly if we're not careful, they'll carry nature in their briefcases, not in their hearts, which is a very different relationship. So there's a lot of risk in continuing down the path we've been going."
Open the doors
When Louv visits Colorado Springs this weekend, he'll join a large local effort. What started as an invitation from the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument to Louv to speak at the Pikes Peak Center has turned into a community partnership of more than 15 El Paso and Teller county agencies and an entire "No Child Left Inside" weekend.
One of the weekend's events is Junior Ranger Day at the Fossil Beds. A free ongoing activity for kids between the ages of 5 and 15, the junior ranger program is led by rangers and adult volunteers who help kids become more aware about the outdoors, such as learning how not to get lost in the woods, and what to do if you do get lost.
"It gets them over that buck fever" and helps their confidence grow, says Keith Payne, Fossil Beds superintendent.
Beyond facilitated programs, sometimes the easiest thing is to work together with neighbors and friends.
Louv says a few months ago, a father wrote him. He had read Louv's book and started taking his family out on nature adventures. After one such excursion, the 5-year-old in the family asked, "Dad, how come we're the only family having this much fun?"
The father started reaching out to friends and others in his community, inviting them to join his family on nature playdates. He now has more than 170 families on a list.
This kind of organizing, Louv says, helps with the fear issue, because there's perceived safety in numbers. It also helps with motivation, when parents know there's another family waiting for them. And it can be done in any kind of neighborhood.
"You don't need to spend money and plan something to have benefits," Cefus adds. There are so many benefits by unplanned, unstructured play. People think that they have to go to a science center, or go do an activity. Those are all great, but natural wonder is amazing."