Interview with Richard Louv

Richard Louv is a journalist and author of nine books, including Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age. His books have been translated into 13 languages. He is co-founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization helping build the international movement to connect people and communities to the natural world. As a journalist and commentator, he has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other newspapers and magazines.

Do you think the awareness of the lack of contact with nature by the Western youth is growing among parents and the educational community? Which countries are ahead? Is there any case you know of where youth work specifically has incorporated the emphasis on nature?

We appear to be much more knowledgeable than a decade ago about the connection between nature experience and health; but we 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. In the U.S., much of the education establishment no longer sees independent, imaginary play, especially in natural settings, as “enrichment.” We’re hopeful that the culture is beginning to move in a different direction, though. We’re seeing new appreciation for these issues among parents, educators, pediatricians, mayors, and others. And we’re seeing some strong countertrends – such as the growth of nature-oriented schools.

We need to incorporate nature education, and knowledge of the positive benefits, into the training that every educator receives. We need to credit the many teachers who have insisted on exposing their students directly to nature, despite trends in the opposite direction – toward increasing immersion in technology and the devaluing of natural play. Teachers and schools can’t do it alone – parents, policy-makers and whole communities must pitch in. And this topic needs to be addressed in education schools. And frankly, young people will need to take the lead. My sense, from speaking at colleges around the country, and of course to other groups, is that younger people are prepared to do just that.

In our case, e.g in Athens, it is not easy to find time and resources to take youngsters out of the city to enjoy nature. During some of our project activities we have used parks. How to overcome the limitations of green areas in big cities? Can parks do the trick?

Traditional connections to nature are vanishing quickly, along with biodiversity, but we don’t have to travel far to find or nurture the rest of nature. Any green space will provide some benefit to mental and physical wellbeing. In urban areas, more natural landscape can be found in a park, a quiet corner with a tree, or several pots with vegetables growing outside the door, even a peaceful place with a view of the sky and clouds. Connection to nature should be an everyday occurrence, and if we design our cities – including our homes, apartments, workplaces and schools – to work in harmony with nature and biodiversity this could become a commonplace pattern. We do know that the greater the biodiversity in an urban park, the greater the psychological benefits to people.

What is the best way to convince the parents and educational community of the need for more contact with nature? How should we build the case for it?

The only true convincing occurs through personal experience, but one way to augment our case is to show them the growing body of supportive research. The research indicates that experiences in the natural world appear to offer great benefits to psychological and physical health, and the ability to learn, for children and adults. The studies strongly suggest that time in nature can help many children learn to build confidence in themselves; reduce the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, calm them and help them focus. Schools with natural play spaces and nature learning areas appear to help children do better academically. There are some indications that natural play spaces can reduce bullying. Nature experience can also be a buffer to child obesity and overweight, and offers other psychological and physical health benefits. And nature experience helps grow conservation values, now and in the future. It’s hard to truly value nature unless you learn to love it in person.

How is nature connected to the social dimension?

One of the greatest health issues of our time is loneliness. Nature, as it turns out, can be an antidote to loneliness. Several recent studies have shown that, contrary to the popular view that older people are the loneliest generation, the opposite appears to be true. A nationwide survey by the health insurer Cigna, released this year, found that loneliness is not only widespread in the USA – 50 percent of people surveyed reported some level of loneliness – but that older people who belong to what is sometimes called the Greatest Generation (people 72 and older) are the least lonely. Next, Baby Boomers, Millennials, and Generation Z (born in the mid-1990s and early 2000s) – each generation, from the oldest to the youngest, is lonelier than the one that came before. Increased and particular ways of using social media may be one cause, but there are others. One reason is, I believe, species loneliness. Each of those generations, from the oldest to the youngest, has had ever-decreasing contact with the natural world.

There are many other benefits, and more supportive research comes out almost weekly. The Children & Nature Network Web site has compiled a large body of studies, reports and publications that are available for viewing or downloading.