"Not that long ago," says author Richard Louv, 56, "camp was a place where you hiked in the woods, learned about plants and animals. Today it's weight-loss or computer camp." As many kids pack off for a brief spell of summer fun, Louv is sounding the alarm that, year-round, most don't get enough "green time." In his seventh book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, he makes the case that unstructured hours in woods or on the beach help all kids grow up healthy, but can especially aid those suffering from depression, ADHD or obesity. Louv, a father of two, spoke to PEOPLE's Howard Breuer.
What is "nature-deficit disorder"?
That's a term I use to describe alienation from nature. By moving childhood indoors, we deprive kids of a full connection to the world.
When did you notice the problem?
Fifteen years ago, when I interviewed hundreds of children and parents for my book Childhood's Future, I was astounded by a boy who said he preferred playing indoors because that's where the electrical outlets were.
Is electronic entertainment what keeps today's kids inside?
It also has a lot to do with the way communities are being planned—without natural areas like lakes and parks, and with restrictions that prevent kids from building skateboard ramps or climbing trees. They're virtually criminalizing natural play, sending a message to kids that playing outdoors is slightly unsavory.
Yes. Kids often don't play in the woods because parents have been scared into thinking the boogeyman lurks around every corner. Parents used to set borders in the neighborhood that you couldn't go past—now it's a question of whether the kids can even go out the front door.
Besides making them fatter, how does lack of outdoor time hurt kids?
The consequences could include attention difficulties and higher rates of illnesses. Research shows that nature experiences can relieve some of the everyday pressures that may lead to childhood depression. And studies of outdoor-education programs geared toward troubled youth—especially those diagnosed with mental-health problems—show a clear therapeutic value. Environmental psychologists report that simply a room with a view of a natural landscape can help protect children against stress.
Your book cites a University of Illinois study about the benefits of outdoor time for kids with ADHD. Can the woods ever replace Ritalin?
That study found that when ADHD-afflicted kids did activities in natural settings instead of urban playgrounds, they were better able to concentrate. Nature could be a third therapy for ADHD, the other two being pharmaceuticals and behavior therapy, depending on the child.
What's wrong with playgrounds?
They're being designed to avoid lawsuits, so many of them are quite boring to kids. Many kids will gravitate to areas of a park that are untidy and unmanicured so that they can play on the rocks and trees or in a stream.
What about running across the green of a soccer field—is that as good?
I'm not opposed to organized sports. The problem is that kids aren't given unstructured dream time. I remember playing catch in a park with my son Jason when he was 9 (he's now 23). A classmate's mother approached and asked, "Whatcha doing? Waiting for a team?" I said, "Nope, just playing catch," to which she responded: "Ah, killing time." Parents need to stop viewing such activities as wasting time.
Have your own kids gotten healthy doses of green time?
My wife and I do a lot of camping and fishing with our sons. I recently took my 17-year-old Matthew to Kodiak Island, Alaska. A bear looked like it was charging us, but instead it dove in the water, where we had just been fishing. Matthew will never forget that. That lasts forever.
You write that the future of the environment itself depends on bringing children to nature.
Studies of environmentalists show very typically that they had extraordinary experiences with nature as kids. So when you take that away, you wonder where will the future stewards of the earth come from. Can you be a true conservationist if your concept of nature is mainly intellectualized? A kid today can likely tell you about the Amazon rain forest, but not about the last time he or she lay in a field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move.
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