In Disney Dads’ 2013 Recommended Books List for Dads, our editor’s pick for parenting author of the year was New York Times Bestselling Author Richard Louv. Seriously, if you haven’t read his books Last Child in the Woods, or The Nature Principle, (Algonquin Books) let me be the continuing little voice in your head telling you to read one or both. Now!
Sure, we all know that kids need to spend time in nature but Louv somehow articulates the inarticulable — in a way that resonates deeply and truly affects change in people’s hearts, attitudes, and worldviews. One such affected person, Chad Crawford, host of the television series how to Do florida, credits Louv’s book as his motivation for starting the series (in fact after reading it he and his wife mortgaged their home to start their production company.) Now he and Louv are two speakers at an event presented by Florida Hospital for Children, this Saturday Feb. 1st in Orlando called No App for That.
Says Crawford, “Six years ago Last Child in The Woods rocked my world. Richard Louv articulated the importance of connecting children to nature and the effects of too much screen time on our children. Growing up, I spent a lot of time outside — running, climbing, fort-building, and sweating, as did most of us. Kids today, though, are growing up inside and front of screens and not having these important childhood experiences. I think every parent feels uneasy seeing a child so disconnected from their surrounds as they stare into a screen. No App for That, our event, is an opportunity to pause and evaluate the effects screened devices are having on our families and put into perspective the fears parents have about letting their children outside. This is information every parent needs. What they decide to do with it is up to them.”
So what’s all the fuss about Louv’s books and ideas? Louv was the one who coined the phrase “Nature Deficit Disorder,” the basic idea being that today’s kids are deprived of time spent in nature: they’re over-scheduled, over-structured, over-scrutinized, and supervised at all times; they lack the ability to think and feel independently; they’re stressed; most of all, they don’t get muddy, dig for worms with their bare fingers, climb trees, or otherwise have enough spirited, unbridled fun (in a nutshell.)
According to Louv, parents need to connect with nature just as much as their children, and, what’s more, nature can be the glue that holds your entire family together.
Emerging research about nature experiences, Louv says, suggests that time in the outdoors can improve clarity of thinking, increase productivity and physical health, calm one’s natural rhythms, and generally puts people in a happier, freer, more receptive state of mind. In other words, to experience our family members in nature can be to experience them at their very best.
The beauty of Louv’s books and writings (and his overall philosophy) is that he isn’t judgemental, preachy, or overly analytic. His science and statistics are paired with true emotion and personal anecdotes, and moving passages describing what he feels instinctually as a human being with life experience.
In The Nature Principle, Louv includes some incredibly beautifully-drawn boyhood nostalgia from a youth spent at the edge of a cornfield in Missouri. During this period of his life, he and his dad, along with his mother and younger brother, spent long idyllic days in a garden and in the woods, swimming, fishing, laughing, and loving each other in that setting. After this period, which his father heartbreakingly called his “one brief Eden,” Louv’s father spiralled into mental illness and alcoholism, and eventually committed suicide.
Herein lies the heart of why Louv is so driven to get people out into nature: It was nature that permeated his happiest childhood memories of his father. If his father had retained that connection with nature during his time of descent, Louv feels, it could’ve helped him — or even saved him.
“I saw my father outdoors in a way we didn’t see him indoors,” said Louv during a phone interview. “I remember watching my father do a somersault in the air, in slow motion, and landing in the water. I still recall the image of him sinking down into the water; his glasses came off and were slowly sinking into the water next to him; and I remember him swinging on a grape vine.”
Louv writes “I recall my father’s dark tanned neck, creased with lines of dust, as he tilled our garden. I ran ahead of him, pulling rocks and bones and toys from his path.”
Says Louv, “I never would have seen my father do anything like that if we’d stayed indoors.”
He continues, “I associate health, particularly mental health, with nature. It’s where I saw my father healthiest and happiest. Over time, as he became ill, because of mental illness and then alcoholism, I made the association very early on that being outdoors had to do with health. I wrote that chapter [about the brief Eden,'] in a way to acknowledge my bias.
“My father and I spent a lot of time in the woods, in the snow. I’d be traipsing around with him, and with our collie. I remember all of those times, in addition to going fishing.”
“Both of my parents took me outdoors,” he continues, “but I remember more alone time with my father outdoors.”
While he says he wants to make it clear he’s generalizing, Louv asserts that fathers “at least traditionally were more likely to expose their kids to risk — risk with a purposeful and positive intent. Fathers were more likely to rough-house with their kids. They’re traditionally the ones who took their kids further into nature. These experiences serve an important purpose whether they’re provided by fathers or mothers, and mothers are increasingly sharing that role. If kids [aren't allowed to] take small risks early [like climbing trees], they’re not going to have a clue how to deal with big risks later in life.”
This, Louv maintains, is a problem: “We’re living in a society that has increasingly removed perceived risk from children’s lives; but a risk-free childhood is not risk-free.”
With respect to the anecdotes and memories of his boyhood and father, Louv says the point of his telling those is not to become rooted in nostalgia, but to find a better future. “We have to recognize that things are different now,” he says. “The story is not about recalling the way it was, but about how we can change the culture now.”
Indeed, that’s one of the most inspiring aspects of Louv’s writings and the movement he’s started: He offers solutions. Louv is also the founder of the Children & Nature Network of which Disney is a key sponsor.
The website offers myriad tools and parenting tips, as well as groups and programs for families to join. All of C&NN’s suggestions are couched in real terms that coincide with busy technology-drenched lives and help families find ways to connect with nature. Forging this connection, Louv is quick to point out, doesn’t necessarily mean families have to load up the car and undertake an epic journey to the woods; he points to what he refers to as “nearby nature.” “The trees at the end of a cul-de-sac,” says Louv, “can be the entrance to a whole universe to a child.”
Image of Chad Crawford courtesy of Crawford Group.