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Outside Agitators

Kicking your kids out of the house might be the best thing for them, Richard Louv says

Richard Louv is a guy who can get 550 adults to sit in a Downtown Hilton conference room ... to hear him lecture about how kids these days don't get enough time outdoors.

As the acclaimed author of 2005's The Last Child in the Woods, Louv created the term "nature-deficit disorder"; as the founder of the Children & Nature Network and a burgeoning media celebrity, he is the acknowledged guru on the malady.

Louv spoke here Sept. 23, during the 2008 International Urban Parks Conference, organized by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and titled "Body and Soul: Parks and the Health of Great Cities."

In the best-selling Last Child, the San Diego-based journalist and scholar defines nature-deficit disorder as "the increasing divide between the young and the natural world, and the environmental, social, psychological, and spiritual implications of that change." Citing our evolutionary heritage as field- and forest-dwellers, along with a growing body of scientific research, Louv says that "healing the broken bond" between kids and nature is necessary for both their health and the well-being of the planet.

"We've taken nature away from our kids," he told the crowd, some hailing from as far away as Australia, South Korean and Uganda.

Though the average American child spends 44 hours a week with electronic media, we can't blame the Web or iPods, says Louv, a gray-haired father of two. More pertinent are "the over-structuring of childhood" -- which leaves scant bug-watching time between soccer practices -- and such community-design trends as streets with no sidewalks.

The big trouble, though, is fear, fueled by the news media. "Parents are scared to death of stranger-danger," Louv says -- even though abductions are rare, and seldom perpetrated by strangers. Over the past three decades, we've placed children under "virtual house arrest." He added, "We might be approaching a time when it is no longer normal or expected for kids to go outside to watch the leaves move."

That's a problem, for instance, because rising childhood obesity rates support other research indicating that kids who go outside exercise more. It's a problem because kids who don't get nature-time seem more prone to anxiety, depression and attention-deficit problems. ("The woods were my Ritalin," Louv writes in Last Child.) And it's a problem, Louv writes, because "the quality of exposure to nature affects our health at an almost cellular level."

Finally, how will a generation that's barely experienced nature first-hand be able to preserve animal habitats or address global warming?

But Louv says the tide is turning. He cites growing media coverage of, well, nature-deficit disorder. He noted that, on Sept. 19, the U.S. House overwhelmingly approved the No Child Left Inside Act, which would offer schools federal funding for outdoor recreation and environmental education.

Louv also lauded philanthropic and community-based efforts nationally, including Sustainable Pittsburgh's Pittsburgh Outdoors Promise. The initiative, based on a program operating at City Charter High School, is in its fund-raising stage. It would help schools outsource some of their physical-education curriculum to groups specializing in outdoor activities and environmental studies.

Other conference presenters addressed the nuts and bolts of luring people back to nature, often in city settings. Charlie Lord, director of Boston's Urban Ecology Institute, said a program taking fifth-through-12th-graders to study things like water quality and bird biodiversity in a city "outdoor lab" led to higher science scores on standardized tests -- and a palpable sense of community pride. Karen Purcell, of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Celebrate Urban Birds citizen-science project, has distributed some 70,000 species-identification surveys in all 50 states.

Louv says that prospects for more such efforts are promising. In many ways, he believes, the love of nature transcends partisanship, ranging "from the Sierra Club to The 700 Club," as he likes to say.

He was actually on Pat Robertson's 700 Club, in fact, talking nature-deficit disorder. "They did a great job," says Louv. "They all wanted to tell me about the treehouse they had when they were kids."

click to enlarge "We've taken nature away from our kids": Richard Louv
"We've taken nature away from our kids": Richard Louv

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