Children and Nature Movement
How a Movement Is Forming and How You Can Get Involved
“A back-to-nature movement to reconnect children with the outdoors is burgeoning nationwide.”
—USA Today, November 2006
Not long after the first publication of Last Child in the Woods in 2005, I found myself wandering down a path toward the Milwaukee River, where it runs through urban Riverside Park in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. At first glance, nothing seemed unusual about the young people I encountered. A group of inner-city high school students, they dressed in standard hip-hop fashion. I expected to see in their eyes the cynicism so fashionable now in urban, suburban, and even rural communities, the jaded look of what D. H. Lawrence long ago called the "know-it-all state of mind." But not today.
As they cast their fishing lines from the muddy bank, they laughed with pleasure, delighted by the lazy brown river and the landscape of the surrounding park. Ducking a few backcasts, I walked through the woods to the two-story Urban Ecology Center, made of lumber and other material recycled from abandoned buildings.
When this park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the founder of American landscape architecture, and established in the late nineteenth century, it was a tree-lined valley with a waterfall, a hill for sledding, and places for skating and swimming, fishing and boating. But in the 1970s, topography was flattened to create sports fields. Pollution made the river unfit for human contact, park maintenance declined, families fled, violent crime and drug dealing moved in. Riverside Park became associated with blight, not beauty. Then, in the 1990s, a remarkable chain of events occurred. A dam on the river was removed, and natural water flow flushed out contaminants. A retired biophysicist started a small outdoor-education program which evolved into the nonprofit Urban Ecology Center, annually hosting more than eighteen thousand student visits from twenty-three area schools.
The center's director, Ken Leinbach, a former science teacher, gave me a tour. We climbed to the top of a wooden tower, overlooking the park. "No serious violent crime has occurred in the park in the past five years," he told me. "We see environmental education as a great tool for urban revitalization." The center welcomes kids and their families from the surrounding neighborhoods so they can begin to associate the woods with joy and exploration, as memories of danger fade.
In Riverside Park, nature was not the problem; it was the solution.
For decades environmental educators, conservationists, naturalists, and others have worked, often heroically, to bring more children to nature, usually with inadequate support from policy-makers. Now a number of convergent trends—including intensified awareness of the relationship between human well-being, the ability to learn, and environmental health; concern about child obesity; and media attention to nature-deficit disorder—are bringing the concerns of these veteran advocates before a broader audience. While some may argue that the word "movement" is hyperbole, we do seem to have reached a tipping point. Now comes the greatest challenge: deep, lasting, cultural change.
In 2006 a handful of like-minded people formed the nonprofit Children & Nature Network, for which I now serve as chairman, to track and encourage this movement. By the time you read this, much more will have occurred, but as of spring 2008, in the United States, Canada, and abroad, we see progress among state and national legislatures, conservation groups, schools and businesses, government agencies and civic organizations.
At this writing, we have identified more than forty regional campaigns, sometimes called Leave No Child Inside, that have formed or are being assembled—in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Chicago, the San Francisco Bay Area, Connecticut, Florida, Colorado, Texas, British Columbia, and elsewhere. For the most part, these campaigns, each with distinctive regional characteristics, have emerged independently, with support from civil society and the business community, from political and religious leaders, liberal and conservative. (For more information about how to create a regional campaign, see below or see the Children & Nature Network web site.)
Leadership has emerged in nearly every sector. In September 2006, the National Conservation Training Center and the Conservation Fund hosted the National Dialogue on Children and Nature in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. The conference drew more than 350 leaders from around the country, from education, health care, the outdoor recreation industry, residential development, urban planning, conservation, and the academic world. Witnessing a precipitous drop in public use of many national and state parks, the leadership of the National Park Service and the National Association of State Park Directors signed a joint Children and Nature Plan of Action. In 2007, the U.S. Forest Service launched More Kids in the Woods, funding local efforts to bring children outdoors. That same year, the new U.S. secretary of the interior, Dirk Kempthorne, challenged Interior's three hundred top managers to determine what their departments could do to turn around the nature-deficit trend. At least ten governors—Democrats and Republicans—have launched statewide conferences or campaigns, including Connecticut's pioneering program to encourage families to visit the underused state parks. Replicable in every state, the effort was the first formal program to call itself No Child Left Inside.
On the policy-making front, bills are being passed. In March 2007, the New Mexico state legislature approved the Outdoor Classrooms Initiative, an effort to increase outdoor education in the state. Then on April 21, John Muir's birthday, Washington governor Christine Gregoire signed into law the Leave No Child Inside initiative, legislation that allocates $1.5 million a year to outdoor programs working with underserved children. In California, similar legislation has been introduced to fund long-term outdoor education and recreation programs serving at-risk youth. And at the national level, the No Child Left Inside Act, introduced in the House and Senate, is designed to bring environmental education back to the classroom and, indirectly, to get more young people outside. More legislation is on the way.
The disconnect between children and nature is also gaining greater attention in other countries, among them the Netherlands, where the Dutch government sponsored the translation of Last Child in the Woods, and conservation and environmental education leaders—in cooperation with the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality—have launched a petition to ask parliament to support major efforts to reduce the nature deficit in their country.
In the United States, nonprofit conservation leaders, witnessing the graying of their membership and recognizing the importance of creating a young constituency for the future, have increased their commitment. In 2007, the Sierra Club's Building Bridges to the Outdoors project took more than eleven thousand young people, many from inner-city neighborhoods, into the natural world. Other conservation groups have moved quickly too. The National Wildlife Federation rolled out the Green Hour, intended to persuade parents to encourage their children to spend one hour a day in nature. John Flicker, president of the National Audubon Society, is campaigning for the creation of a family-focused nature center in every congressional district in the nation. Some nature conservancy organizations are going beyond their traditional definition of conservation. The Trust for Public Land is placing increased emphasis on engaging children with nature, to ensure that natural areas preserved today will continue to be protected by future generations. The Conservation Fund, another organization that has focused primarily on purchasing and protecting land, has also taken action. In 2007, the Fund's president, Larry Selzer, created the National Forum on Children and Nature, enlisting governors, mayors, cabinet secretaries, corporate CEOs, and non-government organizations as participants. The goal: raise twenty million dollars to fund existing programs and seed new ones.
Such organizations are recognizing that the human child in nature may well be the most important indicator species of future sustainability.
To some extent, the movement is fueled by organizational or economic self-interest. But something deeper is going on here. In 2006, ecoAmerica, a conservation marketing group, commissioned SRI Consulting Business Intelligence to conduct a comprehensive survey of Americans' environmental values related to everything from health, animals, global warming, taxes, and more. EcoAmerica president Robert Perkowitz reports, "It was very enlightening for us to discover that the biggest shared concern about nature is really kids' alienation from it." Forecasting more than seventy major global developments, the World Future Society now ranks nature-deficit disorder as number five.
With its nearly universal appeal, this issue seems to hint at a more atavistic motivation. This appeal may well have something to do with what Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson calls the biophilia hypothesis, which, as described in Last Child in the Woods, suggests that human beings are innately attracted to nature. Biologically, we are all still hunters and gatherers, and there is something in us we do not fully understand that needs immersion in nature. We do know that when people talk about the disconnect between children and nature—if they are old enough to remember a time when outdoor play was the norm—they almost always tell stories about their own childhoods: this tree house or fort, that special woods or ditch or creek or meadow. They recall those "places of initiation," in the words of naturalist Robert Michael Pyle, where they may have first sensed with awe and wonder the largeness of the world, seen and unseen.
When people share these stories, their cultural, political, and religious walls come tumbling down. And when that happens, unlikely allies converge and ideas can pour forth, leading to ever more insightful approaches to entrenched social problems. Real estate developers are taking notice of a potential new market. For example, some of California's largest developers were gathered in Carmel by Clint Eastwood to discuss how they might design, build, and market future communities that connect children to nature. Among the ideas proposed by these and other developers: leave some land and native habitat in place (that's a good start); employ green design principles; incorporate nature trails and natural waterways; throw out or reduce the conventional covenants and restrictions that discourage or prohibit natural play and rewrite the rules to encourage it; allow kids to build forts and tree houses or plant gardens; and create small, on-site nature centers. In such a discussion, it's a short conceptual leap from excusing more sprawl by giving it a green patina to redeveloping portions of decaying urban and suburban neighborhoods into eco-communities where nature would be an essential strand in the fabric of daily life. The fact that developers, builders, and real estate marketers—at least the ones I met with—would approach this challenge with such apparently heartfelt enthusiasm was revealing. They were visualizing a new and different future.
In similar ways, the children and nature movement is proving to be one of the best ways to challenge other entrenched concepts—for example, the current test-centric definition of education reform. A different vision is embodied in the nature-themed schools sprouting up nationwide, such as the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center Preschool, where, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in April 2006, "a 3-year-old can identify a cedar tree and a maple—even if she can't tell you what color pants she's wearing. And a 4-year-old can tell the difference between squirrel and rabbit tracks—even if he can't yet read any of the writing on a map. Young children learn through the sounds, scents, and seasons of the outdoors." Taking cues from the preschool's success in engaging children, an increasing number of nature centers plan to add preschool programs not only to meet the demand for early childhood education but also to "create outdoor enthusiasts at a young age," as the Journal Sentinel reported.
The children and nature movement is fueled by this fundamental idea: the child in nature is an endangered species, and the health of children and the health of the Earth are inseparable.
Howard Frumkin, director of the National Center for Environmental Health at Centers for Disease Control, recently described the clear benefits of nature experiences to healthy child development, and to adult well-being. "In the same way that protecting water and protecting air are strategies for promoting public health, protecting natural landscapes can be seen as a powerful form of preventive medicine," he said. He believes that future research about the positive health effects of nature should be conducted in collaboration with architects, urban planners, park designers, and landscape architects. "Perhaps we will advise patients to take a few days in the country, to spend time gardening," he wrote in a 2001 American Journal of Preventive Medicine article, "or [we will] build hospitals in scenic locations, or plant gardens in rehabilitation centers. Perhaps the . . . organizations that pay for health care will come to fund such interventions, especially if they prove to rival pharmaceuticals in cost and efficacy." Today, Frumkin adds, "Of course, there is still much we need to learn, such as what kinds of nature contact are most beneficial to health, how much contact is needed and how to measure that, and what groups of people benefit most. But we know enough to act." In every arena, from conservation and health to urban design and education, the movement will have no shortage of tools and no shortage of potential far-reaching benefits. Under the right conditions, cultural and political change can occur rapidly. The recycling and antismoking campaigns revealed how social and political pressure can transform society in a single generation. The children and nature movement has perhaps even greater potential because it touches something even deeper within us, biologically and spiritually. An array of leaders from different religious backgrounds have stepped forward to support the reconciliation of children and nature. Such leaders understand that all spiritual life begins with a sense of wonder, and that one of the first windows to wonder is the natural world.
Beyond all of this, the most important development has been the growing number of individual parents and other family members who have decided to do what it takes to bring nature into their lives, and keep it there. The real measure of our success will not be in the number of programs created or bills passed, but in the breadth of cultural change that will make such decisions second nature—in every family, every school, and every neighborhood. We do not know if this young movement will outlast the decade. But those who pursue it—and the pioneers who were working for change decades ago—are responding not only to nature, but to a hunger for hope. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us that the success of any social movement depends on its ability to depict a world where people will want to go. Thinking about children's need for nature helps us begin to paint a picture of that world—which must be done, because the price of not painting that picture is too high.
In January 2005, I attended a meeting of the Quivira Coalition, a New Mexico organization that brings together ranchers and environmentalists to find common ground. (The coalition is currently working on a plan to promote ranches as new schoolyards.) When my turn came to speak, I told the audience how, when I was a boy, I felt such an intense sense of ownership of the woods near my home that I pulled out scores of developers' survey stakes in a vain attempt to keep the earthmovers at bay. After the speech, a rancher stood up. He was wearing scuffed boots. His aged jeans had never seen acid wash, only dirt and rock. His face was sunburned and creased. His drooping moustache was white, and he wore thick eyeglasses with heavy plastic frames, stained with sweat. "You know that story you told about pulling up stakes?" he said. "I did that when I was a boy too."
The crowd laughed. I laughed.
And then the man began to cry. Despite his embarrassment, he continued to speak, describing the source of his sudden grief—that he might belong to one of the last generations of Americans to feel that sense of ownership of land and nature.
The power of this movement lies in that sense, that special place in our hearts, those woods where the bulldozers cannot reach. Developers and environmentalists, corporate CEOs and college professors, rock stars and ranchers, may agree on little else, but they agree on this: no one among us wants to be a member of the last generation to pass on to our children the joy of playing outside in nature.
—Richard Louv, March 2008