Richard Louv

Recipient of the Audubon Medal

Author of the International Bestseller Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder

© 2016 Richard Louv

Original website by Juxtaprose | Developed by Hop Studios | author photo by Eric B. Dynowski

From the Blog

Want Your Kids to Get Into Harvard? Tell 'em to Go Outside!

First of two in a series

September is back-to-school month, and the chanting begins: Drill, test, lengthen the school day, skip recess, cancel field trips, and by all means discourage free time for (gasp!) self-directed play. Is that approach working, particularly in science learning? Not so well.

A few months ago, I met with a dozen biology professors at Central North Carolina University. They were deeply concerned about the dramatic deterioration of student knowledge of what’s out there: these students can tell you all about the Amazon rain forest, but nothing about the plants and animals of the neighborhoods in which they live.

When researching Last Child in the Woods, I heard a similar complaint from Paul Dayton, a famous oceanographer and professor in the Scripps Marine Life Research Group at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla. Dayton is a harsh critic of a trend in higher education, the movement away from traditional biology toward the kind of molecular sciences and bioengineering that can produce products in the lab that can be patented by research universities.

The ethical issues of that process concern him, but what worries him even more is the growing ignorance of nature that he sees in young people. “In a few years there will be nobody left to identify several major groups of marine organisms,” he said. “I wish I were exaggerating.”

During a later visit with Dayton, we were looking out of his window at the famous Scripps Pier. I asked him if he had ever thought to engaging a nearby high school. Maybe Scripps could bring the students from that school to the pier or even out on the Scripps explorer ships. “I tried that,” he said. One school administrator’s response was, he said, “Oh, no, we’ve become so sophisticated in the teaching of science, that our students don’t have to go outside anymore.”

That attitude is more common than some of us would like to believe.

Last November, two Oregon State University researchers, writing in American Scientist, made the case that “an ever-growing body of evidence demonstrates that most science is learned outside of school.” In “The 95 Percent Solution,” John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking write, “The ‘school-first’ paradigm is so pervasive that few scientists, educators or policy makers question it. This despite two important facts: Average Americans spend less than 5 percent of their life in classrooms, and an ever-growing body of evidence demonstrates that most science is learned outside of school.”

Falk and Dierking contend that “a major educational advantage enjoyed by the U.S. relative to the rest of the world” is its out-of-school learning landscape, including museums, libraries, zoos, aquariums, national parks, 4-H clubs, scouting, and, I would add, nature centers, state and local parks, and the nearby nature of our neighborhoods. They add, “The sheer quantity and importance of this science learning landscape lies in plain sight but mostly out of mind.” Rather than increasing school time, perhaps we should be investing in expanding quality, out-of-school experiences…”

Emerging research, some of it specific to out-of-school learning, some of it to the impact of time spent in natural environments on cognitive functioning, support that contention. A 2009 report by the National Research Council, Learning Science in Informal Environments: Places, People and Pursuits, “describes a range of evidence demonstrating that even everyday experiences such as a walk in the park contribute to people’s knowledge and interest in science and the environment…”

As for the research on nature experience and learning, that too is expanding. (More about that in Part Two) Many of the available studies describe correlations rather than cause and effect. But parents and educators certainly have enough evidence to act.

Out-of-school educators are already taking action, individually and programmatically. Consider Lori Kiesser’s program, Inside the Outdoors, in Orange County, California serves 150,000 children each year with a nature-based STEM education afterschool program. A growing network of grassroots volunteers and professionals, natural teachers and pediatricians work every day at getting kids and their families connected to nature. Many of us hope that the tide is turning, that educators, parents and young people, too, are becoming more aware of the value of out-of-school experience and self-directed exploration and play, especially in natural settings.

Want your kids to get into Harvard? Tell ‘em to go outside.


Richard Louv is founding chairman of the Children and Nature Network, where this piece first appeared. His newest book is THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder. He is also the author of LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS.

On Education: A video clip from Camille Rockwell’s “Mother Nature’s Child”

Next post: With the Ice Bears

Prev post: A Homegrown National Park


I totally agree.  In my experience both as an educator and a mom, children learn substantially more by having a strong connection to the world directly around them!

I’m inspired by the title of this blog entry and I believe it.  Some twenty years ago, a college “recruiter” from UC Berkeley came to tell us that 3000 straight-A applicants had applied for the 300 slots available in engineering!?  Berkeley recognized there was a problem and so instituted an 800 point system of grading.  The first 400 points were GPA and the other 400 points were based on your essay! 

So even back then leading schools were searching for something ineffable in their applicants – a spark and a prowess and a lucidity that comes from living bare and natural.  Oh they talked of community service, athletics and arts and such as the good stuff that will boost your essay score but it was clearly implied that they wanted to be inspired by your story.  What is inspiration after all?  It is an in-breath, literally.  And it is epiphany, rapturous absorption and the lucid determination to cherish, share and protect that wich is truly true, truly good and truly beautiful. 

So let’s add some muscle to the claim that experience with nature will make you competitive in the academic world.  For my part, I’m developing an integral architecture, capable of sustaining the Nature Quest through a lifetime of distracting vicissitudes.  My own distracting vicissitudes have made me an expert on the subject so I expect I’ll produce some well informed projects.  For now, baby steps.

I very much look forward to your next book and I’m sincerely honored to be able to blog with you.  Thank You.

That 5% DOES make sense. A person isn’t going to school for 12 FULL years. They go for about 7hrs a day (nearly a full time job),five days a week for about 180 days per year. However, I don’t think after school programs are enough…the amount of homework kids get is incredible (I know, I’m still in school). Wouldn’t it be easier to integrate nature into regular school hours?

Thank you, thank you, thank you for your writing on this topic. As an educator I am saddened and disheartened when I observe children who do not seem to know what to do when they find themselves in natural settings. So many children spend most of their days in a concrete block room with the blinds drawn (as is typical in schools in my area), on playgrounds designed by adults, and in structured, adult-led extra-curricular activities. In an age when parents and teachers can be misguided into thinking more academic work will give students an edge in life, I am so grateful when research like this surfaces.

But it is not all gloom and doom in our homes and classrooms. I am noticing an increase in parents who are pushing for balance in their children’s lives, including demanding less homework, streamlining those extra-curricular activities, spending more time outdoors and less in front of the TV, and living more simply. Keep working on getting the word out so that perhaps in the near future our society can return to a more balanced state that better reflects our own nature as humans.

glad to read this as my new “teaching job” is to get our students outside- I just assumed everyone valued outdoor ed./science in the field and service withing their community- what a shock to find out this was not the philosophy of most educators???? following my heart…

I just learned about you from one of my grad courses and I really like what you have to say. The more i use my laptop, and television the more disconnected I feel. I work in front of a computer all day and I love information and reading so in my downtime i read a lot. And when i get into this zone after a few hours when a human starts a conversation with me I feel a magnet pulling my mind back to the computer screen, like a junkie.

Spending time in nature and away from the technology does the opposite. I have more attention and more focus. But it is a struggle. Technolgoy is everywhere. Teachers are constantly researching news ways to get it into the classroom. And today that kids are growing up with smart phones, aka digital natives, teachers feel they have to use these tools to stay relevant.

In my learnings I read this one story of native americans and they are attached to the land and nature. At a certain age the children play a game where they go into the forest and pick a tree that speaks to them. They than return to the village and have to find the tree again, but blindfolded.

Nice post. I enjoyed reading this blog. As will follow my heart. I would like to have one of this book in my home and share it with my family and friends. Thanks.

I have to agree with Ian - technology is everywhere and kids want the latest gadgets.  It’s getting more difficult for parents to get kids out of their bedrooms, off their laptops and into the fresh air - That’s how we enjoyed our free time…

Today it’s all about digital communication.  I have seen kids sat next to each other on a sofa texting each other!

This is the first time I have come across you Richard but it won’t be the last!

I totally agree that kids nowadays don’t spend anywhere near enough time outdoors in the environment and I’m not just talking about school.

When we were young we were constantly outside playing out of school hours whereas nowadays they all just sit inside playing computer games, often on their own in their own rooms connected only via the interet.

My sister is a teacher so I’m going to send her to your site she will really enjoy it.

Thanks a lot.

Next step - invest in one of your books!

I am a big fan of yours and love “Last Child in the Woods”. Tonight I was reading our local paper and laughed out loud when I read the caption “Playgrounds too safe, stifle imagination, some say”. I try to involve my children, my preschoolers, my extended family, friends, really everyone around me to enjoy being outside, being in nature, and discovering their neighborhood.

Last week, my five-year-old son picked up a brown leaf and declared, “It’s the first fall leaf! Look how it’s dark brown.” He was so excited, for he had found a real treasure in the industrial parking lot of our Chiropractor. He held the leaf with great care and wanted to give it to Dr. Mackin, since it was in his parking lot. “This can be his treasure, the first Fall leaf.”

I was filled with so much emotion as I watched my little boy find so much joy and happiness in finding a brown leaf many people would never notice.

Thank you for all you do and Happy Autumn Equinox,

The news article,“Playgrounds too safe, stifle imagination, some say”.

This is an excellent subject. People have become so disconnected from the nature that we have even insulated ourselves from the physical earth connection. We wear rubber/plastic shoes and almost never touch the real ground. It is very important to release the charge that builds up on your body as often as possible. It is equally important to have the negatively and positively charged particles balanced out. There are now products that help people have this connection even when sleeping. Special earthing sheets that plug in to the grounded port of the mains enable all this. I think it is a cool invention!

After reading the article, I feel that I need more information on the topic. Can you suggest some resources please?, Excellent post!

Good stuff, thanks.  Going outside and being curious is a great way to learn and come very naturally to us humans.  We do seem to have setup a society that makes that much more difficult unfortunately.

Those that spend time outside seem to (in my very unscientific sample) be more comfortable with themselves.  I think connecting to how the world works is much more “natural” (it fits with our evolution and gives us comfort) than what happens in our man made world.  We obviously can function perfectly fine in our man made world.  But I think we lose a great deal.

I love hiking about national parks and local parks.  Here are some photos from Glacier National Park (I do also love that the internet lets us easily share things like this).

I am so relieved that you came up with the term Nature deficit disorder. I had been observing this in the younger generation (I am in the 60’s) and it started to scare me. I really mean this. The first time I became aware of this was several years ago when I offered a young couple to pick my friend’s apples and I overheard the husband (mid 30’s) asking his wife:”...and how do you know when an apple is ripe?” At that point I walked away and laughed. But then I realized that this was no simple matter. This couple had a child and what are they going to teach this child about the natural world? I realized that without knowing it, we raised a supermarket generation. I have encouraged young parents to walk their children to school and to take them to the forest, but many don’t understand what I am saying. I am so glad you raised the awareness. I also have to mention that in Maple Ridge, BC,Canada, there is an “outdoor school” now. Simon Fraser University realized that there was a need for outdoor exposure and started the program this September. When the word go out the spots were filled up right away and many children are on the waiting list. Thank you so much for laying the groundwork. Gratefully, Annerose Sims

I hugely agree with this post, unfortunately there are a number of factors that deter teachers from leaving the classroom, here in the UK the number of incidences of pupils parents suing schools for accidents occurring on school trips is massively on the increase. Costing schools valuable budget and making the concept of leaving the safe confines of the classroom a thing of the past

In my learnings I read this one story of native americans and they are attached to the land and nature. At a certain age the children play a game where they go into the forest and pick a tree that speaks to them.

Excellent post. Extremely helpful information specifically the last part 😊 Thank you and good luck

This is an extremely practical presentation that gives great examples of how to engage people in executing the plan. I found this very insightful.

Hello,I love reading through your blog,  I wanted to leave a little comment to support you and wish you a good continuation. Wishing you the best of luck for all your blogging efforts.

Telling them to go outside was the vertical meaning of going to Harvard was just like opening your thought and self in a range along the world. I am amazed with this content cause i do believe that the best way to learn is to experience it.

Thanks for your very interesting article. It was thought-provoking for me and I hope you will publish some more arcticles about this theme.

My mother-in-law has been an elementary educator for years and this was her theory for all her teaching.  She would refer to many community sites for some ideas, such for Martha’s Vineyard which is where she is currently.  There are so many things to do and incorporate those into teaching.  Great ideas!  I hope my kid goes to Harvard, he lives outdoors.

My dad was also a teacher on Martha’s Vineyard for over 25 years.  He was a history teacher so he used many of the resources in the area to help him with lessons.  I think he would be on board with this type of teaching because he practiced a lot of this many years ago.

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Great information. I got lucky and found your site from a random Google search. Fortunately for me, this topic just happens to be something that I’ve been trying to find more info on for research purpose. Keep us the great and thanks a lot.

This is an excellent subject. People have become so disconnected from the nature that we have even insulated ourselves from the physical earth connection. We wear rubber/plastic shoes and almost never touch the real ground. It is very important to release the charge that builds up on your body as often as possible.

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Just had a weekend hiking in the Yorkshire Dales with some old friends.  Dressed in the appropriate footwear and waterproofs I was raring to go, to immerse myself in this wonderful outdoor environment, to cleanse my soul and rid myself of all the stresses and strains that had somehow managed to overwhelm me.

Perhaps I should have realised after waiting almost 2 hours for my city slicker friends to get ready that my old boots wouldn’t be covering too many miles, but it was the sight of my friends as they emerged wearing super shiny new Barbour coats and Hunter wellies, fresh out of the box that my heart really sank.

We did indeed eventually get outdoors and after taking detours to avoid muddy puddles we had a wonderful day, it would be difficult not to surrounded by such natural beauty.

I guess the main thing that came out of this weekend was that I felt odd and isolated around my old friends.  I just couldn’t get my head around why one could not walk through a puddle wearing wellington boots when I felt like taking my boots off and walking through in my bare feet!

Much loved friends, but I guess just different and most definitely suffering from Nature Deficit Disorder.

Thank you for raising the awareness.  Your book will make a great christmas gift for each one of my ‘Hunter wearing wellington
brigade’ friends.

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