In October, I had the unique opportunity to hear Richard Louv, speak to the Texas Children in Nature Network in Austin, Texas. Rich is the co-founder of the Children and Nature Network (C&NN), an international organization that is dedicated to connecting children and families to nature, and the author of two bestselling books, Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle.
Rich's work inspired me to get more involved in this movement as well as to focus my writing agenda on children in nature.While listening to him engage with the audience, I took copious notes, and wrote an article for the Dallas Fort Worth Children in Nature Network Newsletter. Excerpts from the article are below.
How has the attitude about Children in Nature changed in the past decade since you first wrote Last Child in the Woods?
“In the beginning, a lot of professionals were out there working on this, but the public and the academic world ignored the issue. In terms of a public discussion it wasn’t on the stove. Now, because of people in this room, it’s on the front burner.”
He shared how the current and past two Secretaries of the Interiors have promoted this issue, and that there has been some movement in regards to policy issues.
But, “the most important change is the grass roots efforts—we’ve exploded.” The media has also not let go of the idea of connecting children and families to nature. “There are as many Google hits today as when the book first came out,” he shared.
Rich co-founded the Children and Nature Network to “continue to tell the story and keep it in the public eye.” And even though the efforts are working, “we must never stop talking about the issue; otherwise, it will be moved back off the stove.”
How can we get more students from low income areas connected with nature?
First off, Rich said, “Don’t lump all urban kids into the same group” as they all have different needs and interests. He also recommended that we not forget about the suburban kids too, joking about how hard it can be to get approval from home owner’s associations just to put up basketball hoops in the driveway. His recommendation was to “get the kids and put them on busses to camps and outdoor centers” and to establish scholarships so students from lower incomes can attend outdoor, nature-based programs.
He shared a story about a high school student who lived in an urban neighborhood that was plagued with gunfire; however, this student was absolutely terrified during his field trip to a nature center. When asked why, the teenager said, “There are only four or five noises in my neighborhood, and I know what they mean. Here there are hundreds of noises and I don’t know what any of them mean.” But by the end of the field trip, “this teenager was jumping over creeks like he was an eight year old.” It doesn’t take long to get them connected once we get them there.
What do you think the role is of technology in nature?
The Children and Nature Network just posted a blog, ‘High Tech, High Nature’ about this issue. “Technology is not the enemy, but the dominance of technology is. … The problem is the out-of-balance [use of technology]. The more high tech our lives become, the more nature we need.”
Rich shared that he is a big fan of geocaching, digital cameras, and using technology to engage the public in citizen science programs. “Tech happens,” he laughed. “Think about it, a fishing rod, a tent, and a compass are technologies. Technology is not new, but what is new is the immersion, which dulls our senses.”
If you were to start over again with C&NN, what would you do differently?
“We are now in a stage where we are thinking more systematically, and I would have started earlier getting organizations, like churches, engaged to ramp up promotion of nature clubs. Same with the medical profession promoting park prescriptions.”
He also laughed, saying that he would “personally know a lot more rich people.” While he doesn’t believe in big overhead, sharing that C&NN doesn’t have a physical office and that he is a full-time volunteer for the organization. “Without money,” he said, “the doors will shut” making it a lot more difficult to promote our message.
What are the coolest ideas you’ve heard of to connect children to nature?
“Family nature clubs, Finland’s education program [where students alternate their time all day, spending 45 minutes inside and then 15 minutes outside], and school gardens.” He also talked about the Natural Teachers program, indicating that many teachers who want to take their students outside feel isolated, and through this program they are no longer alone.
Recently, Rich sat down with Sally Jewell, the Secretary of the Interior to discuss moving forward with the Conservation Core. (Click here to see a video of that conversation.)
During this conversation he asked her the question, “Who is going to replace the baby boomers who are retiring from conservation and environmental careers? Kids who have never been outside?”
He urged her to broaden the definition of “green jobs” to include jobs that connect people to nature. Rich said that he would love to see a career guide to connecting people to Nature, in which we could promote positions such as biophilic architects, nature-based therapy, and “lots of possible jobs that don’t exist yet, but could.”
He continued that we could create and promote careers that produce not just a sustainable city, but a “nature-rich city.”
What do you think about environmental justice?
“Most people define it as the right to not have toxins dumped in your area, but we need to go beyond that definition—to the right to the benefits of nature: The right to your own health, creativity, cognitive improvement, and physical health. …Kids have a human right to a connection to nature, and until we see it as a human right, then it will always be seen as [just] a nice thing to have.”
What final message do you have for us?
“In this field, it is easy to burn out and despair, and we need to take good care of each other. … That is one of our tasks, to take care of one another. This is happy work, and it’s a happy cause. So take care of each other and of yourself.”
We need to “conserve the conservationist,” and “come together to rejuvenate and celebrate.”