Richard Louv Blog, Children playing in the park essay Posts, Atom 1. A back-to-nature movement to reconnect children with the outdoors is burgeoning nationwide. 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. Lawrence long ago called the “know-it-all state of mind. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. Leadership has emerged in nearly every sector.
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. Forest Service launched More Kids in the Woods, funding local efforts to bring children outdoors. That same year, the new U.
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.
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. 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. 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. SRI Consulting Business Intelligence to conduct a comprehensive survey of Americans’ environmental values related to everything from health, animals, global warming, taxes, and more. 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.