Author Richard Louv had the 1950’s storybook childhood you always wanted: hours spent romping around outdoors and roaming the woods near his Kansas City home with his collie (let’s picture an equally intelligent Lassie, shall we?). And just wait until Louv gets talking about the triple decker treehouse he and his buddies built. It all sounds so idyllic (and, to Xbox-playing, Project Runway-watching generation Y-ers, so foreign) that you have to wonder if he and David Brooks’ Organization Kid could have found a single thing to say to each other. But nostalgia for the days when kids didn’t come back inside until dark isn’t the reason Louv spent ten years researching 2005 bestseller Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. It’s not the reason he founded the non-profit Children & Nature Network in 2006, and it’s not the reason he’s worked tirelessly to jumpstart grassroots organized outdoor activity programs all over the country. Louv has devoted himself to getting kids outdoors because it’s good for them—probably a far more critical component of their physical and emotional health than we even yet realize—and because they, with any luck, are going to be tomorrow’s conservationists.

Today, with a 2008 Audubon Medal sitting on his mantle (past recipients include Rachel Carson, E.O. Wilson, Robert Redford, and Jimmy Carter) and Congress at work on a $500 million bill that would fund five years’ worth of nature programs for kids, Louv’s work has never been more in the spotlight. Plenty caught up with him to ask why children need to get outside, and how to make that happen.

What’s keeping kids indoors?

I think what has happened is many barriers have been placed between them and nature. Technology is one barrier, but I don’t blame video games. It’s too easy to do that. The minute we start demonizing video games and computers that’s exactly what kids want to spend even more time doing. The biggest barrier between kids and the outdoors is the fear that parents feel about strangers and about nature. All you have to do is watch CNN or Fox and you’ll see how they take a handful of crimes against children every year and repeat them over and over again. News media and entertainment media have basically scared us to death, scared us right out of nature.

How do kids benefit from getting outdoors?

First, children benefit greatly from unstructured play, particularly make-believe play. And kids are far more creative in natural play spaces than on the typical flat playground, whether it’s made of concrete or tuft. They are far more likely to invent their own games in natural places. And in schools that have outdoor classrooms kids tend to do better across the board from social studies to standardized testing. One reason is that other than in a New York subway, when else do you use all your senses at the same time? It seems to me that using all of your senses at the same time is the optimum state of learning. When you’re sitting in front of a computer screen, or locked in a cubicle called a classroom, you’re not using all your senses at the same time. Outdoors, you are.

Nature play has also been correlated with a longer attention span, and studies show it’s an antidote to child obesity. Psychological health is another benefit: kids with more experience in nature, even if it’s just a view from their room of a natural landscape are more psychologically resilient, or correlated to more psychological resilience.  

How do we make space for outdoor play in today’s society?

Because fear is so intense among parents now, they—along with grandparents and other good adults—are going to have to take kids into nature themselves. They’re going to have to decide to go on the family hike, go on a camping vacation, take kids themselves and make sure part of their backyard is left unmanicured. They’re going to have to encourage their kids largely by example. Their own enthusiasm about nature is what counts most. We’ll also have to support the institutions and organizations that help kids and parents get outdoors, from scouting programs to nature centers to parks.

We’re also going to have to come up with ways to give kids nature experience without waiting for funding. There’s a group called Nature Strollers: moms that got tired of being afraid when they were walking in the woods, so they get together and put their babies in strollers and they walk together. Another example is a family in Virginia for example, the father is a second grade teacher, and he wrote me a couple months ago to say that his family had read the book and gotten inspired and they were starting to go outside on the weekends to have nature adventures. And one day the five year old said to the father, “dad, how come we’re the only family having this much fun?” So the father started recruiting other families, and pretty soon he had over 170 families on his email list. The idea here is that these families use the internet and the phone to set up what are essentially nature play dates among families.

What changes would you make to the NO CHILD LEFT INSIDE act?

That bill is meant to modify Leave No Child Behind, and that’s not going to happen right away. But it’s moved through Congress a lot faster than any of us would have expected. There’s a lot of support for Leave No Child Inside, in Congress. As it continues to be adjusted, I would hope that emphasis (while a lot of what they’re talking about needs to happen in the classroom or at the school) would be on getting kids out of the classroom. I would hope that they would begin to see that this is the job not only of the school but of the school in partnership with city parks, state parks, national parks,  And also in partnership with farms and ranches that could be, as they are in Norway, new school yards. Places to learn. There are ways to extend education beyond the walls of the school and into more natural habitats.

As it stands now, how far would the act go to reach the goals that you personally have for America?

We have to remember that the ultimate goal is cultural change. National legislation is only one way to promote this. So is state legislation. So is more support for the institutions and organizations to get kids outdoors. So are the nature clubs I mentioned. One of the most important things that’s been occurring in the past couple years—and the children nature network has been charting this and you can see the map on the website—is over 50 urban regions and states have in the last couple of years launched regional campaigns to get kids outdoors. Legislation is only part of the picture. What these campaigns are doing is bringing together businesses, conservationists, medical figures, educators, and all kinds of people that normally don’t get to the same table, in order to promote kids getting outside into nature.

Story by Tobin Hack. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in September 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008