When author Richard Louv was growing up on the outskirts of Kansas City in the 1950s and early 1960s, he spent his free time organizing pick-up games in neighbors' yards and in parks, scrambling around in the woods near his home — collecting snakes, sometimes poisonous ones — and building forts and treehouses. He was also something of a rebel, too, pulling up surveyors' stakes of subdivisions proposed for his beloved woods.
And when he tried to sit down and watch TV, his parents told him, in an oft-repeated phrase that echoes in the brains of most baby boomers, "Go outside and play!"
Fast forward three-plus decades. Louv, then a syndicated columnist with the San Diego Union-Tribune, began to wonder where all the kids had gone. Turns out, he said, that they were inside playing early versions of computer games. And many parents, worried by stories about the relative handful of terrible crimes that were repeated over and over again on cable TV, were happy to keep them at home and "safe," Louv said in a recent interview.
"Fear of crime was at the top of the list as a culprit, and traffic," said Louv, who coined the term "nature deficit." He is the author of "Last Child in the Woods" and "The Nature Principle." His much-lauded writings have spawned efforts in this country and around the globe to reconnect children and families with the outdoors.
"High crime rates are real in some neighborhoods, but not most," he said. "Though there has been a recent uptick, the actual rate of violent crime has been declining for the past 35 years. But we pulled indoors."
The results for the health of children raised under what he calls "protective childhood arrest" have not been good. So while there is some risk of falling out of trees when kids play outdoors — which remains part of its attraction, Louv mused — staying inside to watch TV or play often violent computer games has given us a generation of inactive kids. The result has been rising rates of childhood obesity with all the problems of diabetes and heart disease that come even during childhood or later.
So Louv railed against poorly designed neighborhoods with few parks, fear of boogeymen and seductive technology. According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study, he said American kids now spend a whopping 54 hours a week plugged into some kind of electronic medium. Their parents are probably as bad or worse, he said, which doesn't leave a lot of time for other activities.
"Not only are there risks to kids' health by keeping them inside, but it also hurts their ability to socialize outside the home," he said. "Ultimately, I believe, there is even a risk to democracy. In order to care about nature, the environment and your neighbors, you need to step outdoors. Too often, people just get in their cars in their garages and drive off down the street, never even getting to know who lives next to them."
Even team sports have come in for criticism by Louv, who notes that the greatest increase in childhood obesity occurred during the same two decades as the largest increase in organized sports for children in our history. While that doesn't mean that organized sports are causing obesity, he said exercising for only a few hours isn't helping to the extent that we think it is.
Many Americans (Europeans, Chinese and Brazilians, too) have gotten the message and created programs to get kids outside again. They have names like "Every Child Outdoors" in Tennessee and "Taking Children Outdoors" in Texas. Even developers have gotten on the bandwagon, he said, creating new neighborhoods with open spaces, hiking trails and nature centers that many families — as well as baby boomers — find more attractive than subdivisions built around golf courses. The author said he was shocked, shocked, when he was warmly received at his first builders' conference.
Nancy Dorman, who runs the Every Child Outdoors coalition in Tennessee, said the Volunteer State's effort was launched within several years after Louv's "Last Child in the Woods" was published.
"He came out to Nashville to do a presentation and as a result, we organized a broad coalition of organizations that were interested in this issue," she said. "I'm an environmental educator and a Tennessee State Parks person, but our goal is to get people together from a wide variety of constituency areas, including health, education and even the built environment, to talk about issues and see what barriers we can remove to get kids into the outdoors."
She said they developed the Tennessee Environmental Literacy Plan. For its part, her agency created a statewide Junior Ranger program that is partially funded by a Project Diabetes grant from the Tennessee Health Department. State parks offer Junior Ranger camps and other programs, including after-school activities at elementary schools, she said.
"We also have a middle school and family running program that is kind of a park-based running club to encourage families and kids to come out to the state parks and run," she said. "We have cross-country running events several times a year. And we do seasonal summer programs for families because kids don't function in a vacuum. We want to encourage families and kids to get out and enjoy nature and the outdoors."
In Texas, Jennifer Bristol said that the state's Children in Nature program started about five years ago and has grown into a network of about 300 government agencies, nonprofits, businesses and individuals whose goal is to get kids and families outdoors. It was sparked, in part, by surveys that said that typical park users in Texas were in their 40s.
"Our tag line is that kids and families who spend time outdoors are happier, healthier and smarter," said Bristol, who coordinates the program. "This all grew out of the movement Richard Louv started and took off when the project was endorsed by our state Legislature. They recognized that this is important for our kids.
"About 80 of the legislators said ‘We want to do something about this, so go for it!' So we work with schools, healthcare providers and others, helping families who want to get out in nature. We also work with educators to help them get their science lessons outdoors."
She said the "Nature Rocks Texas" website (naturerockstexas. org) is the main vehicle for providing information to Texas families. It has information on nearly all the state's green space and nature centers.
"You name it, it's there," she said of the website. "It has a ton of activities that families can pick and choose from when they have the time and inclination to get outside. All of the state parks are listed as well as our national partners, wildlife refuges, etc.
"If people say they don't know what to do, we send them to this website, which has it all," she said. "Now we are revamping it, so it's more mobile friendly because we know through research that 80 percent of families — even underserved ones — are connecting with mobile devices. We want to include everyone."
Bristol said when she spoke to families recently about the program, which is funded through the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, they were somewhat skeptical about how spending time in nature would benefit their kids.
"I told them that numerous studies show kids who are playing and learning in nature are physically and mentally healthier, do better in school, have higher self-esteem, have better self-discipline, are more capable and confident, are more cooperative, more creative and better problem solvers than their peers who don't get out as much. They're also tomorrow's conservation leaders."
But what really sparked the attention of the families was when she told them that she talked to friends, who owned businesses or interviewed people for jobs, about that research, and those friends said "send us those problem solvers. We need folks who can think critically and have that on-the-fly ability to come up with solutions because it's not something that is taught or tested for in our current school system that we have."
"We see that time and time again with all of our partners," she said. "They say kids coming out of their programs say they have that capacity and ability, which is pretty cool."
Grace Lee, executive director of the National Park Trust, said her organization began working to reconnect kids with nature six years ago with the launch of its "Buddy Bison" program. Roughly two years later, it started the "Kids to Parks" day, "getting young people — mainly in poor urban areas — to green spaces right in their backyards and then a little further, perhaps an hour or so, away."
The Buddy Bison program uses parks and public lands as outdoor classrooms, primarily to teach children about science and history, said Lee, who lauded the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® for supporting the program.
"We talk to school leaders to find out where best a program like this would plug into their classrooms," she said. "It's usually 3rd, 4th and 5th graders, but we can also work with kids everywhere from pre-K through 8th grade. Then we enhance their existing curricula by taking their learning outdoors.
"We also know that parks are great places for kids to play, burn off energy and get their bodies moving. This is important because about two-thirds of our country is overweight and obese, so it is a wonderful twofold opportunity to help underserved communities.
"We fund all the costs, including all of the staff planning, execution of the program and transportation.
One of the other reasons why we created this school program is because the demographics of the country are not reflected in those who go to parks. And we know that only those who have a connection to nature will know how important it is to not only take advantage of these places, but to preserve them for future generations."
Though the environmental movement often has a gloom-and-doom element, Louv said he is fairly optimistic about the future and has hopes that a new kind of city can emerge.
"The world is urbanizing, so there is a danger that the nature deficit disorder could grow," he said. "As of 2008, more people in the world live in cities than in the countryside.
"As that continues, humans will either lose most of whatever connection they have to the natural world, or we will create new kinds of cities, ones that can become centers of biodiversity and human health by having more nature in them. That's my hope. It won't be wilderness, but it can be done through biophilic design that incorporates nature into public and private places — and individual actions."
Moreover, Louv said he has been inspired by his talks with college students — most of whom were raised with images of a bleak dystopic and post-apocalyptic future.
"Martin Luther King said any movement will fail if it cannot paint a picture of a world that people want to go to," he said. "But I am optimistic that we can turn this around because of positive things that I have seen in the past decade.
"I talk to a lot of college kids. They know that things like sustainability and energy efficiency are important. But it's kind of hard to get excited about BTUs.
"However, when the conversation changes to discussing what a nature-rich future looks like and whether they'd like to be part of making that, their eyes light up and their whole affect changes. They really want to go to that future. That gives me a lot of hope.
"I'm also pleased with the counter-movement that has emerged around the globe. There are tens of thousands of people — mostly volunteers — who are working on getting kids outside again to play and explore. There are things like family nature clubs sprouting up all over. In San Diego, where I live, 1,500 families belong to one and do things like go out for a hike. And they don't need a foundation grant or government action. Things like that make me optimistic, too."
Brian E. Clark is a Wisconsin-based journalist and a former staff writer on the business desk of The San Diego Union-Tribune. He is a contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Sun-Times, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Dallas Morning News and other publications.