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How Parents Can Give Their Children the Gift of Nature

by Richard Louv
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Book Cover Image. Title: Last Child in the Woods:  Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Author: by Richard Louv, Richard Louv

Last Child in the Woodsby Richard LouvRichard Louv

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One summer afternoon, a friend was hosting a backyard barbecue for some neighborhood families. One of the children, a ten-year-old, called out to the other kids: "Let's go down to the creek." The group of kids ran toward a small stream at the end of the yard.

"No, stop!" cried one of the parents, "there might be something down there."

My friend, standing at the grill, was speechless. Finally, he said, "But that's the point. There might be something down there."

As parents, understandably, we try to think one step ahead of our kids. But sometimes our fear does border on the irrational. Yes, there are risks outdoors (though not nearly as many as the news media would have us believe), but the indoor lifestyle carries its own psychological, physical, and spiritual risks. Still, the fear isn't going away anytime soon. Some parents will be comfortable encouraging their kids to roam freely, but the truth is most won't. So how do we give our children the gift of nature? Here are some suggestions for ways to manage our fear, reduce risk, and still get our kids outside.

Go with them. When my wife and I raised our boys, we certainly felt the fear, and they didn't have the freedom to roam that we did. But our sons did experience nature. We took them hiking, camping, and fishing. Here's the extra good news: Both children and the good adults who take them into nature receive the benefits to health and well-being.

Be a "hummingbird parent." "I hate to admit it, but fear and anxiety are definitely factors," writes Bethe Almeras (otherwise known as The Grass Stain Guru) in her blog. Almeras is the director of Education & Outreach for Head Start Body Start National Center for Physical Development and Outdoor Play. "In the range from helicopter (parenting) to neglect, I probably fall a bit more toward helicopter. In fact, I call myself a hummingbird parent." Bethe doesn't hover over her kids with nature flash cards. "I tend to stay physically distant to let them explore and problem solve, but zoom in at moments when safety is an issue (which isn't very often)."

Live as close to nature as you can, or create it. We picked the first house we owned partly because of the chaparral canyon directly behind it. Our boys played there, building their forts, digging their holes, sitting under a tree coated with butterflies, all within our eyesight. Visible space is defensible space.

Another approach is to transform part or all of your yard into natural play space. Provide natural materials such as sticks, a pile of sand or dirt, plastic sheets to create their own fort or tent, and age-appropriate tools such as metal hand shovels. Help them plant a garden that will attract butterflies and birds. On their Web sites, both Audubon and the National Wildlife Federation offer guides to create backyard wildlife habitats.

Develop a walking/activity buddy system. Encourage kids to do nature activities together. "It's cheap and grassroots-based," suggests Juliet Robertson, a nature play specialist in Scotland. "If there were agreed times and routes then folk could meet up and walk together or bike together."

Some young people are creating their own kids' nature clubs. One parent makes this suggestion for dealing with fear: "The best thing we can do as a community is to take back our trails - slowly, over time, we will reach a tipping point of sorts. The more people are out there, using our parks, using our trails, enjoying our natural areas, the more our collective comfort with this sort of thing increases."

Teach your child to watch for behaviors more than for strangers. That's the advice of family psychologist John Rosemond. "Telling a child to stay away from strangers is relatively ineffective. 'Stranger' is not a concept young children understand easily," he maintains. "Instead, children ought to be taught to be on the lookout for specific threatening behaviors and situations." Also, get to know your neighbors.

Get the outdoors safety information you need. Become familiar with good resources for safety tips in the outdoors, including those with information on how to guard against ticks. One such site is the Centers for Disease Control Web site. The Web site for the Audubon Society of Portland offers excellent general information on living with a variety of urban wildlife.

Create or join a family nature club. Nature Clubs for Families are beginning to catch on across the country; some have membership lists of over 400 families. The idea is that multiple families meet to go for a hike, garden together, or even do stream reclamation. We hear from family nature club leaders that when families get together, the kids tend to play more creatively - with other kids or independently - than during single family outings. C&NN's Nature Clubs for Families offers a free downloadable guide on how to start your own.

You can also create an adult play-watch group of parents who sit on front stoops several hours a week, watching from a distance as children play. (Perhaps these groups could be called "Hummingbird Clubs.")

Enroll your child in a nature-focused school, camp or nature center. In recent years, nature preschools or other nature-oriented schools (called forest schools in Europe) have become more popular, and they're reporting that being outside more helps children learn. Though nature-focused summer and day camps faded for a few decades, they may be gaining in popularity. The American Camp Association is a good resource.

Meanwhile, local nature centers have been created in many communities across the United States. On its Web site, National Audubon offers a good list of such centers, which offer children a variety of experiences, from nature hikes to science experiments in the woods and fields, and other adventures at the creek.

After all, there's something down there.  
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Meet Our Expert
Richard Louv
Journalist and Author
Richard Louv (www.richardlouv.com) is a journalist and author of eight books about the connections between family, nature and community. His newest book is "THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder," which offers a new vision of the future, in which our lives are as immersed in nature as they are in technology. This future, available to all of us right now, offers better psychological, physical and spiritual health for people of every age.

His book "LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder," translated into 10 languages and published in 15 countries, has stimulated an international conversation about the relationship between children and nature. The newest edition (2008) contains a special section of 100 actions that parents and communities can take. Louv is also the founding chairman of the Children & Nature Network (www.childrenandnature.org), an organization helping build the movement to connect today's children and future generations to the natural world. Louv coined the term Nature-Deficit Disorder® which has become the defining phrase of this important issue.

In 2008, Louv was awarded the Audubon Medal, presented by the National Audubon Society. Prior recipients have included Rachel Carson, E. O. Wilson and President Jimmy Carter. Louv has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times of London, and other major publications. He has appeared on many national TV shows, including NBC's Today Show and and ABC's Good Morning America. He speaks often, nationally and internationally; most recently as keynote speaker at the national conference of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
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Richard Louv
Book Cover Image. Title: Last Child in the Woods:  Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, Author: by Richard Louv, Richard Louv

Last Child in the Woodsby Richard LouvRichard Louv

  • $10.38 Online Price