The following post is condensed from an interview appearing in the latest issue of Hand to Hand, ACM’s quarterly journal. The interview was conducted by Mary Maher, editor of Hand to Hand.
In 2006, Richard Louv delivered a keynote address at InterActivity held that year in Boston. He had recently published what would become a landmark book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. In the years since, this award-winning journalist, commentator and activist has authored eight more books, including The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age, and most recently Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life: 500 Ways to Enrich Your Family’s Health & Happiness. His books, translated into thirteen languages and published in seventeen countries, have helped launch an international movement to connect children and their families to nature, which is the focus of an organization which he co-founded and for which he serves as chairman emeritus, Children & Nature Network.
Louv graciously took a break from working on his newest book, which is focused on the evolving relationship between humans and other animals, to respond to questions from the children’s museum field, one of many that have been deeply influenced by his work.
Mary Maher: In the eleven years since you delivered the keynote address at InterActivity 2006 in Boston, your message of getting kids back outside and involved with nature has spread within our field—and around the world. Has this message changed or been refined over the years?
Richard Louv: Since 2006, I’ve tried to place more emphasis on how we envision the future—long-term. Conservation is no longer enough. To improve our psychological and physical health, our sense of pleasure and happiness, and our ability to learn, we have to transform our cities, yards, homes, and workplaces into incubators of biodiversity.
We’re at a crucial point in what I call the “new nature movement.” Awareness has grown, but we need to move into an action mode, both at the family and community levels. My new book, Vitamin N, offers suggestions on how to do this that can be adapted by children’s museums. The Children & Nature Network, a nonprofit organization that grew out of Last Child in the Woods, currently has a partnership with the National League of Cities (representing 19,000 mayors and other municipal leaders in the U.S.) to urge mayors to improve opportunities for children and families to connect to nature in urban areas.
Children’s museums can join this effort (and many already have) by offering parallel opportunities, such as those now created in the green schoolyards movement—places where kids play in plant-filled natural settings. Children’s museums can play a larger role in creating bioregional awareness, directly helping families make real changes in their homes and neighborhood environments. For example, they can send children and parents home with native plants or seeds to help rebuild urban biodiversity, as well as promote nature-based play at home and in the community.
MM: Your book Vitamin N contains more than 500 activities to get kids and families more involved with nature. What are some of your favorite activities that are most effective at increasing that link to nature?
RL: It’s hard to choose, but here are three:
- Encourage and share radical amazement. The great teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel encouraged his students to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that took nothing for granted. He wrote, “Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” To be amazed is more important than the particular information learned. All spiritual life begins with a sense of wonder. Nature is one of a child’s first windows into wonder.
- Select a special place outdoors that you feel nurtures mental health. Find an outdoor spot that you will visit for one month—several times each week, at various times of the day, and in various weather conditions. Find a comfortable spot, sit quietly, and be present in this place for at least a half hour per visit.
- Go on a techno-fast. Too much screen time needs an antidote—stream time works. Research shows that multitasking can divide attention and hurt the ability to learn and create. Children and parents need a break. Getting more music, art, yoga, meditation, weight lifting—whatever —into our lives can help. Technology fasting while spending time in the natural world may be the most effective antidote to the downsides the digital age.
MM: In the eleven-plus years of your work on nature education, what are some unexpected outcomes or results?
RL: I’ve learned to my surprise that this is an intrinsically hopeful issue. The concern about connecting children to nature transcends political and religious barriers, and brings people together. It not only helps people look at education, healthcare, and urban design and architecture differently, but it may also help conservationists take the next step in the evolution of environmentalism.
In “Imagine a Newer World,” an essay adapted from The Nature Principle, I paint a modest portrait of what I hope that that world will be like.
MM: What role do you see children’s museums playing in better connecting their community’s children with nature?
RL: The seeds of the future are planted in our homes and neighborhoods, but also in a community’s businesses and institutions. Schools, museums, zoos, service organizations, churches, and more are the connectors of community. I am delighted to hear that more than fifty children’s museums around the U.S. are in the process of developing outdoor exhibits and play areas, some of which are written about in this issue.
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