Children Need Fix From Nature

By Gary Wockner
May 25, 2005


Have you ever noticed that when you take your kids out into nature, they play and act differently? My daughters certainly do—they’re more bright-eyed and curious, they don’t argue as much, and they just seem happier and healthier. It turns out it’s not just you and I who notices this, but also a growing number of scientists and psychologists.

Just in time for summer vacation, a new book chronicles the scientific and psychological necessity for children to experience the natural world. Titled, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, author Richard Louv has written one of the best books I’ve read in years.

Last Child in the Woods brings together cutting-edge research to show that exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development—physical, emotional, and spiritual. Further, the research shows, “nature therapy” is a potent antidote to many of our society’s childhood ills.

As Louv eloquently states, “Time in nature is not leisure time; it is an essential investment in our children’s health.”

Here in Fort Collins we are lucky because nature surrounds us. Louv notes several things parents can do to increase the health and vitality of their children. Here are some ideas for Fort Collins parents:

1. Create what Louv calls an “environmental sacrifice zone” in your backyard where the grass grows tall, where kids are given shovels and carpentry tools, and where the water hose is easily accessible. We did this at our house a few years ago, the result being endless hours of kid-play amongst a quasi-garden, partial treehouse, sort-of tipi, and various earthen mounds and mud holes.

2. Take your kids down to the Poudre River. There’s nothing like moving water, sand, rocks, and acres of woods to nurture healthy play and learning. Often, I take my daughters to the river, and then I follow them around as they explore, or I bring along a book and read while they dig in the sand and chase crawdads.

3. Take your kids up to Horsetooth Reservoir where they can run, climb, dig, and skip rocks endlessly. Sometimes our family also plays in the mud, swims, and canoes at Horsetooth.

4. Go camping this summer. Louv cites research showing that camping increases childhood self-esteem and family bonding. Our family is going to Yellowstone next week to camp and watch the wildlife. Last year in Yellowstone, we saw wolves and a grizzly bear!

As summer winds down and school starts up, Louv argues that nature experiences should be extended into the classroom. To this end, Last Child in the Woods also discusses the growing “nature schooling” movement in the U.S.

Here in Fort Collins, we are again lucky to have many school programs that take kids outside for adventure and educational experiences. The elementary school my daughters attend—the Lab School—takes educational fieldtrips to the Poudre River, to Lory State Park, to Rocky Mountain National Park, and participates in the Pingree Park eco-week programs.

At the junior high and high school level, many Poudre District schools also have nature experience programs. We are especially lucky to have the Pioneer School which uses the “Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound” curriculum. In Last Child in the Woods, Louv cites research that shows that students who attend schools like Pioneer score equally high or higher on traditional subject tests, too. Learning in nature seems to increase personal and academic success.

School just got out here in Fort Collins, and here’s my prescription for summer fun and learning: Read Last Child in the Woods, and then take the whole family outside. We all deserve to feel bright-eyed and curious.

Gary Wockner, Ph.D (www.garywockner.com) is a writer and ecologist, and lives in Fort Collins.