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No Child Left Inside

How Richard Louv Sparked a Movement to Get Kids Outdoors

kid daydreaming

Some people are born to activism; others have activism thrust upon them. For every person who possesses a keen sense of the world’s injustices and a fever for remedying them, there have to be another 10 or 20 people who arrive at social change work slowly, serendipitously. A classic subspecies of the reluctant activist is the writer, journalist, or academic who, after studying a subject for years, finally decides there’s no other option but to put down the pen and take action. A good example would be NASA climatologist James Hansen, or author-turned-environmental leader Bill McKibben.
    You could also put on that list Richard Louv. Before 2005, Louv — a longtime columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune — was a well regarded (if little known) writer who had published a number of books preoccupied with the connections between parenthood, family, and community. Then he wrote Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. The book became a best-seller — and in the process helped spark a grassroots movement to get American kids away from the Web and out into the world.
    Louv’s book pulled off the feat journalists always hope for: it uncovered a major problem that had been lurking in plain sight. Much like, say, Betty Friedan’s Feminist Mystique, Last Child in the Woods gave name to a malaise that many of us had perceived but had no words for. Only instead of dissecting women’s alienation from their own lives, Louv described a similar problem affecting modern children — an alienation from the physical world.
    “For many [children], playing in nature seemed so … Unproductive. Off-limits. Alien. Cute. Dangerous. Televised,” Louv writes, then later continues, “In the United States, children are spending less time playing outdoors — or in any unstructured way. From 1997 to 2003, there was a decline of 50 percent in the proportion of children nine to twelve who spent time in such outside activities as hiking, walking, fishing, beach play, and gardening.”
    So what? I can hear the plugged-in peanut gallery saying. Because, as Louv documents, less time for unstructured play in nature means “diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illness.” Kids who play outside are simply more focused, healthier, and happier.
    Like so many other fine titles, Louv’s heartfelt investigation might have gone no further than the bookstore. But then an interesting thing happened: Parents and teachers across the country who had also perceived the problem of nature deficit disorder decided to do something, and in 2006 they launched the Children & Nature Network. Today the network has 80 chapters across the country looking for new ways to get young people to engage with the real, living world. 
    “This movement was around before Last Child came out,” Louv said recently. “We are at the moment in the movement when it could become a fad and go away — or it could jump to the next level and grow exponentially. …. This isn’t about programs. It’s about culture change.”
    I had the chance to hear from Louv last week when he and other leaders in what some have called the “No Child Left Inside” movement gathered in San Francisco for a two-day strategy session. The meeting was hosted on the National Geographic Sea Bird,  a large yacht which is operated by Linblad Expeditions, a company that organizes adventure travel to places like Alaska, the Galapagos, and Antarctica. As we cruised around San Francisco Bay, the gathering's participants got busy networking and laying plans for fulfilling their agenda. Since I was an outsider in the close-knit group of activists, a lot of the talk was new to me. What I found most interesting was that, for many of the people there, getting kids outside isn’t just an end in itself — it’s also a key way of encouraging the ecological awareness necessary to preserve and defend the environment. This should be obvious enough. After all, no one will fight to protect a place they do not know. Or, as Tierney Thys, a National Geographic Explorer and marine biologist put it: “The oceans are getting hammered, so we need all hands on deck to love the natural world, to embrace it, to work for it.”
    A collection of parents, teachers and nature enthusiasts working to have children spend more time outdoors — that sounds nice, doesn’t it? Really, though, the work of the Children & Nature Network is quite radical — radical in the sense that it’s addressing one of the root causes of our environmental crisis. Because if the next generation is ignorant or indifferent about the natural world, there will simply be fewer people eager to work in its defense. In a society in which internet connections are prized over natural connections, encouraging kids to spend some time getting dirty in a creek is rebellious.
    “Ultimately, this is a subversive idea,” Louv said. “We can’t wait for the principles and school boards and education reform. Our ideas is that this will become contagious.”
    Larry Volpe, a teacher from Santa Clara, CA who was honored with the Children & Nature Network’s first award for outstanding performance, was even more to the point. Volpe said, “Have kids develop an organic relationship to nature — then you don’t have to teach them activism.”
    In listening to the outdoor enthusiasts hatching their plans, I was impressed by their willingness to meet the dominant culture where it’s at. Because fact is, most people in this country — and not just children — see the natural world as scary, dirty, and weird. It’s simply not part of their daily experience. Which is why it’s so important not just to promote kids getting into the wilderness, but to explore the wild places that are close to home and often forgotten or neglected.
    “We’re trying to bring the outdoors into people’s everyday lives,” said Sally Jewell, the CEO of REI. “And not in a 1950s sort of way, loading up the station wagon and going to Yosemite. Because it’s not going to happen. We need to invest in our local parks, in our city parks, so that kids feel safe to go out and play.”
    The great outdoors, it turns out, is as close as our own backyards.

Jason MarkJason Mark photo
Jason Mark is the Editor in Chief of SIERRA, the national magazine of the Sierra Club, and the author of Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man. From 2007 to 2015 he was the Editor of Earth Island Journal.

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What a timely article. I recently started taking my two young children on guided hiking tours of Tryon Creek, a state park near my home in Portland, Oregon, and have noticed a remarkable increase in their energy, curiosity and enthusiasm. I’d been taking them on hikes at Tryon Creek since they were babies but the outdoor education component that they’ve been experiencing on our recent hikes has launched their interest and engagement in nature into the stratosphere. Thank you for helping to spread the word about the importance of getting - and staying - connected to the natural world.

By Jessica on Tue, December 14, 2010 at 12:25 pm

We must ask ourselves, exactly how are our children connecting to nature? The young ones are usually introduced to nature the proper way. Then they get older and are seduced by extreme sports. Many of them are now learning that they can bring their hefty mountain bikes onto the forest trails, ripping and shredding the woods at high speeds. They are learning that they can also dig more trails, using much dirt from the root balls of both live and dead trees, among other destructive things done to the forest floor. It is a mess inside our parks and forest up here in BC.

This renegade sport is being glorified and touted by the media, as some kind of “green” activity that “somehow” connects children to nature. And conservation groups such as the David Suzuki Foundation and Sierra Club now tout it. Has everyone gone daft?

You cannot connect with nature wearing full face blindering helmets, nor can you begin to understand it wearing body armour and riding bikes called “Terminator” with tires on it labeled “Butcher”. I kid you not! These children are introduced by “not so nice” organizations called “Trips for Kids”, and local recreational programs called “Stump Jumpers”, etc. teaching our children that rough treatment of nature is okay!

We need to get our children out in nature, but on foot, and learn about “slow” again. On mountain bikes these children become more disconnected with nature and even more nature-deficit over time. Don’t believe everything you hear about mountain biking activities being a great way to introduce children to nature.It’s a lie. Educate yourselves!

Mountain biking is destructive in more ways than one, lest you all be fooled. But many people are just not listening to these warnings, and our natural places are suffering for it. Mountain biking is a very nature-deficit activity in our midst. People need to understand this, sooner than later.

By Mecana on Wed, December 01, 2010 at 12:23 pm

Jason, thanks for spreading the message about the No Child Left Inside movement.  The NCLI Coalition is helping this nationwide effort make its way through Congress in the form of the No Child Left Inside Act.  The goal is to get environmental education integrated into the school system and have ALL kids learning outside, learning to protect our natural resources.  All of the most recent information is available at

By Allyson on Mon, November 29, 2010 at 8:00 am

Jason, many thanks for this. Also, thanks to Sven Lindblad, along with his naturalists, for underwriting the Sea Bird event—and for Sven’s leadership on board. As you point out, thousands of folks across the country and abroad are doing the heavy lifting—and many have been working for years and even decades to connect kids to nature. Let’s hope these teachers, doctors, program directors etc. receive the future help they need.

By Richard Louv on Wed, November 24, 2010 at 11:51 am

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