Over a thousand people filled the historic Granada Theatre on Sunday, May 15 to hear acclaimed author Richard Louv on the topic, “Saving Our Children and Ourselves Through Nature.” The unassuming San Diegan stepped to the podium wearing blue jeans and a relaxed looking shirt, befitting a spokesman for reclaiming our access to open nature – at one time a “right” Americans imagined would always be available.
During his talk, and again while sharing an onstage discussion with Natalie Orfalea, Louv reiterated talking points made famous in his path-breaking books Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle. Terms he has introduced into current debates over the role of nature in our highly technological society include nature-deficit disorder, Vitamin N, and citizen-naturalist.
Louv’s delivery was diffident, and he made it clear from the start that he sees himself largely as a “cheerleader.” It will be the parents and especially the teachers of children who will re-introduce nature to young humans. We need to re-nature our cities using the principles of biophilia, he said.
Louv specifically stressed “the highly independent teacher…who cannot be replaced by a computer” — to strong applause. Too much screen-time and computer work depresses him, Louv said – and imagine what it does to children – all the while using his iPad openly at the lectern, which he joked about.
“When we have too much technology we are stealing the vitality from our lives, and from our kids’ lives,” he stated. All this about nature and easy access to real nature is about the future, the far future, and Louv specifically referenced the world of director Ridley Scott’s haunting movie Blade Runner, wondering if that may be where we’re heading (based on the story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by science fiction writer Philip K. Dick). Louv also mentioned the phenomenon that is Susan Collins’s book The Hunger Games, and the movie made from it, and he made argument that the popularity of these dystopian visions shows that our culture seeks a cogent vision of a positive future.
As he did in Last Child in the Woods, Louv took on the ubiquitous “fear” problem in modern American culture: “We’ve created a culture of fear around nature,” he said, and somehow it’s gotten associated with “stranger-danger” and a kind of pathetic withdrawal from situations – as when a parent won’t allow his or her child to go into the woods with peers or to play at a nearby vacant lot.
At the elementary-middle school where I’ve taught for over 30 years, young children have always determinedly made their own charming “forts,” and we’ve had recurring faculty debates about it whenever a child is hurt in some minor way. I come down on the side of believing that our girls and boys must have the opportunity to create these Camelots, and Louv, too, always affirms their right and need to have these activities on their own (under distant supervision, of course). Nature play is very much a social activity between peers.
In a backstage interview at the Granada just prior to his talk, I was able to ask Louv if he wasn’t a bit too soft on the negative role of screens and technology in children’s lives, particularly when they supplant direct contact with the woods, dirt, and real-time scrapes and bruises. He responded by stressing the problems that stem from an “overuse” of screens and devices, including a loss of feeling “fully alive.” We also agreed on the evils of too much desk work in school, and Louv believes there is too much emphasis on testing. Overdosing on any of these tends to empty the mind and starve the spirit. Metaphor or not, children and adults require “Vitamin N.”
Technology in education certainly assists that “highly independent teacher” that he mentioned early in his presentation, and has to be utilized thoughtfully. As members of the audience spoke, it was clear to me that these powerful, independent teachers feel threatened. They know it’s cheaper to replace them with machines: Throwing laptops at the kids – and other devices that don’t need a health plan, a pension plan, or a union – can look attractive during budget battles. Further, the increasing use of video-game style education software programs allows corporate education “reformers” to slip into the curriculum debates.
While he was in Washington, D.C. in April, serving as the final speaker at the first White House Summit on Environmental Education, Louv was surprised to learn that $35 million for environmental education has just been pared from the budget — about one quarter the cost of one F-22 Raptor jet.
Louv also discovered through conversation that the latest corporate education reform may be a kind of “stealth technology” supervision during which a few teachers could essentially spy on students while they were working at their desks. Fewer teachers; more training and busywork; and continual standardized testing.
We can’t rely on government, or even on foundations as generous as the Orfalea Foundation, to stimulate us to reclaim our access to nature, Louv made clear in his talk: It has to be a grassroots, family- and school-based push. One specific program serving as an example is the “family nature club” approach, of which Louv gave compelling examples. Very simply, in your family nature club you join with other local families for playdates in nature rather than, say, shopping at the mall. (In Santa Barbara, the Wilderness Youth Project stands ready to help bring children into contact with nature. I’ve observed them doing wonderful things with students at our school.)
Richard Louv is telling us what we already instinctively know: The more we become enmeshed in screens and technologies, the more we need nature.
He didn’t need to recount the awful statistics, a few of which are listed here, to this appreciative audience.
•Childhood asthma has increased by 160 percent since 1980.
•Half of all North American children will be overweight by 2013.
•Prescriptions for stimulant medication to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) have increased 500 percent since 1991, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
•The average kindergartner has watched more than 5,000 hours of TV by age five.
Nor does Louv recommend government action and spending: The nature movement has to be family- and school-based, led by those threatened but independent teachers (and hyper-busy parents) who witness over-tested and warehoused students every day. Citizen-naturalists. Fighting off nature-deficit disorders right and left. Seeking more access to Vitamin N.