Conversations with Richard Louv: Kids and The Nature Principle

POSTED: August 14, 2011
Richard Louv and Laure Latham a.k.a Frog Mom

When author Richard Louv came to the Bay Area for his book tour about The Nature Principle, I was lucky to meet with him in Palo Alto and ask him a few questions before he went on to Berkeley to have lunch with Michael Pollan. Here are the highlights from our conversation, the elements that got me to formalize thoughts that’d been riding through my head a long time and snippets of nature wisdom.

Frog Mom: The Nature Principle presents a notion that nature and technology can co-exist in harmony. Can you tell me more?
Richard Louv: I want to tell you a story about a cruise ship. A while ago I met a guy at an airport who trains pilots in cruise ships. He says there are two kinds of student pilots. Students who grew up indoors playing video games are good at electronics. Students who grew up outside hiking and fishing actually know where the ship is in space. They’re good at positioning. He wants students who are good at both. In The Nature Principle I define the hybrid  mind and how humans actually have 30 senses. Some of us use more senses than others depending on our awareness. The second category of students, they actually felt where the ship was.

Building tree houses with sticks. Photo by C.G.

Frog Mom: Most of our kids are urban kids with over-scheduled lives who don’t know what unstructured play is. I see it with my own girls who have a lot of after-school activities and games at home. At age 6 and 7, you’d think they were able to entertain themselves. Yet when they are by themselves at home for an hour, they quickly get bored and come to me so I can play with them. When I was a kid, we had much fewer toys but were creative enough – sometimes too much – to be able to make up games and activities without adult supervision. Jumping over a stream was a game that kept us busy a half day. I always tell my girls that creativity comes out of deep boredom. They don’t necessarily believe me but I prefer to let them explore their creative side. Comes what may. In nature, kids don’t know how to make tree forts and crafts unless they are supervised. It’s like they’ve forgotten to be wild. How can we reconnect our kids with their environment?
Richard Louv:  First by reconnecting ourselves. It’s one of the reasons of The Nature Principle. It widens the scope of Last Child in the Woods to adults. There’s a generation now that didn’t grow up in nature. Some adults don’t know where to start. believe it or not, REI Outdoors School has a program to learn how to ride a bike. Some adults don’t even know how to ride a bike. Ironically, there’s an enormous hunger to be in nature yet people are overwhelmed by too much technology and they don’t know how to get it. Being disconnected from our environment – that just can’t be put on the backs of the kids or shoulders of the parents. We need urban planners, schools, public partners that can help parents connect their kids with a world they don’t necessarily know. Some libraries have started awesome nature projects, such as The Nature Explorium in New York, and that works for libraries because they will  build a larger constituency.

Frog Mom: In The Nature Principle you report facts confirming that nature deficit disorder influences ADD and is a growing problem in younger generations. At the same time, not all kids have ready access to nature. What can be done about this?
Richard Louv: You have to be careful how you describe and define nature. People’s definition of nature usually looks like the Rocky Mountains, John Ford movies and total wilderness. Based on that, they say there is no nature in the city. Obviously, not everybody lives in the wilderness and as of 2008, more people live in cities than in rural or wild areas. If people are going to have a meaningful nature experience, it’s got to be in the city. That choice begins with us, how we see and create nature. Indeed conservation isn’t enough anymore, we need to create it. Nature can be a window garden box or gardens for butterflies.

GG, San Francisco’s youngest city park steward, planted a
mini park for the green hairstreak butterfly. Photo by
Frog Mom for The Examiner.com

Frog Mom: You can already see that trend in San Francisco. Parklets sprout all over the city, as well as vegetable or neighborhood gardens. There are several big projects to create green corridors out of big arteries (Cesar Chavez Street project), reclaim paved space to make it green (Pavement to Parks) or plant wildlife corridors (the Green Hairstreak Ecosystem Corridor) so native species return to thrive in our urban environment. Is that what you mean?
Richard Louv: Exactly. What we need in neighborhoods is habitat for other species, green lots. The Sierra Club has a volunteer program for inner city kids who go backpacking in their neighborhood to find nature. The Green Hairstreak project you mention leads to a section in my book about bringing nature back. How cool would it be for a kid to be part of something bigger by planting a rose bush? Helping native species find their place is not just nostalgia and frontier creatures at work. It’s the purposeful place. By choosing native species, you understand what has happened in the past and your bioregion’s specificity. It’s very important for kids and nature, to be part of a bioregion – you’re not alone. Feeling that kinship is a good thing, it makes you feel alive.

Talking while walking. Photo by Frog Mom

Frog Mom: There is something else about nature I’ve noticed. We hike a lot as a family, almost every weekend in fact. I have two girls aged 6 and 7 and I usually hold hands with the little one while the older one walks with her dad. I’ve found that walking side by side surrounded by trees or hills makes it easy to talk. We talk about kid stuff, we tell stories, we sing songs, but sometimes we simply talk about school or their friends. It’s a great experience and something we don’t usually do at home where electronics are a big distraction.
Richard Louv: True, one of the things about parent interaction is that mothers and fathers interact differently with their kids. In my experience, mothers tend to be more direct whereas fathers talk to other fathers metaphorically. It’s just a different way to communicate. For a dad, there’s nothing like going on a walk, looking ahead and starting to talk with your kids. You’ll never get that in a room full of electronics face to face. Nature itself is mysterious and brings us out of ourselves. We don’t really understand why natuire calms us because we are using all our senses at the same time.

Frog Mom: There’s an increasing number of smartphone apps to enjoy the outdoors, many of which are being targeted to kids  - some as young as age 2. What do you think about that?
Richard Louv: There’s an app for the family nature club in Rhode Island and I’ve got a bird app on my iPhone but to be honest, I’ve only used it once. The thing is, we as humans have always taken technology in the woods. As a kid I took fishing rods, binoculars, guns to play in the woods. That’s all technology. However when you talk about smartphone apps for kids, it’s all about what’s appropriate. Geocaching is all fine and I love it. Whenever there’s a screen involved, the test is: how long does it take for kids to look away from the screen? If 10 minutes later they are still looking at the screen, that technology has failed. Technology brings you more info but I’m skeptical: do you enjoy nature more?
Frog Mom note: I recently wrote a blog posting about summer gear for outdoorsy kids and reviewed a geocaching device for kids as well as handheld 2-way radios. Check it out!

Frog Mom: As a kid I grew up in New Caledonia and with my brothers we were running barefoot outside the entire day. We didn’t really put on shoes on our street or to ride our bikes. Today my girls wear shoes all the time and when I tell them to remove their shoes so they can walk outside, they complain that it hurts! The only place where they’ll insist on being barefoot is a sand beach. It’s a strange world when kids aren’t eager to walk barefoot in a garden.
Richard Louv: That’s a good one, “Remove your shoes to go out and play!” Usually parents tell their kids the opposite, I like that.

Poison oak, a parent’s bane on the trails. Photo by Frog Mom

Frog Mom: Since we spend a lot of time on trails, I talk a lot to my girls about plants and animals and I try to make them aware of their environment. Ironically my oldest is now afraid on trails – afraid that she’ll get bitten by a black widow or a tarantula, that she’ll get eaten by a mountain lion or that she’ll get burned by poison oak – or that she’ll eat poison hemlock and die like Socrates. Nature has become this great big dangerous place. Have you seen this elsewhere?
Richard Louv: Kids being afraid in nature, hmm. Now if it’s all trails, there are tons of warning signs and that’s certainly not encouraging. Risk is one of the reasons we’re attracted to nature. When I was a kid I collected snakes. In San Diego we’ll see mountain lions but that’s a small risk, so small compared to driving on the freeway. Being a kid is all about adventure. When I think about the things I used to do as a kid, some were dangerous. Climbing Half Dome is dangerous but the view is great. If you shield your kids from adventure, you risk them never having these intense memories. You are being given memories for life.


Frog Mom: Hmm, that reminds me of a hike we did with friends in the Marin Headlands to Hill 88. I wrote about it on Frog Mom, Hiking the Marin Headlands: Remains of the War. We started off late in the afternoon, picnicked on the highest hill by sundown and finished in total darkness. I was expecting a full moon to brighten up the nightscape for us but didn’t count on the moon rising quite so late after sunset. So we just walked in the dark and eventually found the car. The kids were all pumped up about the adventure. They were talking in low voices until we hit an old bunker tunnel that resonated so well we all sang songs from The Sound of Music in unison. It was awesome. They still talk about it.
Richard Louv: That’s fantastic! When they are in college, it’s very unlikely they’ll remember the day they beat the Nintendo game but they’ll remember the day they got lost in the woods. It’s not about the info, it’s about the experience, the dirt and the mud.

Frog Mom: Richard, thank you so much. As an end note, can you tell me about your next project?
Richard Louv: I’m thinking about the new nature movement. Sustainability is not fully satisfying, interest in climate change has been falling these past years. We need to start talking about nature in a positive way. We can either hope that people will be inspired by despair or tell them about a wonderful vision of the future. Rather than Mad Max or Blade Runner, wouldn’t it great to present a world where we can live and play, a world to look forward to for the young? Martin Luther King Jr. said a movement has to paint a picture of the world people will want to go. His words weere not “I have a nightmare.” I’d love to see this happen.

13 Responses to “Conversations with Richard Louv: Kids and The Nature Principle”

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  4. August 15, 2011 at 8:06 am, Christine said:

    Nice article, Laure. Funny, I was just talking to someone about how I used to walk for miles barefoot when I was a kid, even on concrete. I am not sure why.
    -Christine

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