Finding the Balance Between Freedom & Fear

The minute you become a parent, you find yourself in touch with a new level of fear and anxiety; while it can feel debilitating and paralyzing, at the same time, you want your children to have the freedom to explore the world. Richard Louv, who coined the term Nature-Deficit Disorder, and has written nine books on the importance of exposing children to nature (his latest, Vitamin N, comes out in 2016), deals extensively with this conflict in his work. “I never judge parents who feel afraid about letting their kids have more freedom to go outside, because my wife and I felt that fear, too,” he says.

Instead of judgement, Louv, chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network and author of the best-selling The Nature Principle: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age and Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, advocates for finding the middle ground between freedom and fear. Here, he talks about how to (happily) achieve a balance that feels right.

A Q&A with Richard Louv


In your mind, what contributes to this culture where access to nature and freedom of movement in general are restricted for children?


For several decades, our society has been sending a clear message to kids and parents. Our institutions, urban/suburban designs, and cultural attitudes consciously or unconsciously associate nature with doom—while disassociating the outdoors from joy and solitude.

That lesson is delivered in schools, through families, even by organizations devoted to the outdoors, and has been codified into the legal and regulatory structures of many communities. Most housing tracts constructed in the past two to three decades are controlled by strict covenants that discourage or ban the kind of outdoor play many of us enjoyed as children.

On top of all this, cable news and other outlets give unrelenting coverage to a handful of tragic child abductions, conditioning parents to believe that child-snatchers lurk behind every tree. By a wide margin, family members, not strangers, are the most common kidnappers. I’m not saying there’s not danger out there, but we do need to think in terms of comparative risk: Yes, there are risks outdoors, but there are huge psychological, physical, and spiritual risks in raising future generations under protective house arrest.


What are the consequences of parents’ fear preventing their children from freely exploring the environment?


As young people spend less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow, physiologically and psychologically. Added to that, the over-organized childhood and the devaluing of unstructured play has huge implications for children’s ability to self-regulate. This reduces the richness of human experience and contributes to a condition I call “nature-deficit disorder.” I created that term to serve as a catchphrase to describe the human costs of alienation from nature. Among them: Diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses, a rising rate of myopia, child and adult obesity, vitamin D deficiency, and other maladies. Obviously it’s not a medical diagnosis, though one might think of it as a condition of society. People know it when they see it, which may account for how quickly it entered the language.

Today, children and adults who work and learn in a dominating digital environment expend enormous energy to block out many of the human senses—including ones we don’t even know we have—in order to focus narrowly on the screen in front of the eyes. That’s the very definition of being less alive. What parent wants his or her child to be less alive? Who among us wants to be less alive?

The point here is not to be against technology, which offers us many gifts, but to find balance—and to give our children and ourselves an enriched life and a nature-rich future.


Are there studies to support the theory of nature-deficit disorder, which we all probably “feel” is real?


The research has greatly expanded over the last few years as researchers have turned to this topic relatively recently. Therefore, most of the evidence is correlative, not causal—but the vast majority of the research tends to point in one direction, which is rare for a body of correlative studies.

The research indicates that experiences in the natural world appear to offer great benefits to psychological and physical health, as well as the ability to learn, for both children and adults. The studies strongly suggest that time in nature can help many children learn to build confidence in themselves, reduce the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, plus calm them and help them focus. There are some indications that natural play spaces can reduce bullying. It can also be a buffer to child obesity.

Schools with natural play spaces and nature learning areas appear to help children do better academically; recent research underscores that link, relating specifically to testing: A six-year study of 905 public elementary schools in Massachusetts reported higher scores on standardized testing in English and math in schools that incorporated more nature. Similarly, preliminary results from a yet-to-be-published 10-year University of Illinois study of more than 500 Chicago schools show similar results, especially for students with the greatest educational needs. Based on that study, the researchers suggest that greening our schools may be one of the most cost-effective ways to raise student test scores.

The Children & Nature Network site has compiled a large body of studies, reports and publications that are available for viewing or downloading.


What can parents do to assuage their fears about children’s safety enough to give them the freedom to explore?


Every family wants comfort and safety. But as parents, we also want to raise courageous, resilient children and young adults—with a little help from nature. One reaction to the fear in our society is to shut down; another is to turn the fear on its head, with the goal of building resilience. For instance, most broken bones related to tree climbing occur because the child doesn’t have the strength to hold on to a limb, according to Joe Frost, professor emeritus at the University of Texas, Austin, and a leading expert on play and playgrounds. He recommends that parents work with their children to develop upper-body strength—early: “Doing so will significantly reduce the chance of serious injury.” So will taking small, manageable risks, which kids need to build their resilience. In other words, don’t tear down the tree, build up the child.

I’m certainly not suggesting that we rely on nostalgia, though. Realistically, parents need new ways to connect to nature. Here are a couple approaches:

• Be a hummingbird parent. One parent told me, “In the range from helicopter parenting to neglect—I probably fall a bit more toward helicopter parenting. I call myself a hummingbird parent. I tend to stay physically distant to let them explore and problem solve, but zoom in at moments when safety is an issue (which isn’t very often).” Notice that she isn’t hovering over her kids with nature flash cards. She stands back and makes space for independent nature play—albeit not as free as she experienced as a child, this play is important nonetheless.

• Create or join a family nature club. Nature Clubs for Families are beginning to catch on across the country; some have membership lists of over 400 families. The idea is that multiple families meet to go for a hike, garden together, or even do stream reclamation. We hear from family nature club leaders that when families get together, the kids tend to play more creatively—with other kids or independently—than during single-family outings. C&NN’s Nature Clubs for Families offers a free downloadable guide on how to start your own.

● Get the safety information you need. Become familiar with good resources for safety tips in the outdoors, including those with information on how to guard against ticks. One such site is the Centers for Disease Control website. The website for the Audubon Society of Portland offers excellent general information on living with a variety of urban wildlife.

You can read a few more ideas here.


How did you begin your study of children and nature?


I grew up in Missouri and Kansas and spent many, many hours in the woods at the edge of our housing development, with my dog. For whatever reason, I realized as a boy how important those experiences were.

In the course of researching for my 1990 book, Childhood’s Future, I interviewed nearly 3,000 children and parents across the United States, in urban, suburban, and rural areas. To my surprise, in classrooms and family homes, the topic of children’s relationships with nature often surfaced. Even then, parents and others were reporting a divide between the young and the natural world, and the social, spiritual, psychological, and environmental implications of this change. But at that point, there was little research about the divide or the benefits of nature to human development. Later, as the research started coming in and then accelerated, the gap between children and nature has grown even wider.


Why do you think that is?


Human beings have been urbanizing, then moving indoors, since the invention of agriculture (and, later, the Industrial Revolution). Social and technological changes in the past three decades have speeded up that change. So has poor urban design. Today, technology now dominates almost every aspect of our lives. Technology is not in itself the enemy, but our lack of balance is lethal. The pandemic of inactivity is one result. Sitting is the new smoking.

Fear is another big factor. Along with the media-amplified fear of strangers, there are real dangers in some neighborhoods, including traffic and toxins. There’s fear of lawyers—in a litigious society, families, schools, and communities play it safe, creating “risk-free” environments that create greater risks later. This “criminalization” of natural play is caused by social attitudes, community covenants and regulations, and good intentions. And, children are conditioned at an early age to associate nature with environmental doom.


But this isn’t a new thing, correct? “The woods” is a place that even in fairy tales can be dangerous for children; what’s behind that particular, very-embedded terror?


Human beings have always been ambivalent about the natural world. That’s reflected in children’s literature. Yes, it can be dangerous, but children’s stories also describe the richness and wonders of nature.


How do you balance prudence with the need for adventure and the experience of nature?


I never judge parents who feel afraid about letting their kids have more freedom to go outside, because my wife and I felt that fear, too—even though, in the late 1980s and 1990s, it was already clear that the reality of stranger danger was different from what news media depicted. Still, our sons did not have the kind of free-range childhood that I did. We did, however, take them outside and made sure they had nature nearby. I took my sons fishing every chance I had, and hiking, or camping in our old van. We lived on a canyon when the boys were smaller, and we encouraged them to build forts and explore behind our house.

Even in densely urban settings, nature can often be found nearby, somewhere in the neighborhood. This is partly a design issue, but it’s also about intent. Getting kids outside needs to be a conscious act on the part of parents or caregivers. I suggest that over-scheduled families make outdoor time a priority. As parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles, we can spend more time with children in nature. To do so, we need to schedule nature time. This is quite a challenge, one that emphasizes the importance of exploring nearby opportunities. This proactive approach is simply part of today’s reality.


Today’s reality is also that we’re becoming a more technologically-advanced society—so what is the antidote?


The more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we need. I’m not against technology in education, or in our lives, but we do need balance—and time spent in the natural world, whether nearby urban nature or wilderness, provides that. It can be hard to move children away from the television and computer. I’s hard for adults as well. The antidote to too much digital dominance, however, is not to go back to nature, but to go forward to nature.

The ultimate multitasking is to live simultaneously in both the digital and the physical world, using computers to maximize our powers to process intellectual data, and natural environments to ignite all of our senses and accelerate our ability to learn and to feel; in this way, we would combine the resurfaced “primitive” powers of our ancestors with the digital speed of our teenagers.

I met an instructor who trains young people to become the pilots of cruise ships. He described two kinds of students. One kind grew up mainly indoors. They’re great at video games, and they’re quick to learn the ship’s electronics. The other kind of student grew up outside, spending time in nature, and they also have a talent: they actually know where the ship is. He was serious. “We need people who have both ways of knowing the world,” he said. That makes sense when you look at new studies of the human senses (we have conservatively 10 human senses, and as many as 30). In The Nature Principle, I write about what I call the hybrid mind. What if that were a goal of our education system?

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