The next time you think about getting your kids or grandkids a tutor, a private soccer coach or more violin lessons, take them out for a walk in the woods instead.
“Most parents want their kids to get what it is like to be fully alive, using all of your senses” explains Richard Louv, author of the best selling Last Child In the Woods:Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and the just released The Nature Principle. Louv is on board Lindblad Expedition’s National Geographic Explorer in the Arctic as a part of the Global Luminary program—designed to inspire thought and conversation among the guests.
Research shows “Everything–critical thinking, mental health–gets better outside,” Louv says. It is as important as or more important than Suzuki violin. It is enrichment that gets dismissed as recreation.”
Louv’s work has stimulated an international conversation about the relationship between nature and children. His new book has just been named to Oprah’s summer reading list He as the chairman and co-founder of the Children and Nature Network, and hopes to inspire the many parents and grandparents on board to realize how important it is to get kids engaged with nature on trips like this as well as at home.
Too many young parents, he continues, don’t have the experience outdoors that today’s baby boomer grandparents had—growing up building tree houses, running free in the woods. You’ve got a whole generation of young parents who haven’t had any experience with nature and don’t know where to start…. “The Baby boomer generation may be the last chance for those memories to be passed on,” he says. “We need to realize that…this may be our last and most redemptive cause.”
That might be taking a grandchild on a Lindblad Expedition, if you can afford it, like Sarah and William Plunkett who have brought 0-year-old Evie on this trip to the Arctic. It might mean visiting a national park or simply taking a walk in the woods together.
No worries if you haven’t been outdoors in years. “It is a little like riding a bike,” Louv says. “It’s still in there.”
“It doesn’t have to be difficult or complex,” he says.
Go out in the backyard. “Some is better than none.”
These days, we are all looking for activities that can help a family bond on vacation as well as at home. “If you are going to connect with your kids, you have a lot to compete with these days, he says. “A walk in the woods can go a long way.”
Don’t think of getting the kids outdoors as one more chore either, he urges, but rather as a way to de-stress your family life. Study after study has shown that to be the case.
But what if kids don’t want to go? “They don’t want to go to school or clean their rooms either,” he observes wryly.
Not that you want to make it onerous, just as good an experience as you can nor should we “underestimate what kids take away from experiences that they don’t tell you…”
So that teen who only reluctantly is going on a hike with you or camping for the weekend, might be realizing how nice it is to sleep under the stars. She might deign to have a conversation with you since she can’t text.
“The best you can do as parents is to raise the opportunity for a meaningful experience away from travel…to be somewhere you feel fully alive.”
That, he says, is the true purpose of travel.
There is a lot you can do at home too. Download a how-to guide on starting a family nature club in your community. If you’ve never camped, connect with other families who have. Take your grandchildren to a marine sanctuary or a national park.
“Where else do you have all of your senses working at the same time…It is a different kind of paying attention,” Louv, the father of two grown sons, says. “That is the gift we give our kids when we get them outside.”
Just as important, we need to stop being so negative about the future of the planet, about global warming and climate change, and encourage kids to work toward solutions that are positive. “We don’t want kids to associate nature with fear… they never hear anything hopeful about the environment.” That is why, he says, we need a new nature movement and new ways to connect children outdoors. “This may be the last chance we have for those memories of being out in nature to be passed on,” he says.
Of course not every experience will be a winner, Louv concedes, nor are hard core adventure trips or expeditions to far flung destinations like the Arctic for everyone. But even misadventures make for good memories (believe me I’ve had plenty of them, if fact my Taking the Kids chronicles began with one). “All you can do is make each experience in nature as a good an experience as you can.”
And hope for the best. “You don’t know when that transcendent moment is going to happen in a child’s life. “If you put them in the right place, it is more likely to happen.”
Let’s hope so.
NEXT: I am the Walrus coo-coo-ka-choo!