No Child Left Inside

05/25/2011 01:10 pm ET

Contemporary education and global warming are critical issues and, according to journalist Richard Louv, they're two sides of the same coin. In his book, "Last Child in the Woods," Louv argues that the future of our planet, and our children, begins outdoors.

Louv's book explores the link between nature-deprivation among America's youth and current environmental challenges. Children and the earth need each other: without the concern of children, Louv argues, the future of the natural world is threatened, but without a connection to the earth, our children are at risk as well.

According to Louv, primary experience in nature is an essential component in how kids develop and learn. Fifty years ago the argument didn't need to be made. But in today's age of technological engagement and highly structured school and after-school programs, children are at risk of near-total alienation from the natural world around them.

Younger generations may be aware of overarching ecological concerns, like melting polar ice caps or the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, but too many are unaware of what goes on in their backyards. Writes Louv, "For a new generation, nature is more abstraction than reality. Increasingly, nature is something to watch, to consume, to wear--to ignore."

Louv believes that fundamental aspects of American society like development, legal constraints, schools, after school programs and parents are teaching young people, "to avoid direct contact with nature." Even some outdoor programs, Louv argues, are so structured that kids are not able to connect with nature at their own pace and on their own terms.

The alienation of children from the natural world is evident across the board, from T.V. as the "great American babysitter," to schools that restrict outdoor playtime in order to avoid potential lawsuits. Kids in typical urban or suburban environments who grow up with a highly virtual or structured reality are missing out on a sensory experience that can never be replicated on a screen, keypad or blackboard. Being in nature provides an immediate connection with the senses, which deeply influences physical and emotional wellbeing.

In fact, James Sallis, program director of the Active Living Research Program for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation told Louv, "the best predictor of preschool children's physical activity is simply being indoor, sedentary childhood is linked to mental-health problems." There is even a strong argument to be made that ADD and ADHD result from a lack of unstructured, outdoor experience. Alarming as the restriction of nature exploration is on the health of our children, its implications extend to the future of Naturalism as we know it.

Those of us who grew up exploring the outdoors can no longer take that gift for granted. It is imperative that parents, schools and environmental organizations fight to get kids outside and allow them to discover the beauty of nature on their own so that they can become passionate and educated about ecological issues, and share that appreciation with the next generation. Young people need to be allowed to spend time outside without an agenda and encouraged to make independent discoveries. They need to develop a connection to the earth on their own, and learn to love it on their own.

Fortunately, many educators are addressing the issue. One group, Legacy Land Trust, which has conserved more than 8,000 acres of land in the Houston area, has implemented a program called "No Child Left Inside." The organization offers wide expanses of conserved land for inner city kids to conduct soil and forest studies, and to observe the plants and animals that share their local habitat.

This kind of initiative is exactly what communities need--large, open spaces where kids are set free in an uncontrolled, natural environment. Learning to identify plant and animal species that thrive near their homes and schools can teach children to care about and enjoy the land around them: it is an opportunity we cannot afford to withhold. This type of outdoor education can create the environmental leaders who will save the planet and enrich children for generations to come.