8 Things You Should Know About Getting Kids Into Nature

These tips come from Richard Louv's famous book, 'Last Child in the Woods.'

spring hike
A spring hike to watch ice go out of the lake.

K Martinko

A colleague recently asked the Treehugger team for our favorite books about nature. I answered without hesitation: "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" by Richard Louv. This book had a profound influence on me when I read it nearly a decade ago, and has shaped both my writing and parenting styles ever since.

In describing the book to my colleague, however, I realized just how long it's been since I read it. So I decided to tackle it again, this time with sticky notes and a pencil in hand, to see if it was as magnificent as I remembered. It was, of course, and for those of you who haven't had the chance to read it, I'd like to share some of the lessons on parenting—and where it intersects with sustainability—that stood out. These focus on the hows and whys of getting kids out into nature.

Lesson 1: Nature Is About Health, Not Leisure

Louv wants parents to stop thinking of nature time as optional leisure time. It should be viewed instead as "an essential investment in our children's health." If parents were as committed to taking their kids into nature as they are to extracurricular activities, kids' wellbeing would improve considerably. Louv would like to see nature experiences "taken out of the leisure column and placed in the health column." It's an unconventional and refreshing way to think of it.

Lesson 2: Don't Watch the Clock in Nature

We've all been on those walks with our kids when they stop to inspect a rock, a leaf, an anthill, and it takes 10 minutes to take 10 steps. Parents should resist the urge to hurry their children along and allow them the time they need to explore their surroundings. Louv writes, "It takes time—loose, unstructured dreamtime—to experience nature in a meaningful way." The next time you're out, let your kid set the pace and follow along behind. You'll get home eventually.

Lesson 3: Look for the Edges

Nature exists in greater intensity along the lines where habitats meet. "Where the trees stop and a field begins; where rocks and earth meet water; life is always at the edges." You'll see more movement and growth, more wildlife, more unusual plants, more visual interest. Sit there a while and soak it in. 

Lesson 4: Build Treehouses

Louv calls it "schoolhouse in a tree" and says he has a soft spot in his heart for tree forts, which impart "a certain magic and practical knowledge." Building treehouses teaches kids basic engineering and construction skills, but more importantly it brings them close to nature. They forge an intimate and indelible relationship with the tree(s) they choose—and that's a memory they will carry for life.

Katherine Martinko's treehouse
The author's childhood treehouse (pictured in 2008).

K Martinko

Lesson 5: Some Destruction Is OK

There's not much point in working to preserve natural areas if children—the future stewards of those areas—are never allowed to play within them. A certain amount of destruction should be allowed to occur, such as building forts, catching wildlife, plucking flowers, and sliding down sand dunes, in order for meaningful connections to be forged.

Louv quotes education expert David Sobel, who says, "[Treehouses] undeniably damage the tree, but that occasional damage to a tree is not as important as what children learn when playing in that tree."

Lesson 6: Bring Back Wonder

The current approach to education creates a "know-it-all state of mind [with] the accompanying loss of wonder." This is tragic since children are capable of profoundly moving experiences in nature when given the opportunity. Allow your child to experience ecstasy in nature—ecstasy in the sense of delight or fear or a tingling mixture of both.

Louv offers a gorgeous quote from author Phyllis Theroux, who describes how these ecstatic moments can help a person through difficult times: "Do we all have a bit or piece of something that we instinctively cast back on when the heart wants to break upon itself and causes us to say, 'Oh yes, but there was this,' or 'Oh yes, but there was that,' and so we go on?"

Lesson 7: Stop Focusing on Your Child's Safety

It's not helping them. When children are kept indoors or under rigid oversight, they lose the ability and the inclination to become confident, self-sufficient, and interactive people. A child who takes for granted the fact that they're "being electronically tracked every day, every second, in every room of their lives, in the un-brave new world" will grow up with a false sense of security, not to mention an absolute lack of practical knowledge for when they do have to look out for themselves.

Let them build and tend to fires.

K Martinko

Lesson 8: Make Nature Your Religious Practice

This is my interpretation from an interview Louv conducted with a woman named Joan Minieri, who worked for a New York City-based interfaith environmental group. She said that, as a parent, she sees it as her responsibility to take her child into nature, "just as my parents saw it as their responsibility to bring me to church."

That comment resonated with me because I also do not take my children to church (despite growing up in a conservative Mennonite family), but I do feel a burning urge to maximize their time in nature. It's almost a moral obligation of sorts because I truly believe it will make them better human beings, and thus would be irresponsible of me as a parent not to do so.