In the Digital Age, How to Get Students Excited About Going Outdoors

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In the opening pages of his moving book Last Child in the Woods, journalist Richard Louv quotes a prescient fourth-grader who told him, “I like to play indoors better, 'cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”

Since the book came out in 2005, describing the numbers of kids consistently choosing video games and television over building forts and riding bikes, recent research suggests kids are being exposed to less nature. A comprehensive report of outdoor activity released this year by the Outdoor Foundation says that only 38 percent of participants ages 6-12, and 26 percent of kids ages 13-17 reported doing things outside like running, hiking, and biking. “Although participation rates were stable for younger participants from 2011 to 2012,” the report states, “the rates are still significantly lower than they were in 2006.”

Louv has since become famous for coining the term Nature-Deficit Disorder -- not as a medical diagnosis, but as shorthand for what’s happening to kids who stay, for the most part, inside, away from nature, for the majority of their young lives. He uses strong research to support his claims that rising rates of obesity, depression and anxiety, and ADHD symptoms could well be linked to kids’ disconnection from trees, fields and streams.

Louv points to several factors contributing to children’s increased time away from nature, including increased parental anxiety of both dangerous situations and strangers, schools’ focus on testing, and the increased use of technology at younger and younger ages. While maintaining he’s not against the use of technology in education, Louv also believes that schools and science curriculum could step in and help incorporate more nature into children’s lives to improve both health and achievement. “There’s a growing awareness of the importance of this,” Louv said. “If you really want true education reform, we’ll have No Child Left Inside.”

Schools should consider focusing on hands-on interaction with nature instead of worrying about teaching kids to save the rainforest -- at least at first, he says. Louv fears that a well-intentioned but somewhat misguided curriculum of exposing young children to environmental disasters around the world, like mass deforestation and oil spills, hasn’t had the desired effect of creating young environmentalists. Instead, it might be contributing to a phenomenon educator David Sobel calls “ecophobia,” or the fear of ecological deterioration.


“It’s too much bad news,” Louv said, when children are told about the possibility of the end of the natural world as we know it. “We’re setting up a condition where kids associate nature with environmental destruction.” He emphasizes how important it is to understand climate change, and to encourage kids to do something about it. But when overwhelmed with bad news about the future, very young children might then distance themselves from nature rather than embrace it.

Sobel recommends in his book Beyond Ecophobia that instead of learning about the devastation happening in the rainforest, young children (under fourth grade) should first learn about “even just the meadow outside their classroom door.” And Louv points to many examples of famous naturalists and environmental champions, like Teddy Roosevelt and Davy Crockett, who became environmentalists not because they felt the world needed saving (that came later), but because of their joyful childhood experiences playing in nature. Most environmentalists fell in love with nature as children, and grew up wanting to take care of it.

Many schools, while strapped for time and resources, can still find a way to engender that love for nature by using what’s closest to them and being imaginative. “A kid sitting in a classroom, learning about saving streams isn’t one-tenth as engaged as that same student, wading through a stream in knee-high boots with a beaker in his hand, doing his own research on how to keep the stream healthy,“ says Suzannah Kolbeck, founder of the student-led HoneyFern School in Marietta, Georgia. She said that, while it can be difficult to create nature experiences for a lot of students during a rushed school day, it’s not impossible.

“[When I was in public schools] I just asked for what I wanted. I didn’t present it as any more work for anyone else, I made it as easy and simple as possible for people to say yes,” she said. “With any kind of project learning, there’s always more work at the front end, more work at the beginning. But you don’t have to know everything about what you are doing at first.” Instead, Kolbeck said, you have to anticipate possible directions and questions the students might have -- and you just have to jump in and get started.

Before HoneyFern, Kolbeck ran service learning projects in Seattle high schools. One group of students wanted to design an outdoor space on campus where they could hang out. So she had the students design their ideal environment -- the sky’s the limit -- and they chose to create a naturescape in one of the school’s courtyards. She told them it was up to them to research the kinds of plants they wanted to use, and to raise the money to build the area. With her help, they organized themselves and ran with the idea.

“There were 80 students, and the space they designed was extremely 'naturely.' They included sound art, and they chose native plantings because it was less work on the maintenance end,” Kolbeck recalls. “They had to write letters, research the plants, set a budget, figure out how to raise money, stay within the budget -- and this work tied into everything they were doing [in their classwork.] In the end, they had a beautiful landscaped area where they could hang out, all natural, and an [outdoor] place that they had designed themselves.”

And don’t forget the fun. While it’s important to help children name the animals and plants in their own neighborhoods -- another idea Louv describes as helping children to learn to care about the environment -- Sobel hopes that parents and educators don’t get too caught up in just learning nature facts and figures.

“The temptation to rush down the river is a trap waiting to catch parents and educators. Suffering from the time-sickness of trying to do too much too quickly, we infect our children with our impatience,” he writes. “Most nature study or environmental education in American elementary schools lasts a matter of weeks, maybe a month. As a result, depth is sacrificed for breadth, and there’s little opportunity for immersion in the landscape.”


Sobel has observed that the time to engage kids in social action begins sometime around age 12. Before that, children should be allowed to experience nature for themselves and see the beauty and possibility.

He writes, “If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the earth before we ask them to save it.”


For educators who want to get students interested in nature, here are some ideas, both big and small, to help them fall in love with the great outdoors:

  • Join the Natural Teachers Network, created by Louv’s nonprofit Children and Nature Network, an online community where educators get ideas and address the challenges of nature education together. Download the free Natural Teachers eGuide, full of the latest child/nature research, events and publications to help start and grow your outdoor program.

  • Read Environmental Education Coordinator Michelle Aldenderfer-Griffin’s ideas for some of the simplest, most cost-effective ways to turn childrens’ focus to nature and meet your state standards at the same time. “Several public school teachers agreed to spend an afternoon with me walking their hallways and campus with the intention of ‘seeing’ their school in a new way,” she writes. “Seeing their campus through a new lens allowed teachers to think through the possibility of increasing student’s achievement levels while decreasing behavior issues. Most importantly, they could do it immediately for little cost using the resources surrounding them.”

  • For student gardens: take a tip from Mark Painter, the garden instructor at Stonewall Jackson Elementary in Dallas, Texas, and start small. Stonewall Garden’s now-20,000 square foot vegetable garden and garden learning lab, chicken coop, and state-approved Texas wildscape began as a single row of beans for one classroom. But each year since the program began in 1997, they have slowly added more; now they have their own self-supporting non-profit and all 540 students use the garden and participate in its maintenance, as well as follow their own plant from planting through growth and harvest.

  • Can’t get to nature from your school? Then bring it on campus by creating a Schoolyard Habitat using the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s detailed how-to guide, with instructions on building forest, wetland and meadow habitats.

  • Introduce childrens’ literature that encourages empathy and love toward nature, and, for younger children, avoids environmental catastrophes. David Sobel’s book Beyond Ecophobia contains a comprehensive nature book list for children of all ages; the NAEYC also provides a “Best Nature Books” list.

  • Check out the “100 Actions We Can Take” Resource Guide at the end of Last Child in the Woods, which includes ideas to get parents, educators and communities involved in building nature programs and saving the planet together.

  • Remember that time spent outside doesn’t only benefit the students. Louv says that the proven benefits of nature as a de-stressor work on adults and kids alike. “This is good for teachers, too,” he said.