CHILDREN AND NATURE : Last Child in the Woods

A five-minute walk in the woods with Richard Louv as he discusses nature-deficit disorder and the themes of his book Last Child in the Woods.

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It takes a forest, a field and a stream to raise a child

Cover of "Last Child in the Woods: Saving...
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In 1996, back when the present U.S. Secretary of State was the first lady, Hillary Rodham-Clinton published a book titled “It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us,” which popularized an old African proverb — “It takes a village to raise a child.”

I’m betting that if David Paddock writes a book, it will be titled “It Takes a Forest.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.

As is often the case with simple wisdom, and when propogated by controversial politicians in particular, the “village” maxim soon garnered more derision than approbation. But beyond politics, social scientists know, and most parents admit, that child-rearing is a mysterious combination of nature and nurture. Both influence a child’s development to varying degrees, with the interplay of genes and environment determining who we become. Clearly the village plays a role.

Today, however, with over half of the world’s population living in cities, more and more young people are missing out on a crucial dimension of childhood development. Not the village or the genes, but the forests: a combination of nature and nurture, call it self-nurturing in the natural environment.

The lack of forests, fields and streams for urban kids is one part of the problem, and the spread of seductive technologies is another. According to a recent survey in the United States by California-based nonprofit the Kaiser Family Foundation (which focuses on national healthcare issues and the U.S. role in global health policymaking), in a typical day “8- to 18-year-olds devote an average of 7 hours 38 minutes to using entertainment media (more than 53 hours a week). And because they spend so much of that time ‘media multitasking,’ they actually manage to pack a total of 10 hours 45 minutes’ worth of media content into those 7½ hours.” (For full survey results,

These findings should shock me, but as the parent of a teenager and a professor surrounded by young people and their techno-toys, I find myself in awe as much I am appalled. It no longer surprises me to see my son texting on a cellphone while talking on Skype with several friends across the globe who are all watching the same YouTube video.

Whether we like it or not, such technologies and their offspring are here to stay. The problem is that each hour a child spends absorbed in entertainment media is one hour not spent in nature.

Which brings me back to David Paddock. When we spoke recently, I didn’t mention the Kaiser survey, but I expect he would agree that techno-absorption bodes ill for kids, as well as for the society they will inhabit in decades to come.

Paddock is the founder and director of English Adventure (EA) in Japan, and he is dedicated to tackling two of my biggest educational concerns here. One is the lack of dynamic and engaging English education for young people and the other is the fact that so few youngsters get out into the natural environment.

Paddock and his colleagues run a variety of EA camps, including English Immersion programs intended for Japanese kids who have lived abroad and which are popular with those attending international schools, and English Challenge (EC) programs for children who’ve had little exposure to English.

Like various other similar outdoors programs for children — including ones my Nature page colleague C.W. Nicol organizes with his Afan Woodland Trust in Nagano Prefecture — these camps give children an opportunity for self-nurturing in a supportive environment set in natural surroundings. Unlike Nic’s projects for mainly disadvantaged Japanese children and young Tohoku survivors, though, these are conducted in English.

As Paddock explains, “One book that had a big influence on me and my work was ‘Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder‘ (2005, Algonquin Books) by Richard Louv. At the core of the book is that notion of ‘nature-deficit disorder.’ ” Interestingly, Nic cited the same book in his Japan Times column on Sept. 4, 2011.

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The great outdoors: Children taking part in activities at English Adventure camps in Japan — lighting a campfire (above); playing in rapids (below); taking a dip in a stream; and learning about flora and fauna on a guided nature walk (bottom). ENGLISH ADVENTURE / DAVID PADDOCK
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“Modern kids don’t get enough time outdoors in contact with nature, and far less than previous generations, and this affects everything from intellectual and emotional development to obesity and physical fitness,” Paddock continues. “As a kid, I only went to one overnight camp, but I was out in the woods around our neighborhood in the daytime, catching fireflies at night, sledding and making snow forts in winter. We weren’t closely supervised, so we got to learn our own limits and invent our own play.

“I imagine that kids in some rural areas of Japan are still growing up that way, but certainly not the kids we host at EA camps. And if coming to camp is the only way they’re going to get some of those experiences, then it’s our privilege to help make that happen,” he adds.

Paddock, 42, attended Indiana University (Bloomington), where he majored in biology and became interested in the martial art of aikido. After graduation, he worked in a molecular biology lab for three years before coming to Japan in 1996 as a participant on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program. He has been here ever since.

Paddock works closely with two EA staff, Jeff Jensen and Toshi Yuta.

Jensen is the EA program manager and an “extraordinary outdoorsman,” according to Paddock. A Canadian who grew up in the Rockies, Jensen previously co-owned the first rafting company on the Tama River and annually celebrates New Year on top of Mount Fuji.

Yuta, the marketing and communication manager and camp manager, lived in the U.S. and New Zealand from age 14 and is fully bilingual. “He is very understanding of the challenges and benefits experienced by returnee kids, as well as the feelings and needs of kids who come into our English Challenge camps,” says Paddock.

During the summer season beginning July 23 — which comprises four camps of five days each in Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture — EA hires around 30 support staff representing a mix of nationalities and backgrounds, many of them bilingual, to ensure that the children get the linguistic and personal support they need.

Like the Afan Woodland Trust, Paddock and his colleagues are also working hard to help less advantaged children in Japan.

“Another thread is that we are providing camps for a growing number of children from orphanages,” he explains, including a special camp in Kurihara, Miyagi Prefecture, for Tohoku Prefecture orphans. “For these kids, all of the other camp benefits are true — along with what we believe to be great therapeutic potential to be found in nature.”

Paddock cares deeply about kids and nature, and he hopes that nurturing campers who love nature will encourage those children to conserve Japan’s environment when they get older. “We have to know something before we can love it, and we have to love it before we want to protect it,” he says.

EA camps cater primarily to elementary school students, as well as some junior high school students, and the staff are committed to providing a safe and supportive environment that challenges children to extend themselves socially, emotionally, intellectually and physically.

“We want them to grow into lovers of camping and outdoor recreation, and we want them to develop into people who know and love the natural world,” notes Paddock.

“Our job at EA is first of all to help kids really know nature and the outdoors. Then, and only then, can they begin to love it. Once they’ve begun to experience the beauty, the fun and the mysteries for themselves, then love of the natural world has a hope of arising from within. And once that love, that personal relationship, arises, then the instinct to protect what they love will follow,” he explains.

“If even a fraction of the kids we meet at camp develop a personal relationship with the outdoor world and have a respect for nature that comes from knowing it directly, maybe we’ll have made a difference,” Paddock says. “Turning kids on to how cool nature is, and how much enjoyment there is to be found in nature, we’re laying the foundation for them to understand, care about — and act upon— the environmental issues they’ll learn about as other educators contribute to their development.”

And for those kids who want to go a step further, this summer EA is offering new Extreme Camps for the first time. The kids will have a chance to rappel down a rock face, go stream hiking, sleep under the stars (with a mosquito net), cook using Dutch ovens and go river rafting.

For Paddock, this is the camp he wishes he could have joined as a kid.

Which gives me an idea to run by him: How about EA camps for adults, and even families? And perhaps it’s time for me to consider a career change — or at least a different kind of summer vacation.

For more information on EA camps and programs, visit and Stephen Hesse is a professor in the Law Faculty of Chuo University and director of the Chuo International Center. He can be contacted at

At an Urban L.A. School, Nature grows — and Test Scores, Too

Biological diversity does not come easily near the intersection of Olympic Boulevard and Hoover Street. From LA Times and Children and Nature. 

The neighborhood just west of downtown is one of the most crowded in Los Angeles County, with 25,352 people per square mile. It’s chock-full of buildings and has lots of pavement, little landscaping and many economically disadvantaged families.

In that setting, Leo Politi Elementary School wanted only to make a dreary corner of campus more inviting to its 817 students. Workers ripped out 5,000 square feet of concrete and Bermuda grass three years ago and planted native flora.

PHOTOS: Unexpected oasis at urban school

What happened next was unforeseen. It was remarkable.

The plants attracted insects, which attracted birds, which attracted students, who, fascinated by the nature unfolding before them, learned so much that their test scores in science rose sixfold.

In the words of Leo Politi’s delighted principal, Brad Rumble, “We’ve gone from the basement to the penthouse in science test scores.”

As Rumble stood in the garden recently, 10-year-old Jacky Guevera fixed her eyes on an orb spider spinning a web near a pair of bushtits building a nest in the limbs of a crape myrtle tree.

“At our school, flycatchers drink the water in the vernal pool,” said Jacky, who dreams of becoming an ornithologist. “Scrub jays hang out in the oaks. The snapdragon’s red flowers attract Anna’s and Allen’s hummingbirds.”

“I can identify each of these birds when I see them,” she added confidently as she sketched images of the garden’s wildlife.


Three years ago, the school’s standardized test scores in science for fifth-graders showed that 9% were proficient and none were advanced. Last spring, 53% of fifth-graders tested as proficient or advanced.

Leo Politi’s garden grows where a towering apartment complex once stood. The structure was torn down in 1991 to make room for the school, named in honor of Leo Politi, a children’s book author and illustrator who earned the prestigious Caldecott Medal in 1950 for “The Song of the Swallows,” his book about the swallows at Mission San Juan Capistrano.

In partnership with Los Angeles Audubon, Leo Politi in 2008 became one of the first elementary schools in the city to apply for and win “schoolyard habitat” and partner’s grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

With $18,000 from the agency, and volunteer assistance from environmental students at Dorsey High School, Leo Politi removed the concrete and grass from the forlorn corner of campus. Dorsey students wielded rakes and shovels and helped select and plant bushes, flowers and trees, including six live oaks that now shade a slope Rumble calls “our oak highlands.”

Nature responded quickly to the clumps of rye grass, owl’s clover and waist-high thickets of white sage and wildflowers: California poppies, California wild roses, tidytips and island snapdragons.

“First to arrive were insects — lady beetles, butterflies and dragonflies — almost as if they were lying in wait,” Rumble said. “They were followed by birds that feed on them.”

At that point, students were hooked. “Questions about why some birds flocked to one plant and not another led to discussions about soil composition and water cycles, weather patterns and seasons, avian migration and the tilt of the Earth in its orbit around the sun,” Rumble said.

Now, the children are studying the dynamics governing the behavior of birds and the ecological systems that support them. They are also compiling an online illustrated survey of every species documented in their urban bird sanctuary, calling it “A Field Guide to the Flora and Fauna of Leo Politi Elementary School.”


To education experts, the concept of project-based learning is nothing new. “If students are actively engaged in a real-world project — whether it be working on a car engine, designing a dress or cultivating a garden — it’s going to turbo-charge classroom curriculum,” said Guilbert Hentschke, a professor of education at USC’s Rossier School of Education.

“Most educators intuitively or professionally understand this,” Hentschke added. “And most would love to do it, but they don’t always have the time, money, staff or space.”

Lourdes Ortiz, a director of instruction for the Los Angeles Unified School District, said Leo Politi’s experience is one reason administrators are encouraging schools across the district to develop projects unique to their needs.

“They could be gardens or something else,” Ortiz said. “More and more students are also going to be learning from projects linking them to life outside of class.”

Fish and Wildlife dispenses about $60,000 a year in its Pacific Southwest Region to help teachers and students create wildlife habitat on school grounds, said Carolyn Kolstad, the agency’s regional schoolyard habitat coordinator. About 50 schools in the area have been helped over the last four years.

The benefits are much greater than pure science, said Robert Jeffers, lead arts and humanities teacher at Dorsey and Los Angeles County teacher of the year in 2010.

At Leo Politi, the garden has “instilled a profound sense of responsibility and awareness of nature,” Jeffers said. “Now these kids can tell the difference between a crow and a raven, which requires cognitive skills of understanding subtleties and nuances important throughout life.”

Jeffers’ point is evident in Mary Ellen Rhieman’s twice-weekly Audubon class, where second- and third-graders learn about the distinguishing marks of bird species, flight patterns and the use of avian field guides.

On a recent weekday, talk turned to the use of metaphors and adjectives — “formidable,” “ungainly,” “exquisite” — in recent news articles about an albatross with a 7-foot wingspan found wandering in Los Angeles, and a bald eagle living outside the Orange County Zoo’s bald eagle exhibit.

What’s all that got to do with science test scores?

Everything, her students say. They see how the skills they use to describe downy woodpeckers and eagles in poetry or essays — observation, concentration and attention to detail — also help them in daily life.

“What is a pattern?” asked Rhieman, a retired principal teaching under a special contract funded by private donations.

“Something that repeats,” several students said in unison.

“Like the roller-coaster flight of a lesser goldfinch,” added another.


The garden and Rhieman’s class are springboards for older students who receive weekly after-school workshop lessons in science illustration taught by Stacey Vigallon, director of interpretation for L.A. Audubon.

That five-week class concluded with students learning to mix up to 10 shades of green with colored pencils. Among them was Jesus Olvera, 11, who labored over a rendering of a burrowing owl. No sooner did he complete a meticulous sketch of the bird’s eyes than he erased it and started over.

After four successive attempts at perfection, Vigallon intervened.

“At some point, Jesus, you have to commit — so finish those eyes and move on,” she advised with a smile. “Sometimes meeting a deadline is more important than achieving absolute perfection.”

Since the garden was planted, students have documented and illustrated more than 25 species of birds, including the meadowlark that dropped in around Thanksgiving, an ash-throated flycatcher that visits each autumn and a white-crowned sparrow spotted last Sunday.

Rumble, who sits on L.A. Audubon’s board of directors, recalled the day when he urged kids over the public-address system to step outside and “look up at the more than 60 turkey vultures circling overhead.”

“Luckily, the vultures’ arrival coincided with recess,” Rumble said.

As he spoke, Jerry Molgado, 10, watched a small black-and-white bird on the branch of a Western redbud tree.

“It’s a black phoebe,” Jerry said. “It likes to fly off and swoop in the air, then hurry back to the same branch. It’s chasing insects.”

USDA Forest Service Makes $1 Million Commitment to Get Kids Outdoors

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Seal of the United States Department of Agricu...
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Good news from Children and Nature USA, how money ‘can’ make a real difference to children’s lives and how they interact with their natural environment. For details see NAEE Blog

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced USDA‘s continuing commitment to get kids outdoors and connected to the natural world around them through $1 million in cost-share funding from the U.S. Forest Service to enhance children’s programs in 18 states. Vilsack will highlight the announcement later today at the Interior Department during the White House conference,Growing America’s Outdoor Heritage and Economy, which emphasizes the link between conservation and strong local economies through tourism, outdoor recreation, and healthy lands, waters and wildlife.


My Top Stories of the Week – on my re-launched ‘Learn From Nature’ blog

My top stories of the week –

* the Christchurch quake anniversary, 22 February

* Baden Powell, the founder of Scouting, born 22 February 

* how to build a bird nest box

* climate deniers are trying to influence school science in USA – on Learn From Nature blog.

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Children and Nature : How kids in China’s urban jungle are reconnecting with the outdoors

English: The Great Wall of China, near Beijing...
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China’s economic boom means its city-bound children have little experience of nature. But efforts are afoot to change that. From the Guardian blogs |

Cover of "Last Child in the Woods: Saving...
Cover via Amazon

We all met by the roadside before setting off for the nature camp. It was a clear, early-spring morning and several of the children played on a dusty patch of ground next to a run-down factory. We grabbed one of the girls as she ran past. “Do you like it here?” we asked.


“Yes,” she shot back.



And off she ran. We watched curiously as the girls piled earth, stones, sticks and leaves together.


“What are you doing?”


“Making a cake!”

The child who answered didn’t even look up, being too busy adding leaves to the “cake”. We laughed, but also felt a little sad. It was good to see the children at ease and happy and feeling close to nature. But it was also obvious that it had been a long time since they’d seen any real nature and that they rarely got to play outside; otherwise, they wouldn’t have been so excited about this scrap of land.

And – sure enough – when we got to our destination and saw the orchards, grass, ponds and hills, they whizzed off like escaped rabbits.

I still feel the same mix of happiness and sadness every time children get out of the car and run off shouting, ignoring any calls to return.

China‘s rapid economic development has changed much of the country’s appearance. Childhoods of climbing trees, picking dates and grapes, catching fish, shrimp and tadpoles (or cicadas and crickets), making whistles from willow twigs, and spending all day outside until you were deeply tanned are gone. What have today’s children, growing up with TVs and computers, lost?


City kids in China became cave-dwellers in an urban jungle long ago. Children lose the ability to experience nature. They can talk at length about whales or cheetahs, but not describe a flower at their feet. Parents know that if their youngsters eat too much processed food, they will not have a balanced diet; yet they are less likely to know that too much processed information will also hamper children’s development.

In Richard Louv‘s Last Child in the Woods, the phrase “nature deficit disorder” is used to describe the broken connection between children and nature. And in a rapidly modernising and urbanising China, this phenomenon is spreading quickly.

Friends of Nature, formed in 1993, is one of China’s oldest NGOs and has provided links between the urban public and nature through bird-watching and gardening groups. Nature education aimed at children started in 2000, with Green Hope Action and the Antelope Bus.

Green Hope Action sees volunteers from the city visit poor villages to provide environmental education. The Antelope Bus is a mobile nature-education project that Friends of Nature adopted from Germany; in its early years, it also visited rural schools. Similar projects include the Beijing Brooks Education Centre’s programme to educate children who live near nature reserves about wetlands. These projects all started in cities and are aimed at rural areas. China’s early NGOs aimed to help vulnerable groups, rather than urban populations that tended to have access to more resources.

Over time, however, some of those involved started to question this long-distance approach and to look towards city residents. They found that children in cities had fewer chances to get close to nature than did their rural counterparts – that urban children suffered more of a nature deficit – and so they began to experiment with environmental education in cities. City children (and even some parents), it emerged, didn’t need more knowledge – they just needed to rebuild their links with the natural world.

Even an ant can cause both children and adults to panic, says Wu Yue, children’s nature tutor at the Lovingnature Education and Consulting Centre. The ants, worms and lizards we often caught and played with as kids have become terrifying beasts. Similarly, an experiment once found that Japanese university students preferred to play in a concrete gully, believing that two tree-lined mountain rivers nearby were dangerous. Long-term separation from the natural environment causes estrangement, fear and the loss of the ability to appreciate nature’s beauty.

As the NGOs worked, they came to understand that while it’s good for a child to be able to name a plant, more is gained if he or she can appreciate its beauty; understand its structure and evolution, its links with other animals and plants; and experience the connection between people and nature.

Within two or three years, these ideas gave birth to a range of educational activities based around the observation and experience of nature. These activities include Friends of Nature’s Nature Camps, run by members and volunteers; Beijing Brooks’s nature and art experiences at Waterdrops Camp at its Nature Study Centre in the hills outside of Beijing; Hanhaisha’s community gardens project; and Nature Heart’s classes combining observation, explanation and photography of nature.

And we were delighted to see how the children behaved during the activities, breaking down the barriers between themselves and nature; it was like a miraculous journey.

Song Xi works on Friends of Nature’s nature experience project. She asked a group of lively children to close their eyes and lie beneath the branches of a large tree. When they opened their eyes and saw the sun shining through the green canopy, they fell silent –as if the whole world had stopped.


At first, city kids are unruly and uninterested, but they become curious, excited and focused over time. Initially they don’t want to get dirty and they scream at the sight of a bug – but soon they get closer to nature than their parents do. If they have the opportunity to observe and experience nature, they discover new things, things we may never have noticed, and they become imaginative about things that look ordinary.

Nature is ever-changing and full of beauty, and everyone is drawn to appreciate and understand it. It sharpens our senses, stimulates the spirit and cleanses the soul. No matter what their background, all children can find restoration in nature. As Hu Huizhe of Friends of Nature says, even “adults caught up in themselves can feel the power of nature when they notice a dramatic mountain scene or the colours of a wild flower”.


Playing outside makes children more fit and coordinated, and helps them to build friendships. The “secret gardens” of our childhood can absorb our sadness, soothe our soul and nurture our lives – and build our future personalities. Activities in the natural environment are not optional; they are an essential ingredient of a healthy childhood, just like sunshine and air are essential for trees and plants.

Nature is a treasure-house of knowledge, a palace of art, a spring of imagination and creativity. Children who know how to appreciate beauty will be happier, and creative children will be more successful. In his “Song of the Open Road“, the 19th-century American poet Walt Whitman said: “Now I see the secret of making the best persons; it is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.” Letting children build an emotional connection to nature, to ignite their curiosity and passion – that is the root of all learning.

As Li Weiwen, chair of Taiwan’s Society of Wilderness wrote in his book Education Can Be Romantic: “Take your child for a walk, and if you have a calm and unflustered heart, nature will lead you to appreciate it and learn everything that we should know.”


Liu Xinyan is deputy director of the Beijing Brooks Institute.

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