At first glance, nature, children and democracy may not seem related. But they are. To explain this relationship, let me start with a story.
Over two decades ago, while doing research for a new book, I visited Southwood Elementary, the grade school I attended when I was a boy growing up in Raytown, Missouri. From the windows of the classroom, I could see the same trees, branches bare, that I had watched dip and sway when I was a boy.
In that classroom, I asked fifth-graders about their relationship with nature.
Many of them offered the now-typical response. On those occasions when they were outside, the students were more likely to be playing soccer or some other adult-organized sport. More than a few said they preferred playing indoors, because, as a third-grader in another school once told me, “that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”
Then a girl stood up. She was wearing a plain print dress and an intensely serious expression. Earlier, a teacher had described her as “our little poet.” “When I’m in the woods,” the girl said, “I feel like I’m in my mother’s shoes.”To her, nature represented beauty, refuge, and something else. “It’s so peaceful out there and the air smells so good. For me, it’s completely different there. It’s your own time. Sometimes I go there when I’m mad — and then, just with the peacefulness, I’m better. I can come back home happy, and my mom doesn’t even know why.”
She paused. Then said: “I had a place. There was a big waterfall and a creek on one side of it. I’d dug a big hole there, and sometimes I’d take a tent back there, or a blanket, and just lay down in the hole, and look up at the trees and sky. Sometimes I’d fall asleep back in there. I just felt free; it was like my place, and I could do what I wanted, with nobody to stop me. I used to go down there almost every day.”
The young poet’s face ﬂushed. Her voice thickened. “And then they just cut the woods down. It was like they cut down part of me.”
If the eminent biologist E. O. Wilson’s “biophilia hypothesis” is right — that the human attraction to the rest of nature is genetically hardwired into us — then our young poet’s heartfelt statement was more than metaphor.
When she referred to her woods as “part of me,” she was describing her primal biology, her sense of wonder, her sense of belonging to a larger community of nature.
I think now about the little poet’s path through her neighborhood to the woods. Perhaps she encountered a kind neighbor standing in his garage who noticed one day that she was crying, and spoke to her softly, and loaned her a book.
She might have studied the houses, the corner store, the little park. Maybe she saw a father standing in his driveway watching the gathering clouds. And then the houses fell behind, and she walked through a corn field into the trees, where pocket mice and mourning doves and a garter snake in a shadow communicated in their ways.
Both the human neighborhood and the neighborhood of animals were part of her community. She knew them both.
Yet, in recent decades, Americans have gradually withdrawn from nature and each other. Too often, school districts have cut back on or eliminated recess. Garage doors are closed, strangers feared, the woods avoided. A growing body of research suggests the quality of human connection to the rest of nature is linked to our physical and emotional health, to depression, obesity, myopia — and, speculatively, to a myopia of the spirit.
To develop a sense of that larger community, a child or an adult must step outside, must get to know the neighbors, both human and other-than-human. As the poet Wendell Berry has said, “If you don’t know where you are you don’t know who you are.” During the pandemic, people have instinctively rushed to parks and trails for their health and their sanity. One consequence is that we are more aware of the inequitable distribution of parks and other open spaces. And they have recognized, sometimes for the first time, the value and solace of the natural world just outside their window.
Even before the pandemic, the medical community has expressed growing concern about what some call an epidemic of human loneliness. As contributors to major illnesses and death, social isolation now ranks with obesity and smoking.
Many factors, from anti-social media to poor urban design are blamed for this growing isolation, and for Americans’ withdrawal into insular political tribes. In my book, Our Wild Calling, I suggest that this aloneness is rooted in an even deeper isolation: species loneliness. As a species, we are desperate to not feel that we are not alone in the universe.
This yearning has religious implications, but it also suggests that the path back to each other leads through woods and fields, through the greater community.
Nature offers physical, emotional and spiritual healing. It can improve cognitive functioning, reduce the symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder, help raise test scores, and improve conservation. Nature connection can also build social capital.
Research suggests that school children who play in a natural play space, as compared to a typical asphalt playground, are more likely to invent their own games, part of the development of executive function — the ability to make one’s own decisions, to be entrepreneurial. In a natural play space, children also appear to be more likely to invite children of other races or genders to play with them. Such characteristics are essential for building democratic values.
During the past two decades, this research helped launch an international movement to reconnect children families and communities to the natural world.
As it turns out, this issue transcends political, religious and professional barriers; it often brings people to the same table who usually do not want to be in the same room. No one wants to be in the last generation where it is considered normal for a child to lay under a tree in the woods, and watch clouds become the faces of the future.
Again and again, I have seen conservatives and liberals, physicians and educators, conservationists and developers and many others, work together for this cause.
Partly as a result of this new nature movement, we now see pediatricians across the country prescribing time spent in nature. We see a growing green schoolyard movement and the development of nature-smart libraries, and the impressive growth of nature-based schools and outdoor classrooms. We see mayors and other municipal leaders striving to make their cities nature-rich for the children of all races and backgrounds. We see parents, grandparents, and people without children committing themselves to a shared future in the natural community.
At its core, this movement and the impulse that drives it is profoundly democratic.
The eco-theologian Thomas Berry once wrote. “A degraded habitat will produce degraded humans. If there is to be any true progress, then the entire life community must progress.” At some level, our Founding Fathers and Mothers understood that, given their belief in natural and therefore inalienable rights.
For over a decade, some of us have argued that a positive connection to nature should be considered a human right — because a positive connection to nature is so fundamental to our health, to our humanity, to the health of the Earth itself.
Progress toward that goal has been made. In 2012, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the world’s largest network of conservation NGOs, passed a resolution declaring nature connection a human right for all children. In the future, we hope to see the right recognized by governments as well as culture.
To make that happen, this truth must become evident: We can truly care for nature and ourselves only if we prize the larger community; only if we see ourselves and nature as inseparable, only if we love ourselves as part of nature, only if we believe that human beings have a right to the gifts of nature, undestroyed.
The young poet in Raytown may not have had a speciﬁc right to a particular tree, but she and all children have the inalienable right to be with other life; to liberty, which cannot be realized under protective house arrest; and to the pursuit of happiness, which is made whole by the natural world.
On this path to the future, we can strengthen democracy, find relief from our species loneliness, and increase the odds of our survival.
Richard Louv is the author of ten books, including OUR WILD CALLING, LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS, VITAMIN N, and THE NATURE PRINCIPLE, and from which this piece was adapted. He is co-founder of the Children & Nature Network (C&NN). For more information about recent research on the human connection to the natural world, see C&NN’s online Research Library.