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Inspiring Children To Experience Nature


What can we do to encourage more children to put down the video game controller, and go play outside? We speak to a pair of famous wildlife artists about their efforts to encourage more kids to experience nature, and to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods.

Robert Bateman will discuss his personal connection with the natural world, and describe how he uses his art to inspire people, especially children, to find their own place in nature on Saturday, September 4 from 4 to 5:30 p.m. at the San Diego Natural History Museum.

ALISON ST JOHN (Host): You’re listening to These Days here on KPBS in San Diego. I’m Alison St John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. Now, you may be the sort of person who loves to spend hours on the computer and is up to speed on all the latest gadgets but, even so, there's something about lying on your back and looking up at the sky or catching a glimpse of a pod of dolphins as they cruise up the coast that just brings delight, that just feels good. So as we cruise to the end of the summer holidays here we're going to take a little time to talk about children and nature, and remind ourselves of how important it is not to let our young ones lose that connection, even in the midst of all the high-tech distractions that we now have. We have as guests for this hour Richard Louv, author of "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder," which was the recipient of the 2008 Audubon Medal. He’s also co-founder of Children and Nature Network, and a former columnist, as many of us remember, for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Richard, thanks so much for joining us.

RICHARD LOUV (Co-Founder, Children & Nature Network): Thanks very much.

ST JOHN: Also, Robert Bateman is on the line, world-renowned wildlife artist and founder of the Get to Know program, which encourages children to go outside and explore nature. And, Robert’s in town to give a lecture at the San Diego Natural History Museum this Saturday. Bob, thank you for being with us.

ROBERT BATEMAN (Founder, Get to Know): My pleasure.

ST JOHN: And we also have Wyland, well known for his wonderful paintings of whales and other marine mammals. And he’s a supporter of this Get to Know program. Wyland, thank you for being here.

WYLAND (Artist): Alison, nice to be involved in Robert Bateman’s Get to Know Your Neighbor program. It’s fantastic and I’m glad it’s coming to America and is really going to make a difference.

ST JOHN: Good. Well, we should have a pretty inspiring discussion here just reminding us of what’s important. I wanted to start with you, Richard. You wrote this book, “Last Child in the Woods,” that made quite an impact. Just tell us what it was that inspired you to write this book.

LOUV: Well, probably the same things that inspired Robert Bateman who is doing such great work not only in Canada but in the U.S. and around the world. You know, I actually was a kid once and I spent a lot of time in the woods and a lot of time in the fields, a lot of time catching crawdads and doing all those kinds of things. And I had a real intense sense, even as a kid—as I’m sure Bob did, too—that those experiences were shaping me in a very positive way, and I don’t really know what my life would’ve been like without those in many ways. So initially it was that. Secondarily, it was that I started doing interviews probably 20 years ago for a different book about childhood in America and that issue kept coming up among parents and even among kids, that this sense that something profound was changing in the relationship between children and nature and, in fact, between human beings and nature.

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm. And you discovered some – a sort of a syndrome that’s as a result of this trend called Nature Deficit Disorder. Tell us about that.

LOUV: Well, first, that’s a – I’m very careful in “Last Child in the Woods” not to suggest that that’s a known medical diagnosis. Maybe it should be but it’s not. It is, however, a way that I learned very quickly that people could – you know, it’s simply, you know, shorthand for what people feel is going on and yet have no words to describe and that phrase has kind of entered the language at this point and it’s been very helpful, I think.

ST JOHN: Nature Deficit Disorder. What would some of the symptoms, if you can use that word, be?

LOUV: Well, you know, the symptom – the disorder really is a disorder of the society. And what results from that is alienation from nature. And when you look at the studies, the enormous, fairly large body of evidence that’s emerged just in the last 15 to 20 years on the importance of nature to human development, what happens when you take that away? I mean, the studies show the Attention Deficit Disorder, the symptoms get much better for kids with just a little bit of contact with nature. Physical problems like obesity, neighborhoods who have – that have more green space in them, the child obesity rate is lower, and that includes inner city neighborhoods. It seems to be independent of population density, according to recent studies. Even myopia, for instance, worldwide there’s a huge increase in myopia. Studies in Australia and elsewhere link that to the fact that kids don’t go outside very much anymore. So across the board, from psychological health to physical health and, I think, to spiritual health, there is growing evidence that taking nature away from kids doesn’t do them any favors.

ST JOHN: So, Bob, you are one of the best know wildlife artists. I mean, you’ve done some absolutely magnificent paintings of, you know, there’s one of a tiger that comes to mind, birds, you obviously are just inspired by nature and animals. So you read “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv and why did – how did it connect to things you were experiencing?

BATEMAN: It very much connected but actually it shocked me. By the way, “Last Child in the Woods” is a bible to a lot of us and I feel like I’m kind of on the air here with Moses discussing the Ten Commandments. A big chunk of my lectures, and I go around and give lectures as I’m giving at the museum on Saturday afternoon at four, is I’m quoting Richard Louv. And I – See, I kind of live in a bubble. I grew up in the city of Toronto but I was playing around in nature the whole time even though I was in the city. I had a bicycle and we had public transportation and I just normally played in nature. And I think everybody – I think virtually every person certainly over the age of 50 and maybe even over the age of 40, that’s what they did. All the audiences I talked to, that’s what they did. But nowadays I’m told kids are not out in nature. I notice parks are empty, city parks are empty on weekends. They used to be full of kids kicking a ball around. Now you have to have adult supervision outside if you’re a kid outside. Someone said you, you know, these signs that say ‘slow, children playing’ you should strike out the word ‘slow’ and put ‘no children playing.’ Kids spend seven and a – the average 14-year-old, I just heard this a couple weeks ago, in North America spends seven and a half hours every day, seven days a week, looking at screens.

ST JOHN: That’s a shocking statistic, isn’t it?


ST JOHN: Yes, yes.

BATEMAN: And I don’t – I’m told they just don’t go outside. And I read in Richard’s book that mothers are afraid to let their kids play outside, and I was shocked by that because my kids and my grandkids have all played outside, and all the kids of the friends I know, so we’re not talking about everybody here but we’re talking about an alarming, growing number of young people in North America…

ST JOHN: So I guess the…

BATEMAN: …are not…

ST JOHN: …question is, you know, how do you lure young people away from what has become a very sort of compulsive sort of a culture with all the technology that is there to distract them and provide entertainment. So you’ve designed some – a program and I’d like you to talk a bit about it. Is it using your painting to try to reverse this trend?

BATEMAN: No, it’s not – it’s not my paintings. It’s not about me, it’s about the kids. And the word Get To Know came from a question I was asked by Mary Cooper, who really runs the Get To Know program out of Kelowna, British Columbia. She said if you had one wish for young people, what would it be? And I said, well, oh, that’s easy. I would hope that they would get to know their neighbors of other species and particularly the names of their neighbors of other species but actually become familiar with them. And I’m told that the average North American kid can recognize over a thousand corporate logos but they don’t know the names of, you know, the trees and the birds and the so-on that occupy the same space as the kids’ neighborhood. And this is a new phenomena, a relatively new phenomena, because, of course, from ancient times kids have always kind of been familiar with the birds in the neighborhoods around them. I’m told Shakespeare could – knew 300 plants and 50 different birds and other animals that were around him but nowadays it’s corporate logos.

ST JOHN: Isn’t that amazing? So get some – this is a program that you’ve developed called Get to Know.

BATEMAN: Yeah, I didn’t answer your question. So it…

ST JOHN: Yeah.

BATEMAN: …started out with a calendar competition and thousands of kids all over Canada and now all over America, the U.S. Forest Service is involved, are entering this calendar competition and we insist—it’s kind of hard to police—but that they get their – do their artwork, photography from life, not from Google.

ST JOHN: Uh-huh.

BATEMAN: And also do writing, so there’s writing and photography and drawing and painting. And the winners, all that they get – the 12 winners get to be, you know, one month in the calendar.

ST JOHN: So you’re creating a calendar with paintings or artwork by children about nature.

BATEMAN: Right, by the children, that’s right, so that does acquaint them with it. We have, I’m afraid – If you can’t beat them, join them, so I’m afraid there’s a Robert Bateman, well, I don’t want to call it a video game because I think they can be very harmful but it’s taking kids on virtual hikes.


BATEMAN: But I – In actual parks, in three different places in Canada and we’ll probably expand it. I think that’s okay but it’s meaningless unless the kids get out actually in the real nature. Nature is absolutely magic. I just want to tell one quick…

ST JOHN: Please do.

BATEMAN: …quick anecdote. A little school. I live here on Salt Spring Island, it’s just north of San Juan Islands that many people know about in Washington state, but I’m in British Columbia and we’ve got 10,000 people on the island. We’ve got our little local school where my – two of my kids and grandkids went to school, and when the school was first built they couldn’t afford a playground with the swings and the, you know, the jungle gym and that type of thing. So the kids just played in the woods next to the school and they got their knees all skinned and they climbed trees and they got their – all dirty in the little creek and they would come in happy as larks after recess at the beginning of school. So then they got the budget for the jungle gym and the principal said it was noticeable. The kids’ behavior went downhill. There was far – the kids were far more restless in school, they weren’t as good at their studies, they – there was more bullying going on, more…

ST JOHN: Because the…

BATEMAN: …annoying behavior.

ST JOHN: Because they weren’t spending so much time just out in the wild.

BATEMAN: That’s right.


BATEMAN: And the jungle gym, you know, there was competition. Well, it’s my turn on the slide and, you know, there was more fighting. So…

ST JOHN: Interesting.

BATEMAN: …nature’s magic. In Japan, they’ve started a new thing for uptight office workers and it’s called Forest Therapy, and these uptight workers just go for a walk in the woods for half an hour to an hour and their blood pressure comes down. Their bad hormone, cortisol, comes down. Their immune system improves. And it lasts for the better part of a week or even more.

ST JOHN: Interesting. So…

BATEMAN: Just nature is magic. I don’t know what it is but all through our history until about 15 years ago, that’s the way we’ve been.

ST JOHN: And I guess that’s why we’re so attracted to these paintings, these images that you and Wyland create. Wyland, I mean, everybody immediately sort of has an image of some enormous, beautiful sea creature on a huge image painted on a wall perhaps that you’ve done. Why is it that you’re attracted to this initiative?

WYLAND: Well, you know, I’ve been in the ocean my whole life and, you know, my nature, you know, is the blue room underneath the surface, you know, three-fourths of the water planet. And that’s where I spend my time and, you know, I grew up in Michigan surrounded by the Great Lakes and, for me, that was my ocean. But we always – also spent a lot of time, you know, in the woods. And, you know, once nature is in the hearts and minds of children, it can’t be removed. I mean, it inspires them throughout their life and continues to inspire their children and generations. But as Robert Bateman says, there’s a lot of challenges to get them outside and in nature and so our challenge is how do we, through the arts, engage kid – you know, young people in a creative way. And Bateman’s – he’s got a great way. His art is so powerful and I try to, you know, use my art in a similar way. You know, I’ve been fortunate, I’ve painted 100 walls in the last 27 years in public and painted with over a million kids and I can see the power of art to people. But probably even more powerful is nature itself and once immersed in nature, we have a chance to inspire our youth to become ambassadors, youth ambassadors for the planet. So the investment that Robert Bateman and myself and you, Richard, are making is in the future. You know, I say if you want to protect the environment today, it’s up to us. If we want to protect it for the future, we need to be talking to young people. And that’s what Robert Bateman’s Get to Know is doing in a magnificent way so I’m so proud to help him, you know, bring that to America and join the U.S. Forest Service and all the conservation partners and everybody that’s involved in supporting this campaign. This may be the greatest investment that we can make together, so I hope everybody’ll support this effort. It is a beautiful thing to watch. Wasn’t it, Robert? When we got to go out and paint with these kids in the park in British Columbia? It’s awes…

ST JOHN: Well, let’s – let’s talk about that, about what you’ve actually experienced so far with this Get to Know program, coming up right after the break. We’re speaking with Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods,” artist Robert Bateman, and Wyland. And we’ll be right back in just a couple of minutes.

ST JOHN: And we’re back. I’m Alison St John and the guests on These Days this hour are Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods,” and world famous artist Robert Bateman, wildlife artist, magnificent paintings, and Wyland, who we’re all very familiar with of his marine mammal paintings. We’re talking about how to reconnect children back to the magic of nature. I wanted just to mention that there are a lot of very good websites that you can connect to if you go to the website and go to the These Days site page. You’ll find some places where you can connect to these artists’ work and to this – more information about this program Get to Know because I think the challenge is, you know, how to lure children away from the distractions, which are very fascinating and very engrossing, that technology provides. And, Bob, you were talking about how this calendar—this is just one element of the program—getting kids to paint animals actually from life rather than just from, you know, finding it on Google. Do you paint from life? Do you paint from photographs yourself? Do you think a child should be able to go out there, find an animal, and just paint it straightaway? How do you see this working?

BATEMAN: I paint from my own photographs. I do paint from life as well but animals tend to move faster and my paintings take a long time to do.

ST JOHN: Yes, that’s what I was thinking.

BATEMAN: And so I use 5 to 50 photographs in the average painting. And nowadays with the ubiquitousness of cameras and even cell phone cameras, etcetera, just about every kid has a camera and they can take pictures of things that they see themselves. Or they can go to wonderful places like the San Diego Zoo and see the wildlife there. So that’s what we’re encouraging them to do. But I think goes – It goes way beyond my contest. I don’t want to say my little contest. But it’s just such an enormous problem facing all of society and I think schools, unfortunately, the budgets have been cut here in Canada, and I suspect down there, for outdoor education, getting kids outdoors on field trips. I think it would be a way better planet if every kid – certainly better North America if every North American kid in high school had a week out in the wilderness in small groups. I’ve seen this happen with my own eyes. But we – Budgets are being cut and we’re all worried about liability and there’s this crazy fear out there of mothers saying they’re afraid to let their kids go and play, which is totally misplaced. There’s not – 95% of harm that’s done to kids by some dirty old man, the dirty old man is known to the family, it’s the father or the uncle or the guy across the street. I don’t think they need that…

ST JOHN: I think you’re so right about that, about the fact that fear is getting in the way. You know…


ST JOHN: …how would you combat that? What are you encouraging people to do?

BATEMAN: Well, it’s nonsense. There’s very little risk playing outside but there is risk playing inside. I don’t think we need the adult supervision outside, I think we need adult supervision inside. Has anyone heard of internet predators?

ST JOHN: That’s true. That’s…

BATEMAN: Has anyone heard of internet pornography? Anyone heard of internet bullying? There’s – And then all these things – all these, as Richard said earlier, and I’d like him to talk about his outer circle that he’s been working on. Last time I was talking to him, he said he’s been working on that area of getting beyond the schools to the families. But…

ST JOHN: That’s sounds like a good place to go here. Richard, we know about your book and we know the trends that you talk about but do you feel like there’s any progress being made in this? Is the trend getting worse? Or are there more people beginning to wake up to this?

LOUV: Well, I think there’s great progress being made. It’s too early to tell whether the progress, in terms of people doing something about it, and that’s happening now internationally. I just got back from Australia and the UK where there’s – there are great things happening there. In Canada, there’s now a national effort to turn this around that Bob and I are actually the honorary chairs of. In the U.S., there’s – and North America, there are over 80 regional campaigns that have emerged to get kids outdoors, including the San Diego Children and Nature Collaborative, which is doing great work here. One thing that I’d like to mention, though, in terms of the fear, you know, knowing the statistics about the fear, knowing that almost all stranger – almost all abductions are not by strangers but, as Bob said, somebody the family knows, most likely a family member, knowing that, knowing that violent crime has actually gone down in the last 20 years toward children doesn’t help parents who feel that fear. I felt that fear raising my kids even though I’d written about that in my column and I knew – I knew better. But that fear is still there because, as a parent, you really don’t play to statistics, you think about your own child. So I think we need to respect that fear actually and we need to come up with new ways to get out in nature. It’s not going to be the way it was when Bob and I were kids for most kids. One of those ways—and that’s what Bob is referring to—is the idea of creating a Children and Nature family – Children and Nature Family Clubs…

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

LOUV: …one of which has been, at least one, has been established in San Diego by Ron and Janice Swaisgood. Ron is the leading conservationist at the San Diego Zoo. Those are popping up all over the country and in Canada, in which parents band together with other parents. The families get together and they make essentially a nature play date to show up at the park on Saturday and take a hike together, multiple families. There’s kind of perceived safety in numbers. You don’t have to wait for funding. Any kind of family can do it, and how great this would be for single-parent families who kind of need some kind of – you know, face such difficult logistics. Those things are happening all over the country and now all over the world. Australia, these are really catching on so…

ST JOHN: Is that something people can find out about? Where would they find out more about that because that does sound very attractive.

LOUV: Oh, well, great. Thanks for asking, Alison. Well…

ST JOHN: Is your website a place they could find out about it or…?

LOUV: Yes. The Children and Nature Network, which is, has a free toolkit that families can download on how to start one of these.

ST JOHN: Okay, well, we’ll put that link on the KPBS website as well then. So…

LOUV: Can I mention one more thing…

ST JOHN: Sure.

LOUV: …Alison, that something local is happening. It’s actually part of something national. In addition to Bob’s Get to Know effort, something called Nature Rocks, which is an affiliate of ours, and Nature Rocks Day has been scheduled for September 25th. And the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge location at Sweetwater Marsh in Imperial Beach is hosting it from 9:00 a.m. to twelve noon on that day, on September 25th. A lot of activities are planned for that day. That’s one of many things that are happening over the country.

ST JOHN: Okay. And we have another event here because, Bob, you’re passionate about this. You want to talk about this more, so if people want to come and hear you talk and perhaps, you know, discuss some of the barriers to breaking down that sort of lack of connection with nature, you’re going to be speaking at the San Diego Natural History Museum this Saturday from 4:00 to 5:00 p.m., so that would be…


ST JOHN: …a chance to sort of discuss this more. And I wanted just to bring in Wyland again. Wyland, you were talking about the fact that today you’re going to go off on a photographic expedition and I think that’s one of the things that would fit in with Bob’s idea of getting kids to go out and take photographs and then paint nature. Tell us what it is you’re going to go do today.

WYLAND: Well, I’m actually out here with Jim Abernethy, one of the great icons of the dive world and with David Doubilet from National Geographic, and he’s, you know, he’s the premier underwater photographer in the world. And they asked me to come along with them on this expedition here off of Palm Beach where the Gulf Stream creates this incredible, you know, sanctuary of habitat for the goliath grouper, the greatest of these magnificent fish. Some of them are 700 pounds and…


WYLAND: …they’re all stacked up. Yeah, it’s mating season so we’re going to go down there and try to document that. And, you know, I’m a photographer like Robert and I do a, you know, it inspires a lot of my paintings so I hope to have a lot of images to paint. But, you know, it’s nature that really fills your soul but we realize that the greatest challenge of this generation is to protect the environment, protect the water planet, and the only way we’re going to do that is by having these young people really step up and be ambassadors for it. So I think, you know, all the parents that are listening, get your kids out there in nature. Look, right off of San Diego, don’t go to Sea World, keep going, keep going west, man, because you’ve got blue whales right now right off the coast. I get all these calls, hey, blue whales are out here by the dozens. Right off the coast. You see orcas out there, you see…

ST JOHN: Where’s a good place to take your kids…

WYLAND: …incredible dolphins.

ST JOHN: …to see them?

WYLAND: Listen, just go down to the harbor and they have whale watching – has replaced whale killing. You know migrate is…

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

WYLAND: …is the thing that I feel strongly about is that these kids, they don’t – they not only want to learn about it, they want to experience it and they want to be part of the solution. They want to be part of action. So I think we should embrace the technology today, you know, the cell phones with the phones, the one I’m holding right now, the iPhone. All these, you know, cameras and things. Instead of saying, hey, you know, stop using it, use it to share forward your experiences in nature with your friends. That may have the biggest impact because you’re not going to stop it. I mean, techology’s here to stay, so let’s use that technology that these kids are so great at to let them experience nature and then let’s let them come up with some ideas about how they want to creatively engage their peers on these issues regarding conservation and protecting the planet.

ST JOHN: Okay. And just in the last minute we have left, Richard, I mean, you’re very much in touch with something that the president’s wife, Michelle Obama, is right on this same issue only from a slightly different angle with her program, Let’s Move Outside campaign. It’s kind of like this confluence of different programs, people waking up to something that’s really important about our health and that connection to nature. So do you feel optimistic that this thing could turn around?

LOUV: I do, and if people go to the Children and Nature Network website, which again is, you’ll see evidence that enormous things are happening not only in the United States but in Canada and all over the world. People like Bob and – are doing just incredible things. And there’s a little bit of evidence, and it’s usually attributed to the recession, that visits to national parks, for instance, after plummeting for 15 years, are starting back up and fishing licenses are starting to sell again, things like that. I’m not sure it’s just the recession because, you know, fishing licenses and national park attendance is expensive. I think it may also have to do with the heroes out there like your guests, your two other guests, who are doing incredible things around the world. One of the things that we’d like to see families doing more, too, is starting their own family nature adventure blogs online. Again technology is not entirely the enemy. The families are starting to do this where their kids take pictures, do art, do writing. The parents also do this, and they put it up and they keep an ongoing record of their adventures outdoors.

ST JOHN: That’s a great idea.

LOUV: That’s another thing that people can do.

ST JOHN: Yeah, thank you so much, Richard. A lot of good ideas there. So we’ve got to wrap it up here but I’d like to remind you that you can go and hear more, talk more about it with Bob Bateman at the San Diego Natural History of – History Museum – That’s the San Diego Natural History Museum, this Saturday from 4:00 to 5:00 p.m. And I’d like to thank Richard, Richard Louv, for being with us.

LOUV: Thank you.

ST JOHN: Thank you. And Robert Bateman, who’s…

BATEMAN: Could I say one more sentence? One more.

ST JOHN: Go ahead. Go ahead.

BATEMAN: If you know a kid, take the kid for a hike, and get ahold of another family. You don’t need a – you don’t need any organizations or anything, just every weekend, I think, two or three hours, going for a hike out in nature compared to seven and a half hours every day…

ST JOHN: Uh-huh.

BATEMAN: …I think it’s not rocket science.

ST JOHN: Great reminder. Sometimes it’s the simple things, isn’t it? Thank you, Bob. And Wyland, also, it’s great having you on the show, too.

WYLAND: Well, one kid can change the world, so be that kid, if you kids that are listening. So…

ST JOHN: Uh-huh.

WYLAND: …thank you, Robert, and thank you all you guys for focusing on this important topic.

BATEMAN: Have a great dive.

ST JOHN: Okay. Yeah, have a great adventure out to sea today.

WYLAND: Oh, yeah. Hey, I’ll say hi to the groupers for you guys, okay?

BATEMAN: Sounds scary.

ST JOHN: Okay.

LOUV: Wyland, thanks for everything you’re doing.

BATEMAN: Yes, thanks, Wyland.

WYLAND: Love you guys. Keep it up, man, and thanks to PBS, man. Aloha.

ST JOHN: Okay, guys. And thank you for listening and stay with us. Coming up right after this break, we’ll be talking about how to improve the environment back here in our own urban downtown.

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