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How To Get Kids Outside With The Guy Who Wrote ‘The Last Child In The Woods’

Sure, your kid plays a lot of soccer, or goes to summer camp, or maybe you just lock them out of the house on the regular. But Richard Louv, author of the bestselling The Last Child  In The Woods, wants you to know that they might still suffer from “nature-deficit disorder.” He believes that our lack of daily tree-hugging is the cause of a lot of childhood obesity, attention disorders, myopia, vitamin D deficiency, and other maladies. In Louv’s new book, Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life, he explains that there are still things families in urban and suburban areas can do to commune with the wild like a mini-Thoreau (or Reese Witherspoon).

Why Do Kids Need More Nature?
Besides the ADD and lack of D? Louv says that not going outside enough diminishes the capacity for people to use their senses. The remedy is bugs, trees, starry skies, and wearing large backpacks, and it should be administered early and often. “Early exposure builds a stronger bond with nature, and makes a lasting imprint,” he says. “Keeping that bond as an adult — or creating a new bond — is no easy thing, but doing so has enormous benefits for leading a full life. Too many people simply don’t know what they’re missing, or how much nature would improve their lives.” If that rational doesn’t work, tell them there’s a Charizard at the top of the mountain.

Rearrange Their Bedroom Furniture
With the dirt and sand your kid tracks inside, it might already seem like the line between indoor and outdoor is blurred. Louv says you can do a bit more to let the outside in. Try to position your kid’s bed so that the sunrise hits them in the morning. You can also install lights that adjust throughout the day according to the availability of natural light. Or just save a few steps and put their bed in your urban chicken coop.

What Parents In Cities Can Do
Urban life makes trekking to the woods complicated, but Louv says it isn’t necessary. “Any green space will provide some benefit to mental and physical well-being,” he says. And although subway cars have tons of biodiversity, it doesn’t count. Instead, try cultivating a little green where it doesn’t grow:

  • Plant native species: “We know that the greater the biodiversity in an urban park, the greater the psychological benefits to people. Individually, we can help bring back the food chain and improve biodiversity by transitioning our yards or other properties to native species,” Louv says. And since asphalt isn’t technically a plant, you probably should consult a guide like this one.
  • Put vegetable pots outside the front door: Encountering some vibrant plants and watching them grow and die as the seasons change helps you and your kid set your circadian rhythm. Plus, vegetables are good eatin’!

Take Tech Outside
Well before Pokemon Go, technology accompanied people into nature: Fishing rods, binoculars, compasses … beer coozies. “Today, the family that goes geocaching, sound-catching (recording the sounds of nature), or wild-snapping is doing something as legitimate as backpacking; these gadgets offer an excuse to get outside,” says Louv. Not on that list? iPod-guided tours or 4-wheelers with loud engines. Here’s a quick way to tell whether tech is helping or hurting your hike: “How long does it take someone to look up from the screen, or forget the gadget, and actually experience nature and feel a sense of wonder?”

3 More Ways To Get Them Out Of The House
There are lots of ways that you can get a kid to spend more time out of the house that doesn’t involve putting in time as a park ranger, marine biologist, or Tarzan stunt-double. If they’re not content to just take a stroll in the woods, Louv suggests a few unique outdoor experiences.

  • Get some nature-based therapyEcopsychology is no longer just a made-up term you used to win Scrabble. If you feel like your son or daughter is sunshine anemic, prescribe “green exercise” in parks or healing gardens. It’s no stupider than DJ lessons for 2-year-olds.
  • Go eat in a food forest:  Louv says, as cities seek to branch out their biodiversity they’re planting urban forests, community gardens, and things like this “food forest” in Seattle, where you the kid can plant and forage food. Think of it like a food court that won’t make you vomit.
  • Adopt a butterfly: Take a weekend and restore butterfly migration routes. Plant seeds of indigenous pollinating plants (like hollyhock, lupine, milkweed, and honeysuckle) that provide nectar, roosting, and food for caterpillars. Position the flowering plants so they receive full sun from midmorning to midafternoon (because, duh, butterflies prefer their nectar warm). Check out the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign for more info.

Vitamin N by Richard Louv