Thirteen years ago, Richard Louv woke up the Western world to a problem that seemed unthinkable generations ago.
In his landmark book, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder,” he detailed not only the trend of children increasingly not playing outdoors but also the disturbing health consequences of it.
Obesity, attention disorders, cognitive declines, depression all had some tie to this loss of what otherwise was a given childhood rite.
Fast forward to 2018 and the challenges of “screen time” — children with easy access to cell phone, computer tablets and electronic games — seem to make the childhood disconnect from nature even more formidable and consequential.
Despite that, Louv stresses that he is “not anti-tech” despite increasing revelations that companies have designed social media to be addictive, not unlike the cigarette and junk food industries.
“I actually like tech,” said Louv. “Technology is going to be with us and there’s going to more in the future, so that raises the stakes to find some kind of balance to counteract the negative things that tech produces.”
He added, “The more high tech our lives become, the more nature we need."
At 6 p.m. Friday, Louv will be giving the keynote address, ironically via Skype, for a panel discussion at the Francis Marion Hotel in Charleston titled “From Gigabytes to Nature Hikes: Connecting the Outdoors in a Digital Age,” organized by the South Carolina Aquarium.
The program seeks to take a deep dive into technology’s influence on the perception of nature and the conservation of the natural world.
According to Louv, who helped found the “Children & Nature Network,” which serves as a clearinghouse for academic studies and global initiatives, scientific research continues to prove that time in nature is one the best ways to counteract the downfalls of too much screen time.
Louv says too much “directed attention” at a screen can burn out certain parts of the brain.
“Going outside is the fastest way to restore our brains, particularly going out in some kind of natural setting. It can be your backyard or the park down the street,” he said.
Louv says that people have responded to the call that “Last Child in the Woods” made and pointed to the latest example: initiatives in Colorado such as cityWILD, detailed in the Feb. 16 edition of the “Christian Science Monitor.”
Back to local nature
Efforts have been emerging in Charleston in recent years, as well. Nonprofits, businesses, schools and governments have created programs both big, small and in between.
They include the Green Heart Project, Y2O (Youth to Oceans), Loblolly Adventures for preschool-age children, Coastal Expeditions and the S.C. Outdoor Education Fund, the MUSC Boeing Center for Children’s Wellness, children-specific programming by the Sewee Visitor and Environmental Education Center, Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission and the South Carolina Aquarium.
Schools with specific environmental programming include Charleston Collegiate on Johns Island, the Cape Romain Environmental Education Charter in McClellanville. Most recently, Sundrops Montessori Middle School in Mount Pleasant is piloting a “farm school” that includes a 15-acre plot in Huger.
Just launching is a program called Cities+Shovels that is working with Fresh Future Farm, an urban farm in North Charleston.
Danielle Loveless, co-founder of Loblolly Adventures, started in the fall of 2015 with the idea that a parent joins his or her child in experiential field trips to the array of parks, such as James Island County Park and the Audubon Society’s Beidler Forest.
As a busy mother herself, Loveless describes the curriculum of Loblolly as “emerging” but that it is 100 percent outside.
Perhaps the rock star of outdoor programs in Charleston is the “farm-to-school” Green Heart Project, which was started in 2009, and now reaches thousands of children with 16 programs in six schools, five of which are in urban settings.
Currently, Green Heart is working to build an urban farm on the grounds of the William Enston Homes in downtown Charleston, which will open up programming for three more schools and a youth development program modeled after Boston’s The Food Project, according to Executive Director Drew Harrison.
But local efforts aren’t limited to terra firma.
Daniel Yost started Y2O five years ago (then Salty Kids) after he noticed as a kayak guide, that the opportunities to get on the water weren’t extended to all children. Yost was well aware that there were teens, born and raised in urban areas of Charleston and North Charleston, who had never been to the beach, and he set out to change that.
Yost reaches out to Carolina Youth Development and Windwood Farms, among others, to find children who need to explore the beach.
Programs often involve surfing lessons, seine netting, a beach comb and sweep.
“We always try to pick up trash,” says Yost, noting that he likes to promote an awareness of the impact of littering as well.
“We make it all really fun for them because we want them to love being outdoors,” says Yost.