Nature Smart

The Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv is one of those must-read books for Wild + Free parents everywhere – or any parent who is concerned about their children getting enough time in nature.

I wasn’t exactly raised with a huge emphasis on outdoor time, but one of the benefits of being homeschooled was that we could do our schoolwork outside on nice days. We went camping quite a bit as a family because it was frugal way to take a family vacation with five kids.

These small but potent experiences fed a love of nature and a confidence in the outdoors that I still carry with me today. I don’t know how I would be different if I had had to sit in a classroom all day.

With my kids, I plan to take an even more intentional approach to nature studies and environmental ethics. I’m inspired by the works of Charlotte Mason and others who, years before the green movement, wrote of the benefits of “life out of doors.”

Now we have the science to back it up, as outlined in this book: time in nature is beneficial for health, for self-confidence, and for lowering stress levels. 

Raising Nature Smart Kids

According to Howard Gardner there are 8 types of intelligence:

  1. Linguistic – word smart
  2. Logical / mathematical – numbers smart
  3. Spatial – picture smart
  4. Bodily – kinetic smart
  5. Musical – music smart
  6. Interpersonal – people smart
  7. Intrapersonal – self smart
  8. Naturalist – nature smart

Nature Smart is the latest addition to the list. Kids who are Nature Smart tend to show these traits:

  • Keen sensory skills, heightened awareness
  • Like to be outside
  • Observational
  • Notice patterns in surroundings
  • Care about plants and animals
  • Collect nature / journal about nature
  • Interested in nature / animal TV shows
  • Care about endangered species
  • Learn and memorize classifications, data, and names in the natural world

In order to raise Nature Smart kids, Louv says to be careful about making too many “doom and gloom” associations with nature. He advises parents and educators to be careful in our desire to teach responsibility that we don’t make nature stressful for kids.

No, you probably shouldn’t tell your five year old the statistics about global warming or the hole in the ozone layer. It isn’t yet age appropriate. You could leave him or her feeling worried and powerless. Kids have enough to worry about already

Don’t promote doom and gloom. Instead teach your children joy and ownership in the planet.

If parents want to raise Nature Smart kids, we need to show an interest in it as well! Model a “contagious attitude of attentiveness” when in nature. Fake it till you make it if you must. Your kids will be excited about it if you are excited about it.

“Look, a bird! What kind do you think it is?”

“Let’s see if we can find some bugs and mushrooms under this log!”

“What do you think that cloud looks like?”


Don’t Be an Over-Planner

Think back to your own childhood memories in nature. Were they planned or were they spontaneous?

Chances are, your favorite moments were child-led games you invented yourself or imaginative free play.

According to various sourcesfree play in nature is more beneficial than adult-organized activities

That takes some of the pressure off, doesn’t it? Just take those kids outside and let them be kids. 

They will figure it out.

Take them to the same place over and over again and let them form a personal connection to that place. Let them learn the wildlife, the lay of the land, and the seasons. Let them get dirty. Let them be still. Let them “waste time.”

Boredom should force creativity. Human society didn’t always have the luxury of boredom. Learn to use it constructively. Next time they tell you they are bored, structure some unstructured time in nature.

Prioritize time outside. Don’t think of it as leisure time only. Think of it as an essential investment in your child’s health.

Kids need time in nature to help them deal with their own stress, anger, anxiety, and depression.

It shouldn’t be a stressful thing.

Louv says that it should be the anecdote. 

Don’t think of it as something else to add to your to-list.

Don’t crush the joy by turning it into a chore or expecting it to be perfect.


No Such Thing as Bad Weather….

…Only inappropriate clothing.

Do your best to get outside, even on the days that aren’t perfect, sunny, and 70 degrees.

Make sure your kids have raincoats, hats, boots, and gloves so they can brave all kinds of weather with you.

In order to feel a connection with nature, we have to actually be exposed to nature – even the bad elements.

Growing up, I camped with my family in the bitter cold, the sweltering heat, and everything in between. (We even survived a tornado together on a friend’s farm.)

These memories are vivid and sweet because they taught me something big: you don’t always have to be comfortable to have a good time.

Sometimes “miserable fun” is the best kind of fun.

The book gives an example of a young man who didn’t feel a connection with nature until things didn’t go according to plan. He was hiking with his family and it started to rain and they were forced to take shelter in a cave.

That was when he finally understood. Nature came alive to him.

Yes, that dangerous feeling was part of the experience.

You never know what your children will connect with. It may not be what you think.

Rediscover your own buried joy and enthusiasm for the natural world.

Your kids want someone to share it with.

It’s not half so important to know as it is to feel when introducing a young child to the natural world.

Rachel Carson

But What About Safety?

Protective parents think they are doing their kids a favor by keeping them inside, but studies show that violent crimes aren’t as prevalent as parents think. The media does a good job of blowing things out of proportion.

Louv says that the greatest risk to children’s health right now isn’t violent crime or wild elements, but obesity and a sedentary lifestyle.

In fact, a life lived more outside is directly linked to several proven antidotes to crime: an active community, more human eyes on the streets, and self-confident children.

We parents have been told to teach “stranger danger” to our kids, in spite of data that overwhelmingly most kidnappings are people they know. We stress our kids out, making them fear the outdoors at a young age.

But how will they become discerning if they are always controlled?

What’s better, Louv writes, is to teach our children not who they should fear, but who they can trust.

Teach them to trust their gut.

Teach them which strangers they should reach out to if they feel afraid.

Teach them that they aren’t helpless but to have a sense of agency.

Teach your kids to take controlled risks while in nature.

Teach hyper-awareness and enhanced confidence in their own instincts.

Teach them to “pay attention,” not just to “be careful.”

Too much fear actually doesn’t keep kids safer, says Louv. They need self-confidence to own their power.

I was a shy, quiet kid growing up. I know I could have benefited by learning to own my power at a young age.

A confident kid with a good, safe relationship with their parents is less likely to be victimized.

Interacting with neighbors and building community is how you fight real crimes.

Take Action

Reading this book makes me excited about homeschooling my kids so they don’t have to sit in a classroom all day. But the book isn’t specifically for homeschoolers.

There are dozens of ways you can take action and get involved in your schools and community. We all have a part to play and can help make changes – things like longer recess, field trips to nature reserves, and even planning family vacations that center around time in nature.

There’s no limit to the possibilities – no matter your kids’ age, and no matter their schooling. Love of nature is deep within all of us. All we need to do is foster it and watch it unfold before our eyes.

Teaching our children about the natural world should be treated as one of the most important events in their lives.

Thomas Berry


How do you enjoy nature with your family? Do you have a personal favorite memory outside as a child? How can we help our children become healthy, joyful stewards of the planet we call home?



Add yours →

  1. I have always been a nature kid! As you know I spent most of my childhood outdoors playing in the woods and digging in the mud, and as an adult that’s translated into my gardening/traveling/backpacking/homesteading/chicken-keeping adventures. In a world where very few kids are allowed the opportunity to spend life outside, I’m happy to see parents like you encouraging your kids to be part of nature. Rock on! 🙂

    • I still remember sledding and filming movies outside at your parents old house! What a great time we had – and we were pretty big “kids!” 😂 I love that you’re still hiking and camping. It’s important for adults too!!

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