Richard Louv at launch of 'Vitamin N' book

“Miss Miller, there’s so much nature out here!” the pupil said. “I’ve only got two eyes and one brain, and I think I’m going to explode!”

With stories like that, Louv hopes, a movement he helped trigger a decade ago with “Last Child in the Woods” could lead to healthier students, families and communities.

Richard Louv said the children-in-nature movement is uniquely supported by conservatives and liberals. Photo by Ken Stone

In fact, the former San Diego Union columnist urged an audience of 300 Tuesday night — including county and San Diego officials — to seek some healthy competition between cities.

“Maybe one [leader] sitting here will decide to become the best city, maybe the finest city, in America for children and nature,” Louv said to applause at Point Loma Nazarene University.

Interested groups would meet and set goals, he said. Then maybe two years later, the city that best achieves such aims as most pediatricians prescribing nature and schools with natural playgrounds could be declared America’s most nature-rich city.

“If some other mayor objects to that — ‘No, we are’ — that’s good! That means it’s contagious,” said the Scripps Ranch resident. “That means competition. We need charismatic ideas, not charismatic leaders.”

A week after publishing his ninth book — “Vitamin N” — and three days before Earth Day, Louv addressed the challenges of dealing with a world, especially schools, that focuses more on virtual experiences than real ones.

In foyer outside theater, Warwick’s Bookstore in La Jolla sold copies of Richard Louv’s latest book. Photo by Ken Stone

“For every dollar we invest on virtual, we ought to invest at least another dollar on the real — particularly if it’s nature,” Louv said of schools. “A single teacher who insists on taking students outside to learn can change a school. Thousands can transform education.”

At the Chattahoochee Hills Charter School in Georgia, subject of a recent “CBS This Morning” segment, low-income students learn math in the woods, he said, and are the healthiest kids in that county. They’re also the most improved academically in the region.

“This is happening all over the country,” Louv said — part of a “rapid contagion of small actions taken daily by individuals, families, churches, schools, grandparents and many others” to expose children to species other than their own.

The movement is both a throwback to the back-to-nature trends of earlier America and pushback against a society in which kids spend less time outdoors than prison inmates (as a United Kingdom study found).

But Louv warned against the children-in-nature movement becoming “too professionalized, too dependent on programs and experts, who sometimes obscure the original passion with opaque language.”

Such efforts need to enter everyday lives and “become contagious on a personal family level,” lest they lose their grass-roots energy, he said.

Building on public awareness, he said, “What we need most is self-replicating cultural change. That happens when individuals, families and small groups of people take the kinds of actions so enticing that other people” can’t resist joining in.

He cited San Diego’s own Family Nature Club, boasting over 1,500 families.

Family Nature Club parents Geeta Asuri (far right) and Pauline Jimenez took part in a conversation after Louv talk. Photo by Ken Stone

“These parents aren’t waiting for funding or permission,” he said. “They’re doing it themselves, now.”

He said large organizations and institutions, and government, still are needed to help connect children to nature. And the National League of Cities is encouraging 19,000 mayors and other municipal leaders to “help make their communities nature-rich.”

“One of those communities, I hope, will be in San Diego County. Maybe it will be San Diego itself. Or Encinitas,” he said — knowing that Encinitas Councilwoman Catherine Blakespear (a mayor candidate) was present in the Brown Chapel audience.

Louv’s latest book — subtitled “The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life: 500 Ways to Enrich Your Family’s Health & Happiness” — aims to offer solutions to a problem he defined in 2005 — nature-deficit disorder.

“Vitamin N” for nature is “corny,” Louv confessed, but such concepts sometimes “work better than highfalutin terms.”

How much nature do kids need?

He couldn’t quantify it, but said studies have shown that 5 minutes in a natural setting has an immediate psychological benefit.

“I’m a little suspicious of studies that try to make it into a literal pill,” said Louv, wearing jeans and boots. “So many variables‚ like what’s the weather like?”

Richard Louv of Scripps Ranch once was an award-winning columnist for The San Diego Union. Photo by Ken Stone

But as he recalled saying 10 years ago: “Some [nature] is better than none, and more is better than some.”

Among his ideas: Librarians might check out backpacks with binoculars and guides to local flora and fauna — or even fishing rods.

“We have more … species in this county than any county in the United States,” Louv said. “And most of us don’t even know it.”

One part of the book — aimed at parents — talks about “supersenses” (which appeals to kids enamored of superheroes with superpowers).

“Scientists conservatively talk about 10 senses and as many as 30,” Louv said, including echolocation and the ability to track animals — or sense danger down an urban city street.

Another study cited by Louv, 67, suggested that kids who spend more time outdoors are more open to diverse friendships. (He suggested, to laughter, that Donald Trump might benefit from getting closer to nature.)

Louv lamented a culture — exploited by tech companies “pushing product” — in which environments are being created where adults and children are spending more and more time “trying to block out as many of those 30 senses as we can, so we can focus on that screen.”

“I’m not anti-tech,” Louv said. “But if our kids, and we, are spending so much time blocking out our senses, isn’t that the very definition of being less alive?”

He stressed that he’s not urging schools to expel computers.

“They’re part of our lives,” he said. “I’m talking about the force that stands up for balance. There is no lobby in America, certainly not in education, that will stand up for that kind of balance between the real and the virtual in a forceful way.

“There’s no economic group that can do that. There’s a social movement that can. It’s the people in this room and the tens of thousands of people like you all across the country … This is the force for balance.”

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