The Forgotten Human Right

Does a child have a right to walk in the woods? Does an adult? In his essay in the March/April 2009 issue of Orion, “A Walk in the Woods,” Richard Louv argued that all people have a right to meaningful connections with a healthy natural world. Since his essay was published, a movement for the rights of children and nature has gone international. We asked Richard for an update on some of the movement’s exciting recent developments.

When Annelies Henstra, a Dutch human rights attorney, talks about the right of children to a meaningful connection to the natural world, she calls it the “forgotten human right.”

Now, at least for some, it is remembered.

In September, the World Congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), meeting in Jeju, South Korea, passed a resolution declaring that children have a human right to experience the natural world. Henstra and Cheryl Charles, who is president of the Children & Nature Network, made the case to the Congress—attended by more than 10,000 people representing the governments of 150 nations and more than 1,000 non-governmental organizations.

The resolution, “the Child’s Right to Connect with Nature and to a Healthy Environment,” calls on IUCN’s membership to promote the inclusion of this right within the framework of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The resolution recognizes “concern about the increasing disconnection of people and especially children from nature, and the adverse consequences for both healthy child development (‘nature deficit disorder’) as well as responsible stewardship for nature and the environment in the future.”

And it recognizes that:

…children, since they are an inalienable part of nature, not only have the right to a healthy environment, but also to a connection with nature and to the gifts of nature for their physical and psychological health and ability to learn and create, and that until they have these rights they will not bear responsibility for nature and the environment…

This is an important moment for anyone concerned about the future relationship between humans and the rest of nature.

In the March/April 2009 issue of Orion, I sketched out a case for the right to a meaningful connection with nature—for children and for adults—not as legal argument, but as moral stance: Do we really need to add more rights to our catalog of entitlements? The answer is yes, if we can agree that the right at issue is fundamental to our humanity.

In recent years, science has shed more light on the measurably impressive benefits of experience in the natural world to human health and cognition. Our understanding of a right to a connection with the natural world emerges not only from what science can prove, but also from the spiritual necessity it cannot fully reveal. This birthright can only be realized if we accept responsibility for the preservation and care of the natural world. Most people will do that only if they come to love nature through personal experience.

With seeds formed through millennia of human experience, the new codification of this idea has taken root in the children and nature movement.

As early as 1997, Robin Moore, professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University and one of the world’s leading experts on natural play spaces, called for such a children’s right to be established. In 2007, California adopted the first statewide children’s outdoor bill of rights, followed by similar symbolic statements in many other states. Cities and regions around the country have embraced similar declarations.

Now the concept is igniting internationally.

Annelies Henstra, with Thomas van Slobbe, one of the Netherlands’s most prominent conservationists and director of the wAarde Foundation, has launched The Child’s Right to Nature Initiative. Their goal is to enshrine the right to nature in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) or other relevant U.N. documents.

And in November 2010, Tony King, head of policy for the Scottish Wildlife Trust, wrote in an editorial for the British newspaper The Guardian, “When people talk of human rights in the context of nature conservation, they often mean protecting the rights of people in the non-industrial world to make use of the obvious things nature provides, such as firewood, food and traditional remedies.”

But natural habitat offers much more than that. King cited the “growing and compelling body of evidence that regular and ready access to a wildlife-rich environment is essential for children’s health and wellbeing.”

As a result, he added, governments can and should articulate that “every child and young person has the right to grow up and live in a high-quality, wildlife-rich environment with ready access to the physical and mental health benefits, developmental advantages and play opportunities it affords.” He called his position a hybrid moral/utilitarian one. “There is a government focus of preventative spend[ing]… I am working to raise the importance of environmental and biodiversity investment in this context.”

In addition to approving the children’s-right-to-nature resolution, the IUCN went two further steps. It adopted the “Jeju Declaration on National Parks and Protected Areas: Connecting People to Nature,” a commitment to create a global campaign that recognizes the great contribution of these natural treasures to the health and resilience of people, communities, and economies. And the IUCN and the Children & Nature Network jointly released the landmark report, “Children and Nature Worldwide Summary of Research” to stimulate action worldwide.

All of this lays the foundation for a worldwide discussion, not about legality but about what is right, and about what is next. Inspired by new scientific research but also by a renewed moral sensibility, people are already taking action.

Families are exploring new ways to experience nature or are reviving traditional ways. Conservation and community groups are sponsoring programs to connect people to nature. Educators are creating outdoor classrooms. Public health officials and pediatricians are beginning to prescribe green exercise at local parks. Pioneering local governments are encouraging community gardens, urban farms, and the true greening of inner-cities and suburbs.

This new nature movement is powered by a shared belief that our everyday connection with and protection of the rest of nature is fundamental to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The human right to a walk in the woods is not lost. It is remembered.

Richard Louv is chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network and author of The Nature Principle: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age, from which some of this update is adapted, and Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Images courtesy Alec Couros.


  1. I benefited from a childhood spent at beaches, climbing trees, and catching fish. My parents aided and abetted these activities.

    When they weren’t around, nature was a daily refuge. Even just walking my dog along the creek near my house was great.

    Without that exposure, I think TV would have been my only teacher at such times. How sad a person I would be now.

  2. “and that until they have these rights they will not bear responsibility for nature and the environment…”

    This clause sounds extremely problematic. It sounds like it provides a future opening for individuals and societies to deny their responsibility to the environment, which should be considered universal simply by virtue of the fact that people live on the earth and depend on its resources. ( not because they enjoy “access to nature”, which is subjective and difficult to define).

    The phrasing is clunky and addresses the relationship that exists between the environment and children without acknowledging how that relationship is mediated by governments and corporations in a more concrete manner. Consequently it does not provide any incentives for those entities to improve access to “nature.”

    A hypothetical developing nation for instance would be able to argue that since its urban city dwelling poor have little or no access to “nature” it is unfair to impose limits on development that benefits them seeing as how they have a reduced responsibility towards nature.

  3. No one let’s anything grow anymore. We live in a sprawling city with manicured lawns and no one will just let the grass grow! Gardens are planned and everything has to be clipped around them. It’s plain ugly. We took a beautiful trip through the nearby countryside and even at night you could smell everything growing wild. Especially the mint. I hadn’t felt that alive since childhood but our seven year old was truly afraid. She had never been that close to the woods at night. She had no idea it just takes on a life of it’s own. It was amazing.

  4. I also grew up immediatly next to a forest that gave years of growing up within all the unlimited benefits of the wild! Our Home, the site in which I grew up supervised by a Gracious Mother who did not stop me from enjoying, the wild forest linked by three rivers flowing into St.Laurence.. Ottawa, Gatineau, rivers and I still live memories, today @ 85, of all that great healthy Nature.

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