The Forgotten Human Right

About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of ten books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," "The Nature Principle," and "Vitamin N." His newest book is "Our Wild Calling: How Connecting to Animals Can Transform Our Lives — and Save Theirs." In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal. He speaks frequently around the country and internationally.

“Nothing so important as an ethic is ever ‘written’… it evolves in the minds of a thinking community.” — Aldo Leopold.

Do children – do all of us – have a right to meaningful connection to the natural world? Annelies Henstra, a Dutch human rights attorney, thinks so. She calls it the “forgotten human right.”

In the March 2009 issue of Orion Magazine, and then in a more detailed chapter in “The Nature Principle,” I sketched out a case for that right; not as legal argument, but as moral stance. And I emphasized that this birthright is accompanied by a responsibility to protect and care for the natural world.

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That idea had already begun to take root as part of the children and nature movement.

In 2007, California adopted the first statewide children’s outdoor bill of rights, followed by similar symbolic statements in other states, including Florida, Maryland, North Carolina, Kansas, and most recently Wisconsin. Cities and regions around the country have embraced similar declarations.

Now the concept is spreading internationally.  Henstra, with Thomas van Slobbe, one of the Netherland’s most prominent conservationists and director of the wAarde Foundation, have 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 UN documents.

As Henstra points out, this “relatively new concept” is not currently recognized as a specific right in the CRC, nor in any other UN human rights treaty. Yet, it fits the purpose of the CRC, “which is to ensure a healthy development of children.” The only other UN document that hints at this right is the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but that focuses more on the human right to a healthy environment.

This is a subtle but important distinction. The environmental justice movement has made an effective case that people who live in economically depressed neighborhoods and regions are the most vulnerable to toxic dumps, and that all people have a right to clean air, soil and water. But what about the intrinsic, natural benefits of nature to human health, wellbeing, and cognitive and spiritual development?

In November, 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 even 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, 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.”

To move in this direction is both moral and practical. In a recent e-mail, King elaborated: “The position I am taking is a hybrid moral/utilitarian one (perhaps moral-plus would be a better way of putting it). There is a government focus of preventative spend[ing]… I am working to raise the importance of environmental and biodiversity investment in this context.”

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Henstra and Van Slobbe plan to press ahead with their international campaign with the support of The International Union for Conservation of Nature‚ National Committee of the Netherlands and other organizations, says Henstra.

King wants his country to do more, too. He cautions that all “forty-three rights recognized by the (CRC) are important, and some clearly more fundamental than others; a number of countries struggle to ensure that even some of the more basic rights are recognized and some actively obstruct them.” But, he adds, “Nature is good for people: Let’s recognize the right of every child to live and grow up in a wildlife-rich world.”

Rather than becoming mired in legalisms, the debate about this forgotten human right should take place first at the cultural level – in our schools, places of worship, living rooms and neighborhoods. This is a moral and utilitarian conversation worth having, one that illuminates the interdependent issues of our time: the conservation of nature and the preservation of our fundamental humanity.


Richard Louv is chairman emeritus of The Children & Nature Network and author of eight books, including THE NATURE PRINCIPLE and LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS.

• States Adopt Children’s Outdoor Bills of Rights, Suz Lipman, C&NN
• Access to wildlife should be a right, not a privilege, Tony King, The Guardian
• A Walk in the Woods: right or privilege? Richard Louv, Orion Magazine

Photos are of Annelies Henstra and Jason Louv, age four.


  1. While it is fantastic news to see such a right being considered for the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, what is sad is that the US are still the only country in the world to have not signed up to this international treaty. The rest of the world see all aspects of children’s lives needing special consideration, so maybe more pressure could be placed on US government to join the international community in recognising all rights for children?

  2. We are a nation experiencing cultural amnesia; we have forgotten to go outside and also keep our children with us indoors because we have also been taught to fear. And where can we go outside to play without zooming traffic and parking lots and mega industrial complexes? While I agree that this is a moral issue, people who keep building on our natural land don’t abide by the same morals that individual families hold dear. The industrial complex of our government won’t protect children in natural habitats just like they won’t protect mangroves for the lemon sharks, meadows for deer or woodlands for bears. I’m lucky enough to live on the edge of a city with miles of wooded hiking trails. We decided to home school just so our son could go outside more often.

  3. Thanks for this insight, Richard. It’s hard, when one sees such a big, pervasive threat facing our world, to know where to best invest one’s time and effort.
    But, like any movement, it comes down to every person who cares injecting the issue into their daily conversations, their on-line presence, their input to their elected officials and other influential people in their lives.
    Thank you for your groundbreaking efforts to coalesce the movement!

  4. Wisconsin has just introduced the Wisconsin Outdoor Bill of Rights. Yes it’s symbolic, but it may lead to more programs to encourage play in nature. I think the law is a good thing, but I also think it’s sad that we need a law to say that all kids deserve the right to play in nature.

    Absolutely committed to making a difference using the Arts, Creativity & the outdoors, to engage, empower young people to promote positive change! Longterm goal to spearhead FLOW For the Love Of the World, celebrating the beauty & fragility of the natural world through the eyes of it’s children. Our ventures are endorsed by Lord David Puttnam & artist & conservationist David Shephard! Spirit Always Ali Rice

  6. The fact that children are not even protected, even though there are more at risk, by labor laws that say workers must have 15 minutes off every three hours and a lunch period greater than children are receiving. This tells us something. Most children do not have any time to themselves, much less outside. Lunches tend to be 20 minutes or less….and in that time they are sequestered, made to be quiet, and certainly have no time to be outside.

    Children must sit in rows and aisles all day long with little chance to stretch, go outside, and are only allowed to go to the bathroom at designated times. Adults do not stand for these kinds of rules….why then are children asked to sit in classrooms and be “good” all of the time.

    Why are workers protected with regard to time on task and children are not?

  7. Yes; the human rights element has been there from the start, and is growing today, reaching more and more people. I hold a Master’s Degree in International Education with a concentration on human rights from University of San Francisco. I support the belief that Child’s right to nature is an issue of human right— the forgotten human right. We are a part of nature, “if we become disconnected from the natural world… we lose a part of what it means to be human” (Marghanita Hughes, 2012).

    To help thought-leaders communicate the importance of this idea, I designed a seminar guide titled “No Child Left Inside – No Child Left Environmentally Illiterate.” I have also designed a workshop to provide tools and strategies for community members to champion the U.S. ratification of the Convention of the Rights of Child (CRC).



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