SMART PILLS VS. NATURE SMART: Want Your Kids to Do Better in School? Try a Dose of "Vitamin N"

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.

A few years ago, I ran across a particularly intriguing photograph on the 
back page of a magazine. The photo showed a small boy at the ocean’s edge. Beyond him you could see a gray sky, a distant island, and a long, even wave approaching. The boy had turned to face the photographer. His eyes were wide with wonder and there was a touch of impishness. His mouth was open in an exclamation of discovery and joy.

Next to the black-and-white image was a short article about the boy, who, it seemed, had a problem. He was hyperactive and found it difficult to pay attention in school. He was disruptive in the classroom and had been expelled. At first, his parents did not know what to do. More about that boy later, but first…

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Take a look at the Oct. 9, 2012 article in the New York Times about attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which these days seems to be diagnosed as often as flu. The story focuses on the dramatic increase in the number of prescriptions for pharmaceuticals, such as Adderall and Ritalin, for struggling students. The reporter found these drugs are often prescribed simply to increase student performance in schools, particularly in inadequate, underfunded schools.

“I don’t have a whole lot of choice,” Dr. Michael Anderson, a pediatrician who practices north of Atlanta, told the Times reporter. “We’ve decided as a society that it’s too expensive to modify the kid’s environment. So we have to modify the kid.”

For many children with ADHD symptoms – but not all children — research suggests that more experiences in nature can help. Unfortunately, our society seems to look everywhere but more natural environments for the enhancement of intelligence.

Poor kids, rich kids – smart pills are in. And they have been for a while.

Many people already take “natural” supplements to enhance or calm the brain — Ginkgo biloba for increased blood flow to the brain, Saint-John’s wort for depression, and so on. Gary Stix, writing in Scientific American, reports a boom in pill popping to build brain performance. College students and business executives are downing stimulant drugs for routine mental performance, though the drugs were never approved for that purpose.

Called neuroenhancers, nootropics, or smart drugs, the smart pills of choice currently include methylphenidate (Ritalin), the amphetamine Adderall, and modafinil (Provigil). “On some campuses, one quarter of students have reported using the drugs,” according to Stix. These stimulants may be helpful to some in the short run, but the long-term side effects are yet to be determined.

Beyond drugs, the news media’s imagination also has been captured by the potential of artificial neural networks — the reproduction or extension of the biological nervous system — to boost human intelligence. Meanwhile, we’re rapidly expanding an electronic environment wired for attention interruption, even as we cut or ignore non-pharmaceutical solutions – such as recess, gym, and simply going outside.

The study of the relationships between mental acuity, creativity, and time spent outdoors remains a scientific frontier, but the latest research suggests that exposure to the living world can enhance intelligence for some people. This probably happens in at least two ways: first, our senses and sensibilities are improved through our direct interaction with nature (and practical knowledge of natural systems is still applicable in our everyday lives); second, a more natural environment seems to stimulate our ability to pay attention, think clearly, and be more creative, whether we live in suburbs or urban neighborhoods.

One example of the emerging research: At the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, researchers have learned that children show a significant reduction in the symptoms of attention-deficit disorder when they engage with nature. This research has positive implications for education, for business, and for the daily lives of young and old. But such discoveries are generally ignored by too many educators, health-care providers and even by the journalist who wrote the excellent article for The New York Times about medicated schoolchildren.

Let me be clear, I’m not a Ritalin Radical. The case is strong that some children do seem to need psychotropic drugs to function well and have a better life. But other kids may well need an added or alternative therapy — and nature time may be just what the doctor ordered. Or could.

When Brenda Hardie, of Faribault, Minnesota, learned about the research linking time in nature with reduced ADHD symptoms, she thought that while it might not be a panacea,  time outdoors couldn’t hurt her son and it just might help him.  According to Hardie, “He’s been able to come off all his medicine for the ADHD. Playing, working — as in garden and yard work or shoveling in winter — and simply just being outside makes a huge difference for him.”

And what became of that little boy on the beach, expelled because of his classroom hyperactivity? Fortunately, his parents had already noticed how nature calmed their son and helped him focus. Over the next decade, they seized every opportunity to introduce him to the natural world — to beaches, forests, dunes, the rivers and mountains of the American West.

The photograph was taken in 1907. The little boy turned out fine. His name was Ansel Adams.

What if Ansel’s parents had taken a different route? Would he have given us those iconic, culture-shaping photographs of the dome of Yosemite and the moon rising over Hernandez, New Mexico? How many of today’s children could give us great gifts in the future, if we give them the gift of nature?


Richard Louv’s newest book, VITAMIN N, offers 500 ways to build a nature-rich life in urban, suburban and rural communities — including actions to improve sensory functions among children and adults. His other books include:  LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age, from which this essay is adapted. He is co-founder and chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network.  Follow Richard Louv on Facebook and @RichLouv on Twitter.

More resources

Attention Disorder or Not, Pills to Help in School, Alan Schwarz, The New York Times

Turbocharging the Brain-Pills to Make You Smarter? By Gary Stix. Scientific American, Sept. 21, 2009

Children’s Contact with the Outdoors and Nature: A Focus on Educator and Educational Settings, 2010, Children & Nature Network (multiple studies)

Get Your Mind Dirty: How Nature Can Nurture the Hybrid Mind — an excerpt from “The Nature Principle” in Outside Magazine.



  1. Thank you for this great post! Nature has a way of centering you and making you slow down to appreciate the sounds, sights and textures. Not everyone is wired to SIT in a classroom all day, which is why I believe more for the hands-on cooperative school environment, especially for boys as they seem less hard wired for sitting than their girl peers, on average. Kids need to EXPERIENCE to really learn, and there is SO much nature can teach! Thank you!

  2. Wow! Great article. Kids are way over-prescribed these drugs nowadays. We need more nature time and less screen time!

  3. Vitamin N – Love it!! Yes Lisa…we need more scripts for that!!

  4. I have just attended an EEAI (Environmental Educator Association of Indiana) where environmental educators were treated to a keynote speaker:

    Dr. Frances “Ming” Kuo
    University of Illinois, Associate Prof. and Director, Landscape and Human Health Laboratory,
    Dr. Kuo is an internationally recognized expert on the impacts of nature deficit disorder. Recently she has been examining the impacts of nature on children, especially in schools.

    “Nature Deficit Disorder: Impacts on Health and Academic Achievement”
    • Nature(N) as a key to human health and functioning (Ethology)
    • 3 categories:
    1. Social
    2. Pyschological
    3. Physical
    • Implications for EE (Environmental Education)

    Basically, a decrease in habitat causes social, psychological and physical breakdown. This is basic habitat selection theory (biological for any animal organism). Mobile organisms are drawn to fit habitats (which may be further complicated by competition). Google: Environmental Preference Research.
    An increase in natural elements causes an increase in habitat preference. How do you provide scientific proof? You compare people with more or less contact with nature.

  5. Sarah Bodor – No Child Left Inside Coalition (Chesapeake Bay Foundation)
    National No Child Left Inside Coordinator
    Sarah has worked for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation since 1996. In her current position, she coordinates the implementation of a grassroots strategy to advance the No Child Left Inside Act. She also manages communications, grassroots outreach, and all other essential activities in association with the operation of the No Child Left Inside Coalition.
    Sarah offered a brief history of the No Child Left Inside Coalition and the resulting grassroots movement. She also shared the current status of efforts at the federal level to expand opportunities for environmental education and what you can do to make a difference.
    In 1979 1st grade readiness had the following requirement: Can your child walk independently 4-8 blocks to a friend’s home or the store? Now we can hear the music group “Train” talk about how “children stay inside, so they don’t disappear…” Parents have enforced this disconnect between a child and their habitat in an effort to keep them safe. Be aware that this may be harming your child socially, psychologically and physically.

    What can you do?
    Develop safe green spaces for children to play!
    • Join No Child Left Inside Coalition
    • Join ELP (Environmental Literacy Plan) committee in your state
    • Join Children Outdoor Bill of Rights and incorporate it into your programming
    • Get Indiana schools to apply for the green ribbon schools program
    • Send success stories of programs to State Reps, Governor

    Lets look at the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind)
    Make Env. Educ. an expected part of the curriculum. Not a mandate, but an incentive program.
    No Child Left Inside Act was introduced to congress in 2006. It was passed as a stand alone bill in 2008. But the intention is to have it become imbedded in the No Child Left Behind act.

  6. This is a great article. It is similar here in Australia. Your point about using drug prescriptions to increase school performance is pertinent. In our state a few years ago, the government provided extra funding for schools based on numbers of students with an ADHD diagnosis in the school. The diagnosis of ADHD subsequently went through the roof and correspondingly prescriptions of the relevant drugs. I agree with your basic premise – a lot of these students would have been better off with ‘vitamin N’.

  7. Another way of connecting children with nature is to walk them to school. The National Center for Safe Routes to School (a U.S. DOT information clearinghouse for the federal SRTS program) has heard anecdotes from school principals of better behavior on days when the school hosts a push to walk/bike.

    Even if parents live too far away or it’s not safe to walk the entire way, some schools advocate park-and-walk solutions for parents, and some schools have scheduled days when buses park-and-walk (with volunteers along the routes and advance parental consent). Walking school buses and bicycle trains are also popular (these are adult-monitored walk- or bike-to-school groups) .

    These interventions, of course, don’t address children with diagnosed medical needs, but they can be helpful for those doctors who are prescribing medicine in order to change the child, not the environment as noted in the article above. Resources and more information are available at

  8. With the current rate of technology, cyborgization and and genetic engineering, very soon these topics will become irrelevant. Cyborgs do not need nature – they create their own environment of technology. The natural human will simply become obsolete as nature itself.


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