March 2010

Jessie Tierney

Past Perfect

Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv

After reading Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv, it is my humble opinion that this nonfiction book should be required reading for every American, whether you consider yourself a diehard tree hugger or a cosmopolitan urbanite.

Louv, who has been studying the relationship between children and the outdoors for the duration of his career as a journalist and author, poses the term nature-deficit disorder, which at first glance annoyed me: we are already an over-diagnosed, over-medicated culture. Why add another diagnosis? But his argument cuts deep: time outdoors is something that Louv proves should be looked at not as "recreation" but as essential to the health of our society suffering from childhood obesity and increasingly medicated youth. His arguments are vast. And convincing.  

Because of TV, video games, computers, “lack of neighborhood parks, or lack of… time and money for parents who might otherwise take them out of the city,” to name just a few reasons, children are spending less time outdoors and more time plugged in. Louv sites studies that suggest this decreased time outside, where kids can engage in “unstructured, imaginative play” is directly related to childhood obesity and a host of illnesses, including ADHD, anxiety and depression in today’s youth. Louv shows that today’s young people are growing up in a world comprised of “detachment from the source of food, the virtual disappearance of the farm family, the end of biological absolutes, an ambivalent new relationship between humans and other animals, new suburbs shrinking open space, and so on.” But Last Child in the Woods is not a doomsday warning; rather, it is a collection of the evidence and proof that a major shift in how we deal with education, land development, city planning and cultural attitudes toward nature is in store. Louv provides ample solutions throughout the book in addition to a well-developed section titled 100 Actions We Can Take and lists of resources. Prepare to be motivated and inspired.

Louv pogniantly shows that the childhood obesity epidemic is an obvious indicator that “current approaches aren’t working.” Interestingly, the incidence of childhood obesity coincides with the greatest increase in organized sports in history. Louv asks, “What are kids missing that organized sports, including soccer and Little League, cannot provide?” While he admits that “[a]dditional rigorous, controlled studies are needed to sort out correlation, cause and effect,” Louv suggests that we don’t need to wait for the research: “Playtime -- especially unstructured, imaginative, exploratory play -- is increasingly recognized as an essential component of wholesome child development.” 

One of the most fascinating sections of Last Child in the Woods was the chapter "The Boogeyman Syndrome Redux." Louv unveils some of the underlying reasons parents feel the need to “protect” their children from perceived dangers of the outdoors. Fear drives much of our culture and shapes our perceptions, often unrealistically. The parents Louv interviewed said things like “the world is full of crazy people… There’re nuts running loose. People that need to go through years of therapy and need to be incarcerated. They’re out there driving around in cars with guns on their seats. They’re out there.” Louv, while sensitive to the urge to protect our children, debunks many of these inflated perceived threats and argues that the risks to our children’s health -- mental, physical and emotional -- by keeping them inside far outweigh risks of being outside. “Teach your children to watch for behaviors,” Louv recommends in an add-on section, "Suggestions for Transforming Our Communities," “not necessarily for strangers. According to family psychologist John Rosemond, "Telling a child to stay away from strangers is relatively ineffective… Instead, children ought to be taught to be on the lookout for specific threatening behaviors and situations.” 

Louv blends statistics and studies with the stories of the children, parents and experts he has interviewed to create a vivid, engaging read. I found it difficult to put the book down at times, as I discovered more and more reasons why this issue should be taken seriously, and how it relates directly to my life as a twenty-five year old woman (I don’t even have kids). There is a wide appeal. In an unexpected benefit of reading this book, I found myself revisiting previously forgotten memories from my own childhood: building tree houses in vacant lots using “borrowed” 2x4s and nails, learning to bait a hook, catching frogs in neighbors’ window wells, walking through fields of tall grass with no destination in mind. Louv helps the reader to realize what a formative impact the natural world had on all of us -- even those who grew up in an urban environment -- and how nature enhances creativity. Some of his personal story is woven into this book, without getting overly-sentimental: we watch as his children learn to fish, and listen as his son, Matthew, poses this question: “Are God and Mother Nature married, or just good friends?” 

Richard Louv asks, “Where will our next naturalists come from?” Addressing the trend away from teaching natural history, the drive toward technological advances, and the shrinking demographic of people who support environmental and conservation groups like the Sierra Club (who “look increasingly old and white” to a culturally and ethically diverse youth), he suggests that getting children involved in the conservation movement may be the most logical and essential tactic to sustain their existence and support their campaigns. Kids know more about obscure endangered rainforest creatures across the world than they do about the flora and fauna outside their classroom windows. “To urbanized people,” says Louv, “the source of food and the reality of nature are becoming more abstract.” 

“We should do everything we can to encourage the incipient movement of what is sometimes called ‘experiential education.’ We should also challenge some of the driving forces behind our current approach to nature, including a loss of respect for nature and the death of natural history in higher education,” explains Louv.  School programs that utilize the land around schools and the greening or re-vegetating school lots with native plants have been proven to increase children’s performance in school and attention in the classroom. This type of school, which utilizes green space and incorporates time outdoors into the school day, is the exception to the rule, but according to Louv and other experts, it should be the norm. As should more interaction between environmental organizations, nature preserves and wildlife sanctuaries -- and schools.

Parents, educators, students, business professionals, attorneys, healthcare providers, government officials and members of any community will find resources within the pages of this book that guide toward solutions and a bright future.

Last Child in the Woods was, for me, a hopeful book. Yes, the American obesity rate has increased 60 percent in a nine-year span. Yes, suburban sprawl is eating up open space at an alarming rate. Yes, between 2000 and 2003, “spending on ADHD for preschoolers increased 369 percent.” But here, in Louv’s book, is what we can do about it. And we can start today.

Keep up with Richard Louv's blog here:

Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv
Algonquin Books
390 pages

Jessie Tierney is a wrangler at Sanborn Western Camps, works with 5th and 6th graders at the Colorado Outdoor Education center, teaches yoga and practices Reiki at The Nature Place, and blogs regularly.