Richard Louv wrote Last Child in the Woods almost 8 years ago. I first read it (actually listened to it) back in 2008, and as luck or providence would have it, I began to reread it recently on a family trip to Zion National Park. It was the perfect backdrop for diving back into this motivating call to reconnect children (and ourselves) with nature.
The book begins with a description of nature that takes me right back to my childhood days in rural Oregon. Trekking across pastures that were my personal wilderness and disappearing into to the long grasses to read.
As Louv reminds us, nature takes on many forms for children. It’s not just the untouched land, but also the rough edges of our own backyards, the empty lots, the bugs, the animals, and more importantly, the experiences.
Experiencing nature is a whole-child effort. It’s a sensory feast, sending input to every willing receptacle — light dancing between leaves and off of canyon walls; feet and hands layered with sand, dirt, and water; pungent pine and the fresh scent of oxygen straight from the source; babbling brooks and calling birds; even the taste of juicy berries only seconds from the bush.
Nature permeates through body, mind, and soul It calls for the employment of motor skills, ingenuity, creativity, and problem-solving. It’s a natural testing field for the scientific method. It has inspired the literary works of Thoreau and Hemmingway, while also giving place for more powerful thoughts left unspoken. And, as Louv points out, “most of all, nature is reflected in our capacity for wonder”.
As Louv weaves a romantic description of nature, he brings a stark contrast as he shares a quote gathered from a young and honest fourth-grader: “I like to play indoors better, ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” It’s funny, startling, and sadly very reminiscent of what one of my own boys might say.
I hope I’m not the only one who finds that perspective familiar. In fact, it’s a huge motivating factor for me to dive into this book once again. The lure of technology is strong, and while technology itself is not bad, providing a balance with nature takes a much more intentional effort than does the lopsided overload of techno-bombardment.
The subtitle of Last Child in the Woods is “Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder”. This term, nature-deficit disorder, was coined by Louv to describe the impact of disappearing natural experiences on our children — and on us. In full disclosure, he points out that it is no way a medical description (though research has uncovered an interesting link between improvements in ADHD and experiences in nature). The term brings more urgency to a situation that could easily go unnoticed.
The way we perceive and experience nature has changed dramatically through the generations. As Louv describes it, “In the space of a century, the American experience of nature — culturally influential around the world — has gone from direct utilitarianism to romantic attachment to electronic detachment.”
Louv describes five trends of this stage of electronic detachment from nature: a severance of the public and private mind from our food’s origins; a disappearing line between machines, humans, and other animals; an increasingly intellectual understanding of our relationship with other animals; the invasion of our cities by wild animals; and the rise of a new kind of suburban form.
Each of these trends is discussed with great interest, but I found the first to be particularly fascinating. Having grown up in a farming community, I had a front-row seat to food production. The disconnect between the public perception of food and the actual production of food has always intrigued me. It’s one of the biggest reasons I try to connect kids with gardening and cooking experiences. I want them to know that food doesn’t just emerge from a store’s stockroom wrapped in colorful packages. I want them to know it in its raw forms.
Louv’s point that the current trend is that nature takes place “somewhere else” is also intriguing. As he points out, children (and adults) are often more likely to be able to identify plants and animals from faraway, exotic places than those in their own natural surroundings. Even more disappointing, as a British study discovered, average eight year-olds are more able to identify the characters of the foreign Pokemon trading cards – Pikachu, Metapod, and friends — than the species in their own back yards — beetles, oak, and otters.
Perhaps our kids aren’t being kept from nature as much by technology as we think. Perhaps one of their greatest barriers is actually the grownups who profess to love nature so much. Louv explores the ways that the protection of nature has essentially led to the criminalization of natural play. Closer to home, our anxieties, attitudes, and schedules may be keeping kids from nature more than we realize.
It’s hard to get a lot of hard numbers about how less frequent our natural experiences have become. That is partly because time in nature used to be such a given, that few took thought to track it. Perhaps more so however, could be due to the fact that in order to have research you have to have funding, and for something to be funded there often needs to be an economic benefit for the organization dishing out those funds.
There’s not a lot of commercial payout for natural experiences. No product placement in the canyon, no entry fee to your own backyard, and no concession sales as you watch the sunset. Gear for nature outings is a big money-maker as are many events held in nature, but those represent only a portion of the ways we experience nature, and they’re often geared toward the adults. Kids seem to require very little monetary output to experience and enjoy nature. Often all it takes is an open door and an open schedule.
So without economic drivers, we end up with fewer studies. From the studies that have been done, however, there are significant findings to consider. As one research director pointed out to Louv, “Based on previous studies, we can definitely say that the best predictor of preschool children’s physical activity is simply being outdoors and that an indoor, sedentary childhood is linked to mental health problems.” That seems to me to be reason enough to pay more attention and make more of an effort.
Of course, this book isn’t focused only on the deficit, but also on the “natural abundance”. It’s out there for us and for our children. And for as much as I worry about my brood of boys and their affinity for blinking screens and pixelated play, I also know what happens when they get outside. I know they get just as excited at the sight of a tent as I did as a child. I know they crave the adventure of the “wilderness”, even on the paved paths of our neighborhood park’s walking trails. I know they can entertain themselves for hours with little more than sticks, an open landscape, and an imagination. All I really need to do is get them out there.
What were your thoughts about Part 1 of Last Child in the Woods? How do you connect your kids with nature?
Join us next month for Part 2!
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