Richard Louv's 2008 book shows how direct exposure to nature is essential for children's development and wellbeing. If only the educational system would reflect that.
“Here is this vast, savage, howling mother of ours, Nature, lying all around, with such beauty, and such affection for her children, as the leopard; and yet we are so early weaned from her breast to society, to that culture which is exclusively an interaction of man on man.” Henry David Thoreau
One of the best books I’ve read is “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” by Richard Louv. Published in 2008, it’s as relevant as ever in our society where there’s a growing divide between children and the outdoors.
Louv believes that kids nowadays suffer from “nature-deficit disorder” – a term of his own invention that describes “the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.”
The effects of this disorder are widespread and long lasting. Individuals, families, and entire communities relate to each other differently when they have limited access to nature or spend little time outdoors. Louv cites long-standing studies that show a relationship between the absence, or inaccessibility, of parks and open space with high crime rates, depression, and other urban maladies.
Kids are developing more problems than ever (think obesity, technology addiction, adolescent depression, suicide, etc.), all of which Louv connects to nature deficit disorder. Spending more time outdoors could help resolve many of these issues, but this can happen only if kids are allowed greater access to nature. That’s where parents and policies come into play.
Parents need to be role models and take their kids into natural settings, showing wonder and interest in their surroundings, rather than fear. It’s a vicious cycle: children who are raised to be scared of the outdoors grow up to become parents who instill that same damaging fear in their kids. The irony is that it’s more harmful to a child’s long term health to be kept indoors and sedentary than risk, say, an encounter with wildlife or extreme weather. Parents need to get over their fear of stranger-danger, which has been blown out of proportion by media. They also need to stop being paralyzed by fear of getting sued, which I realize is easier said than done.
Schools, too, have an important role to play. They should prioritize the teaching of natural history, learning in outdoor settings, and studying local ecosystems, while refraining from instilling ‘ecophobia,’ a focus on huge global environmental disasters which makes kids feel even more removed from nature.
An intelligent yet unpopular move would be to remove computers from elementary school classrooms. Louv cites a ten-year study showing that computers shouldn’t be introduced until high school. Over-dependence on technology in learning displaces other sources of education, from the arts to nature.
This book really resonated with me because I am the product of a hippy-like, back-to-the-land, technology-free childhood. I grew up outside, bushwhacking trails, lighting campfires, identifying fish, bug, and bird species, sleeping in my treehouse, kayaking all around the lake where I lived.
I want my kids to have those experiences, too, but I feel somewhat trapped by having to work within a system that disagrees with me. When I look across the street at my son’s school, I see a hideously ugly school yard with an Astroturf soccer field, spongy plastic playground, asphalt, chain link fence – and not a single tree or blade of grass within the confines of the yard. It’s a place where kids spend entire days without coming into contact with real earth.
Louv’s book shows that there is another way to raise our children – and it’s a drastically different model from what’s currently being used. But, if you read the book, you’ll realize with a jolt that the system must change, or else we’re setting up the next generation – and our planet – for disaster. For anyone who has kids or works with kids, or who feels concern for our environmental future, “Last Child in the Woods” should be at the top of your reading list.