People of a certain age (myself included) remember growing up outside. Our families opened the doors, shooed us out, and shut them again, leaving us free to wander through our neighborhoods, parks, and/or wild places, making up our own games. I have particularly vivid memories of being let loose on the beaches of Southern California, with only a vague notion of adults close enough to make sure we didn’t drown or get too sunburned but otherwise being free to run around, swim, and build and destroy things in the sand.
These are memories that today’s children may never have, worries Richard Louv, and his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder outlines the risks, challenges, and solutions for children who are growing up indoors.
Last Child in the Woods is a comprehensive book, even a bit daunting at first glance, but it should be required reading for anyone with children in their lives. Based on meticulous research and using anecdotes as well as science, Louv takes a close look at the changes in society that have distanced today’s kids from nature — as well as the changes children’s physical and social lives — and offers both stark warnings and hopeful solutions.
Divided into seven sections (beginning with quotations from writers from Whitman to Thoreau to Frost, and many others), Last Child in the Woods covers the immense gifts that nature offers us humans as well as the onset of fears that often cause parents to keep their kids too close. Louv offers data that indicate how the benefits of nature and outdoor physical activity can help with many of the problems that plague childhood populations. To offer a few examples: One study shows that the amount of TV children watch correlates with measures of their body fat; Cornell University researchers discovered that even a room with a view of nature can protect children from stress; natural surroundings encourage boys and girls to engage in make-believe play in egalitarian ways; researchers recommend nature to minimize symptoms of ADHD (“[e]ven without corroborating evidence, many parents notice significant changes in their hyperactive child’s behavior when they hike in the mountains or enjoy other nature-oriented settings”).
In addition to changes caused by housing developments — such as homeowners’ association rules or a lack of green space — issues from stranger danger to fear of the outdoors also prevent children from running around outside. Yet Louv points out that so many perceived dangers are overly hyped, and that in fact, more dangers lurk indoors than out, from toxins to poisonous spiders (the brown recluse, as one example, prefers to live indoors) to allergens to the very real risk of obesity.
Not only are there short-term and developmental effects from what Louv calls nature-deficit disorder, but distance from nature can have a wide-reaching effect on our planet’s well-being in the long run as well: “Lacking direct experience with nature, children begin to associate it with fear and apocalypse, not joy and wonder.” How can children be expected to preserve and protect something they fear rather than love?
Last Child in the Woods is powerful and important, though there is one especially disappointing section of the book, in which Louv makes “the case for hunting and fishing.” While Louv admits he does not encourage hunting, he does encourage fishing, acknowledging “the slim moral logic” dividing the two. While he offers a bit of balance, citing PETA’s objections to fishing as a sport taught in Scouting programs and quoting a young spokesperson who says, “Scouting has taught me that Scouts should not harm the environment or animals in it,” Louv nevertheless goes on to encourage fishing as a way to engage with nature—a very poor message to send to children if we want them to respect the environment in a non-destructive way. And anyone who wants to make an argument for catch-and-release should read Virginia Morell’s Animal Wise (just for starters), which makes clear that, with pain receptors on their heads (trout have twenty-two of them), fish do feel pain; there is simply no way to catch fish that is not cruel or violent, and it’s a shame that Louv encourages fishing as a way for children to engage with the natural world.
Still, otherwise the book offers other good tips and advice for bringing kids into nature. For anyone who might feel overwhelmed by the usual stressors such as a lack of time or travel funds, Louv reminds us to start with small steps: “Encourage your child to get to know a ten-square-yard area at the edge of a field, pond, or pesticide-free garden.Look for the edges between habitats: where the trees stop and a field begins; where rocks and earth meet water. Life is always at the edges.”
Louv emphasizes that the solutions will need to go beyond parenting to educators, school systems, camps, neighborhoods, and cities—but that spending quality time in nature is as essential to children’s development as it is to the care-taking of the planet we call home. “Nature—the sublime, the harsh, and the beautiful—offers something that the street or gated community cannot. Nature presents the young with something so much greater than they are; it offers an environment where they can easily contemplate infinity and eternity…Immersion in the natural environment cuts to the chase, exposes the young directly and immediately to the very elements from which humans evolved: earth, water, air, and other living kin, large and small.”
Midge Raymond is a co-founder of Ashland Creek Press. She is the author of the novel My Last Continent and the award-winning short story collection Forgetting English.