Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder

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Book Review

Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2005.

Image of cover of Last Child In the Woods book

We all hear about global this and global that, what to recycle or not, and who should be responsible. This is almost non-stop from every sort of media available, which becomes mind numbing and, in a huge sense, scary. With all the information out there, Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods caught my attention. Louv presents not only a plethora of problems, but with some solid suggestions and plans for now and in our future. His suggestions are solutions even I could deal with and help resolve.

“Our society is teaching young people to avoid a direct experience in nature, either by turning summer camps into weight loss camps, computer camps and various other renamed camps that have little to do with nature,” Louv writes. A recent TV ad shows a family off on a vacation, supposedly to experience nature, as the kids in the SUV back seat flip down their video screens to watch a movie. “…As the young spend less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow, physiologically and psychologically and this reduces the richness of human experience… we need contact with nature.” (Emphasis Louv’s).

Louv characterizes at least five trends which should be of concern to this generation. Briefly, I will explain two: 1) Family farms are disappearing and young people no longer experience raising animals for butchering and growing vegetables for eating. They see food as shrink-wrapped or lab-produced.” 2) Biological absolutes are ending. Human genes are used to produce creatures called chimera. The world’s first human-sheep chimera was created in 2007. How will our children understand their natural world? What will be their definition of life? These trends show some of the ways childhood is being de-natured.

There are multiple causes of the de-natured childhood. “Countless communities have virtually outlawed unstructured outdoor play, often because of the threat of lawsuits”… and also “adults growing obsession with order,” Louv writes. In Pennsylvania, three brothers spent eight months and their own money to build a tree house in their backyard. The district council ordered the boys to tear it down because they had no building permit.

Governments make poor decisions about land use. For example: Each year 53,000 acres of land are developed in the Chesapeake Bay watershed; that’s about one acre every ten minutes. Louv cites the Alliance for Chesapeake Bay for this information.

The impact of over-development, the multiplication of park rules, increasing environmental and building regulations, and fears of litigation send a definite message to our children that playing outside in nature is no longer acceptable. Hence we have organized sports, manicured arenas etc. as the only acceptable outdoor recreations. As Louv so succinctly put it, “some kids don’t want to be organized all the time… they want to let their imaginations run; they want to see where a stream of water takes them.”

There are many studies emerging which Louv thoroughly documents. James Sallis is author of one; and he says, “The best predictor of pre-school children’s physical activity is simply being outdoors… an indoor sedentary childhood is linked to mental health problems.” In the U.S., outside “natural unstructured play from 1997 to 2003 declined by 50 percent.” In Scotland, researchers attached an electronic accelerometer to the waistband of 78 three-year-olds for a week. It was found that these “toddlers were physically active for only twenty minutes a day,” Louv writes. It becomes apparent that in the urbanizing world, the nature experience for children is “becoming a major casualty.” Louv calls this phenomenon, “nature-deficit disorder… and describes the human costs of alienation from nature. as diminished use of senses, attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.” As the nature deficit grows, “another body of scientific evidence indicates that direct exposure to nature is essential for physical and emotional health.”

It is truly difficult being a parent in today’s world with so many demands on our time. Louv suggests a way to answer this challenge is to view nature as an antidote. It has been shown to reduce stress, improve physical health, develop a deeper sense of self, and improve creativity and a sense of play. These are the rewards that will be realized. To be disconnected from our natural world is a guarantee to reduce mental health as well as physical health.

Start with short hikes in the neighborhood, maybe collecting different kinds of leaves and interesting rocks. Sleep in the backyard in summer and observe the stars. Read about nature with your child. Louv suggests Kipling, Huckleberry Finn and the J.R.R. Tolkien books. Start a small vegetable garden that germinates quickly and can be eaten.

Louv also has a very good chapter that deals with the risks and fears our children face today and practical suggestions to reduce them. When children’s senses are reduced to only the visual sense by a TV or computer screen, their survival skills are reduced no matter what programs they have watched. He shows this by saying, “nature accentuates all the senses, and using all the senses is the first line of self-defense” for our children.

Louv encourages parents to read Rachel Carson, John Muir and Aldo Leopold to name a few, so they can relate these words of wisdom to their children. Talking about nature with children at an early age is so important.

Luov quotes Robert F. Kennedy Jr. who is an environmental lawyer working with River keeper to help bring the Hudson River watershed back from a polluted grave. Kennedy states, “We’re part of nature… we have a role in nature. If we separate ourselves from that, we’re separating ourselves … from the things that tie us together.” He continues, “that destroying our rivers and oceans is to destroy our natural world. (nature) is what connects us, this is what connects humanity‰Û_ it’s not the Internet, it’s the oceans.”

He also quotes Dr.Howard Gardner, professor of education at Harvard, who, in 1983, “developed the theory of multiple intelligences (by) proposing seven different intelligences.” More recently, he added “natural intelligence (nature smart) to his list.”

In the U.S. there are an increasing number of environmentally-based schools and the test results are “stunning” in all subject matters, Louv writes. There is a corresponding increase in GPAs, improvement in “problem solving, critical thinking and decision making.” Louv says “an environment-based education… will help students realize that school isn’t supposed to be a polite form of incarceration, but a portal to the wider world.” He encourages a partnership with religious organizations, scouting, business, art groups, etc, in order to realize the “most value in the education of our children.”

This book is filled with so much valuable information and has been thoroughly researched and documented. Louv shows us how our family, our neighborhood, our city can begin in seemingly small ways to improve natural health and in so doing begin to improve our planet earth.

How can we have a better world, a greener world, a cleaner and healthier world? We must start in our own backyards and teach our children to respect and love all of the world’s backyards. This book, Last Child in the Woods, helps show us the way.

Reviewed by Nancy Racette

Wichita, Kansas