Impressionistic field


Richard Louv is a child advocacy expert and his book,  Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder is an expression of his fears that our children are increasingly disconnected from the natural world.

His subtitle references a buzz term for parents of K-12 children, but the research he cites shows that even though “thoughtful exposure of youngsters to nature can… be a powerful form of therapy for attention-deficit disorder and other maladies” that kids aren’t getting it as “therapy” or as the normal course of growing up.

He compares a childhood of years past when kids were hiking, swimming, surfing and wandering their local woods in unstructured play, to today’s summer teen tours, computer and weight-loss camps and hanging around a pool or just watching DVDs, texting and surfing the Net.

I’ll admit to having spent a good part of my own childhood playing Huck Finn as best I could in a suburban town, but I can’t say that the generations that came of age in the 50s or 60s were steeped in the natural world. Kids of the 1950s were more in touch than kids of 2000, as kids of the 1900s were more in touch than those of the 1950s and so on.

My own kids growing up in the 80s & 90s were exposed to things only because I wanted them to fish, camp, build forts in the woods, ride horses, catch salamanders and frogs, join Cub & Boy Scouts and 4-H, and collect leaves as I had done. Their friends were not doing that with their families, and there came a time when my boys realized it wasn’t adding anything to their cool quotient to talk about it.

Louv cites a study that reported that eight-year-olds could identify Pokémon characters far more easily than they could name “otter, beetle, and oak tree.”

So, he went to parents, teachers, researchers, environmentalists and others to find out how we might return kids to an awareness of and appreciation for the natural world.

There’s the obvious argument that nature can teach kids science in a fun way and that activities nurture their creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving skills. But, he is equally concerned with trying to assure that there will be future stewards of the environment.

I know that there are some good reasons for the lack of unstructured outdoor play that some of us grew up doing: fears (both founded & unfounded) of predators in nature and of the human kind, limited access to public lands (because of development or fear of lawsuits, insurance costs and to prevent vandalism), the increase in attractive indoor activities and overworked parents.

Louv argues (and I’m sure this aspect is controversial) that there is a link from children’s alienation from nature, to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, stress, depression and anxiety disorders, and childhood obesity.

It sadden me to go to the local park and see that there are no longer things like the monkey bars in the designer playgrounds that are safer but less interesting – even the dirt is gone, replaced by a rubberized something. There’s a wooded area and small creek just at the edge of the park, but even if kids are drawn to it, parents pull them back.

The book is a good one for modern parents (and teachers) to read as long as they see it as an action plan for personal change, and not just as a listing of the problems. Buy a copy for a new parent.