Last Child in the Woods

Last Child in the Woods:
Richard LouvSaving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder

Book by Richard Louv.

Review by Celia Larsen.

Can you imagine: the “average” American watches more than three hours of TV each day. By the time this “average” person is 70, he/she will have spent almost 10 years watching the screen. Ten years! And this doesn’t even include time surfing the internet or playing video games. All this sedentary, passive viewing has, not surprisingly, contributed to obesity in our country. But of greater concern, in the opinion of many, is that it often leads to depression and attention-deficit disorder in many children. It seems we are a nation suffering a sort of spiritual malaise, and the cure, according to author Richard Louv, may be as simple as spending more time in beautiful natural areas. In Last Child in the Woods, Louv summarizes, in a very readable manner, all the latest scientific research on the benefits of contact with nature. The book is filled with entertaining interviews and anecdotes that support the idea that our children are disconnected from nature. Louv describes the history of how we got to this point and he gives a blueprint for a new future, one where children could again enjoy their awesome, joyous place in this world.

Through Louv’s stories we come to learn that not only do children need the natural world, but also the natural world needs children. Or else where will the next generation of environmental activists
come from?

He allows for the need of future environmentalists to be a bit rough with nature. President Teddy Roosevelt, as a youngster, annoyed his washerwoman by having a snapping turtle tied to the leg of her sink. Apparently, the future president had a virtual museum of natural history in his bedroom, and I doubt that “virtual” in the cyber-sense would have quite the same impact. Our children need to have repeated hands-on, direct experiences with nature, or we may ultimately lose the beautiful lands President Roosevelt fought so hard to protect. Even the beloved children’s author, Beatrix Potter, tore things up a bit. She and her brother would boil down animal carcasses to study their bones. Later in her life, she became an avid proponent of land conservation in England. We must teach our children to respect nature, but we must also give them opportunities to really get to know it – to learn, for example, why bloodroot and skunk cabbage are so named.

In Louv’s chapter titled “Scared Smart: Facing the Bogeyman,” he talks about “positive nature-risk.” In this chapter he discusses parental fears about letting children play on their own in nature. Yes, our kids would be quite “safe” if they just sat inside all day and watched TV. But they really need unsupervised – yes, you can be there, but you don’t have to be right there – unstructured time outside. Louv believes that children need to explore their surroundings. He suggests sending older children with a cell phone and traveling with buddies to help ease parental anxiety about abductions. He clearly explains the statistics that show just how unlikely kidnappings or other violent acts against children are, and how the fear that we may instill is more harmful for a child’s development than the rare incidents that might occur outside. Most abductors are not strangers, and most outdoor injuries occur during organized sports. Despite the statistics, one can empathize with background anxiety of parents. I am always relieved when my son returns home from a long bike ride – with his helmet buckled – or my daughter walks home safely from school – with her cell phone in her backpack. I let my kids climb tall trees, walk on slippery rocks, and sit on the porch to watch thunderstorms. I encourage them to chop wood and build fires. Dangerous? To let them do these things – or to keep them from such things?

Last Child in the Woods supplies all the “proof” anyone could need to encourage children (and adults) to watch less TV and spend more time outside. Louv uses the last third of the book to give uplifting examples and ideas of ways to reconnect our families with the natural world. His descriptions of “green urbanism” are especially hopeful. He quotes architect William McDonough as saying that cities should be “sheltering – cleansing of air, water, and spirit – and restorative and replenishing of the planet, rather than fundamentally extractive and damaging.” Louv envisions our schools using their surrounding natural environments as classrooms, focusing on their local, rich array of indigenous species, before learning about remote, untouchable rain forests. Louv even has the courage to tackle the intersection of religion and environmentalism. I like his telling of Mr. Rogers’ answer to Louv’s 9-year-old son on whether or not God and Mother Nature are married.

I encourage you to read this book, but only if it will not take time away from your being outside with children, taking them to a local community farm, turning the compost, or reading out loud to them while you swing in a hammock (surrounded by the blooms of trumpet vine, being visited by hummingbirds, sipping on nectar, locally brewed of course.

Celia Larsen, who has been a member of the Ann Arbor (MI) Chapter for many years, is a naturalist working to establish school habitats in her local area, where she focuses on developing curricular tie-ins with elementary age children.

January/February 2006 Wild Ones Journal.