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The Last Child in the Woods

by Richard Louv

In keeping with the numerous threads on boating and sailing websites about getting more kids into the sport, this month we are reviewing a book that’s not about the water at all.  Hmm, you look like the puppy who didn’t quite get it.  Yep, we’re reviewing a book that deals with kids exposure to nature (or lack of it), and the effect it’s having on their ability to appreciate its subtlety enough to maintain its stewardship.  So although it’s not strictly about the ocean, it has an interesting angle that applies very much to boating.

Richard Louv has put forth a postulate that we've all skirted around and has wrapped it into a single thought that we can grasp: nature deficit disorder. These three words encapsulate all the things we've been worried about -- children getting hyperactive while playing their computer games, too much stress going from activity to activity, not enough time to fall in love with anything deeply enough to care about it, not enough proximity to truly important things to see how they interrelate. Everyone is talking about this concept and how it applies to their world.

It's clear to see how it applies to ours. We simply do not allow our children to mess about in boats. Remember the days when your mom said "go out and play, and don't come home till supper time"? And that's what we did. We went out to play with each other in the sandbox, to mess about with bikes, and ponds, and boats and things. That's when we got to find that poor frog that didn't escape and noticed how it could sit on a lilly frond without sinking it. That's when we chased fireflies and filled jars with them. That's when we experienced the joy of boating, not racing.

We applaud Richard Louv for helping us verbalize what we've known was happening around us. Now how do we remove the stigma our society has placed on parents who allow their children to go outdoors unsupervised, and how we do we get those kids to go out and play, without their Playstations?

From Scientific American
Unstructured outdoor play was standard for me as a hyperactive child growing up in the rural Midwest. I fondly recall digging forts, climbing trees and catching frogs without concern for kidnappers or West Nile virus. According to newspaper columnist and child advocate Richard Louv, such carefree days are gone for America’s youth. Boys and girls now live a "denatured childhood," Louv writes in Last Child in the Woods. He cites multiple causes for why children spend less time outdoors and why they have less access to nature: our growing addiction to electronic media, the relinquishment of green spaces to development, parents’ exaggerated fears of natural and human predators, and the threat of lawsuits and vandalism that has prompted community officials to forbid access to their land. Drawing on personal experience and the perspectives of urban planners, educators, naturalists and psychologists, Louv links children’s alienation from nature to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, stress, depression and anxiety disorders, not to mention childhood obesity. The connections seem tenuous at times, but it is hard not to agree with him based on the acres of anecdotal evidence that he presents. According to Louv, the replacement of open meadows, woods and wetlands by manicured lawns, golf courses and housing developments has led children away from the natural world. What little time they spend outside is on designer playgrounds or fenced yards and is structured, safe and isolating. Such antiseptic spaces provide little opportunity for exploration, imagination or peaceful contemplation. Louv’s idea is not new. Theodore Roosevelt saw a prophylactic dose of nature as a counter to mounting urban malaise in the early 20th century, and others since have expanded on the theme. What Louv adds is a focus on the restorative qualities of nature for children. He recommends that we reacquaint our children and ourselves with nature through hiking, fishing, bird-watching and disorganized, creative play. By doing so, he argues, we may lessen the frequency and severity of emotional and mental ailments and come to recognize the importance of preserving nature. At times Louv seems to conflate physical activity (a game of freeze tag) with nature play (building a tree fort), and it is hard to know which benefits children most. This confusion may be caused by a deficiency in our larger understanding of the role nature plays in a child’s development. At Louv’s prompting, perhaps we will see further inquiry into this matter. In the meantime, parents, educators, therapists and city officials can benefit from taking seriously Louv’s call for a "nature-child reunion."

Jeanne Hamming

For more books, visit our reading lists for adults and for children.

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