Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder
“Last Child in the Woods” rarely stays on my bookshelves, primarily because I am always giving it away. This may be one of the most important popular texts written on child development in the last decade - it is certainly one of the most compelling. Anyone raising children needs at least to be conversant with Louv’s thesis that boys and girls today are living in a de-natured environment. Surprisingly, educators and parents - responding to a number of social, political and cultural forces - are doing their level best to keep children away from a primary experience of the natural world. The result, Louv suggests, is an emerging “nature-deficit disorder,” a condition that is not unrelated to the attention-deficit disorder so commonly diagnosed among school children in the United States. The urgency of the book for the American populace, and especially for parents, is perhaps best exemplified by a young boy’s response to a question concerning his favorite place to play: “I like to play indoors,” the boy said, “ ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”
It is tempting, of course, to point our fingers at the usual culprits of television and video games when trying to determine the source of this problem, but Louv is quick to point out that such an oversimplification only prevents us from recognizing the more subtle issues involved. Thirty years ago it was not uncommon for children to spend their free time scavenging for critters in creeks and wood lots, building tree houses, or camping out under the stars in a neighbor’s field. Experiences of nature tended to be direct, associated with smells, tastes, sounds and feelings. Though Walt Disney informed many of the less fortunate suburbanites about the peculiar habits of footloose foxes and other whimsical creatures, there was nevertheless a tendency among children to spend much of their time outdoors - ice skating in the winter, investigating pussy willows in the spring, collecting fireflies and colored leaves in the summer and fall. Now, according to Louv, all of that has changed, and nature has come to be perceived as a kind of “bogeyman,” another victim of our pervasive culture of fear.
Louv’s perspective was brought home to me in no uncertain terms this past summer. I happened to be reading his book while visiting relatives in my hometown of Gahanna, Ohio, a place where the contours of the landscape had once been as familiar to me as my sisters and cousins whose company I was now there to enjoy. Much like Louv, who grew up near Kansas City, I spent most of my time as a youth building the very forts and tree houses that he recalls with such fondness in his book. I was also a frequent visitor to the Rocky Fork Creek that wended its way through our small village. The creek was a kind of social gathering place for all the kids of my neighborhood; there was not one sycamore stump or fishing hole that I had not explored and known intimately before I was 10 years old. Last July, with thoughts of recapturing some of our old experiences, two of my cousins and I decided to don our old tennis shoes, find a trusty five-gallon bucket and wade the creek in search of tadpoles and crawdads - just like old times. Never did I dream that such a spontaneous activity would generate so much anxiety among the parents of the children who wanted to join us. All kinds of questions arose. Was the water clean? We had better call the Department of Environmental Quality to find out. Just to be sure, we should probably not allow the young ones to get wet, and let’s be certain that everyone has a good shower afterwards. Another issue: What kind of riffraff might we expect to encounter along those foreboding waters, so far from the safety of civilization? We were just going wading in a creek! Somehow our little afternoon excursion turned into Charles Marlow venturing into the heart of darkness.
What my two cousins and I encountered on the Rocky Fork that afternoon was even more disheartening. It was the middle of the summer and kids were on break from school, but apparently they had no intention of spending it along the banks of the creek. I was surprised, and encouraged, to find that the tadpoles and other water creatures were still there in the mile-long stretch of water we waded. The only thing missing was a human presence: no Huck Finns with cane poles and tin cans filled with worms; no Sam Gribleys playing My Side of the Mountain. Indeed, after about a half hour in the water, even the young boys who accompanied the nostalgic forty-somethings on their eccentric adventure seemed a little bored, albeit still politely willing to indulge us in our memories of the past. Predictably, after all the residue of natural otherness had been washed away, and each child had been checked for suspicious-looking rashes, the hand-held electronic games came out and the “real fun” resumed among the kids. For me, the experience was made all the more poignant by the fact that I was so completely engrossed in Louv’s book at the time. I was seeing corroborating evidence of his thesis nearly everywhere I looked. It was only the fear of dropping the text in the water that kept me from taking it along to read amidst the old haunts of my childhood “place.”
For Louv, the present inability to regard one’s neighborhood as “place” is part of the problem. The “know-it-all mentality,” whose focus is on secondary experience - that is, on the facts, the abstractions so readily proffered by the empirical sciences - is ironically what has left so many of our children behind. Kids cannot value and love what they cannot name, and naming the creatures who inhabit our life-places is as central to the human vocation now as it was when Adam was fumbling around the Garden for a creature worthy of his affections. Such an endeavor, Louv suggests, must be pursued in a spirit of love and care, with an attitude of wonder and respect, and not with the voracious enthusiasm of a grand inquisitor. Louv offers examples of men and women who have spent lifetimes committed to knowing and protecting the integrity of their places, whether these be acres upon acres of a pristine natural habitat or simply a vacant urban lot. Species that appear to the uninitiated observer to be merely weeds or varmints are to the trained eye opportunities for fascination, and there are a committed few among our cities and towns who are guardians of this special form of knowledge. The trick now lies in passing along their passion to the next generation of caretakers.
There is so much that mitigates against this, however, not least of which is the tendency among many middle and high school science teachers to focus their attentions less on natural history than on the kind of empirical reductionism that invariably has a practical outcome as its objective. Louv advocates a return to getting one’s hands dirty when engaging with the natural world. But in a “culture of clean,” where fear of the unknown maintains such a tight hold on our overly active imaginations, dirty hands seem only to represent an unnecessary risk, and after all, we want to be safe. This means that certain things just have to go. The tree houses, for example, those structures that occupy an almost archetypal place in Louv’s memory and imagination, are now likely to be prohibited by the stern protocols of our neighborhood associations. Unstructured outdoor play, so essential to the development of imagination and problem-solving in young children, has now been virtually outlawed. The vacant lots and wooded parks of decades past have now been replaced by crisply lined soccer fields and other open spaces. Again, the culprit is fear: eliminate the risk, and the chances of suffering a catastrophic lawsuit for negligence will certainly be diminished. But what else is lost?
Louv spends much of his time in this text arguing for the therapeutic value of natural experiences, citing primarily anecdotal evidence that indicates stress reduction among those who take the time to venture into the woods. He even goes so far as to suggest that the need for Ritalin among many of the nation’s attention-challenged youth might actually be reduced, if not eliminated, by simply prescribing the kinds of firsthand nature experiences that he and so many others of past generations enjoyed in their early years. Readers should be aware, however, that Louv is no romantic environmentalist advocating a kind of return to the peaceable kingdom. On the contrary, firsthand experience of the nonhuman creatures whose places we share often involves the stark realities of life and death. For this reason, Louv is an advocate - though apparently not a practitioner - of hunting, and his argument is taken straight from the notebook of an early environmental prophet, Aldo Leopold. Tracking and overcoming one’s quarry requires a kind of attention to environmental detail that may over time engender a healthy respect for a world in which humans participate as flesh-and-blood beings. Similarly, fishing is on his list of positive activities that immerse children in the vicissitudes of their place. While the folks of PETA may vigorously object, Louv knows that today’s young hunters and anglers are the very stuff from which the next generation of environmental stewards is likely to be fashioned.
If there is any criticism that might be offered of this important work, it lies in the fleeting attention that Louv gives to the evolutionary importance of children interacting with their natural environments. While he is conversant with the work of such authors as David Sobel, Edith Cobb and Robert Pyle (to name a few among those he lists in his very helpful bibliography), one wonders what insights he might have culled from the extraordinary reflections of the late Paul Shepard, on the importance of animal mimesis among children, for example, or on the role that animal “others” have played in human development since the Pleistocene. After all, if what Louv says is correct, we are confronting a situation that has no real precedent in human evolutionary history; a look into our distant past is certainly advisable. This is, perhaps, a topic for another book. The fundamental issue, however, lies more closely at hand: Our children today seem by many accounts to be losing their ability to “learn the language of their fields,” to borrow a phrase from Thoreau. And with every birdsong that goes unrecognized, every flower that goes unnamed, every droning cicada that gets ignored, our boys and girls take one step further away from an abiding sense of what it means truly to be human.