Louv tells of schools, under pressure from administrators and parents to increase test scores, that have eliminated hands-on nature study from the curriculum and, in some cases, even cancelled outdoor recess. The busy lives of today’s over-stretched and over-stressed parents allow little time for outdoor activities, and even good intentions have unintended consequences. Ordinances designed to protect endangered flora and fauna have eliminated access to wide swaths of seashore, marsh, meadowland, and wilderness. No wonder children are driven indoors to the lure of electronic entertainment, ipods, video games, and TV.
Unlike earlier generations, many of today’s parents see the outdoors as a dangerous place. Fears— of strangers and kidnappings, of gangs and drug dealers taking over parks and vacant corner lots, of encroaching wildlife from mountain lions to virus-bearing mosquitoes—while genuine, have also been sensationalized by the media. In the author’s words, “We have scared children straight out of the woods and fields.”
As a result, children are exhibiting what Louv has labeled “Nature Deficit Disorder.” Although the term does not appear in any medical lexicon, the author uses the term to describe a set of symptoms linked to our separation from nature. These include an increase in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and childhood obesity, lack of creativity and curiosity, ignorance of local flora and fauna, loss of respect for nature and the living world, and a diminishing sense of community.
Fortunately, there is an antidote for nature deficit disorder—getting children back into the wild. The latest research demonstrates that when children have hands-on experiences with nature, even if it is simply in the weed lot at the end of the street, they reap the benefits. Researchers cite diminishment in levels of ADHD, fewer incidents of anxiety and depression, improved self-esteem, enhanced brain development, higher levels of curiosity and creativity, and a sense of connectedness to the community and the environment.
To provide all children with access to nature requires rethinking our current societal and cultural infrastructures. Models already exist, both in Europe and here in the States, and Louv devotes the second half of the book to exploring them. He cites contemporary examples of schools that use the surrounding ecological community as their classroom, often with astoundingly successful outcomes, including improved test scores. He looks at urban planning concepts that incorporate natural corridors for wildlife, energy-self-sufficient urban malls that merge nature into their design, city rooftop gardens, and green public spaces. “ Surprisingly, one of the best examples of what the future could hold is the city of Chicago,” writes Louv. Under the leadership of Mayor Richard Daley, who aims to make Chicago the greenest city in the nation, the municipality has already restored 28 miles of boulevard gardens, and turned 21 acres of underused city land and abandoned gas stations into pocket parks and 72 community gardens. City parks have incorporated areas of restored prairie land, and City Hall boasts a 30,000-square-foot roof garden that helps insulate the building, absorbs excess storm water, and acts as a giant air purifier. It also houses two beehives and 4,000 honeybees, which yielded 150 pounds of honey in the first year.
Despite the seriousness of its subject, Last Child in the Woods, is a delightful read. Louv is a consummate storyteller, and the book is replete with stories and personal reminisces. He recounts a conversation he had with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr, who serves as senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and is President of Riverkeeper, an organization that has helped bring the Hudson River back from its watery, polluted grave. “I was known as the family’s nature child,” recalls Kennedy. “I spent every afternoon in the woods when I was growing up. I loved finding salamanders, crayfish, frogs. My room was filled with aquariums, filled, from the time I was six years old.”
Richard Louv is convinced that such early nature experiences are essential if we are to produce tomorrow’s creative thinkers and change agents. To help prove his point he asked his teenage son, Matthew, to look up biographies of those he calls “the famously creative.” What a wonderful eclectic list he compiled: Science fiction author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke, whose budding cosmic consciousness was awakened by childhood bicycle rides under starry skies: a two-year-old Jane Goodall, sleeping with earthworms under her pillow; Thomas Edison who, as a very young child was found sitting on a clutch of goose eggs, hoping to hatch goslings; and the young Cesar Chavez, inspired by the land, soil, and waters of Arizona’s Gila River regions. Others who made Matthew’s list were Samuel Clemens, T.S. Elliot, John Muir, and Eleanor Roosevelt.
The work of Louise Chawla, International Coordinator of UNESCO’s Growing Up in Cities program, supports Louv’s premise. For most environmentalists, it was intense nature experiences in the early years that inspired their later work. Who, she asks, will take on environmental stewardship for our Earth if today’s and tomorrow’s children are denied these experiences?
If I could, I would put this important book into the hands of everyone whose work in any way touches the lives of today’s children and future generations. In Richard Louv’s words “Healing the broken bond between our young and nature is in our self interest, not only because aesthetics or justice demand it, but also because our mental, physical, and spiritual health depends on it. The health of the Earth is at stake.”