On Nature-Deficit Disorder : book review

“Here is this vast, savage, howling mother of ours, Nature, lying all around, with such beauty, and such affection for her children, as the leopard; and yet we are so early weaned from her breast to society, to that culture which is exclusively an interaction of man on man.”  Henry David Thoreau

I’ve just finished reading “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” by Richard Louv.  If most great books give me a sense of letdown when they’re done, this one strikes horror into my heart.  I guess I didn’t realize it was so bad; I didn’t realize that kids nowadays are slowly but surely becoming utterly disconnected from Nature.  And scariest of all, if the next generation has no familiarity with, or passion for, or basic knowledge of Nature, why would they ever want to protect it?  (See this trailer for a documentary that touches on the same subject.)

Louv’s point is that kids nowadays are suffering from “nature-deficit disorder” – a term of his own invention that describes “the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.  The disorder can be detected in individuals, families, and communities.  Nature deficit can even change human behaviour in cities, which could ultimately affect their design, since the long-standing studies show a relationship between the absence, or inaccessibility, of parks and open space with high crime rates, depression, and other urban maladies.”

By not getting outside, kids are developing more problems than they’ve ever had.  Of course there are other factors at play, but Louv believes that spending more time outdoors would help resolve many of the issues currently at hand, such as child obesity, adolescent depression and suicide, etc.  There are barriers that need to be surmounted, though, in order to have greater access to nature.

Parents need to be role models and take their kids into natural settings, showing wonder and interest in their surroundings.  They also need to get over their fear of stranger-danger, which is blown out of proportion by the American media, and their fear of nature itself as being inherently dangerous.  (No more dangerous than having your overweight child die of heart disease, Louv points out.  We’re killing our kids by keeping them so sedentary and indoors all the time.)  We’re also paralyzed by our fear of getting sued.

Louv talks about TV, Internet, and the drastic increase in screen time that kids have nowadays: “Studies released in 2005 and 2006 found that nearly one-third of children from six months to six years of age lived in households where the TV was on all or most of the time. Children between the ages of eight and eighteen spent an average of nearly 6.5 hours a day plugged in electronically – that’s forty-five hours a week, more time than once was considered an adult work week.” (I imagine those numbers would be much higher now in 2012.)  With iPods, smart phones, and movies to watch in the car, it’s no wonder kids don’t feel like frolicking in a field.

Schools need to be revamped, both in terms of curriculum – teaching natural history, learning in outdoor settings, studying local ecosystems, refraining from instilling ‘ecophobia’, focusing on huge global environmental disasters (which make kids feel even more removed from nature), and removing computers from elementary school classrooms.  This last point is likely to be controversial, as “public education is enamored of, even mesmerized by, what might be called silicon faith: a myopic focus on high technology as salvation.”  Louv cites a ten-year study that concludes that computers shouldn’t be introduced into schools until high school.  Over-dependence on them displaces other sources of education, from the arts to nature.

This book really resonated with me because often I feel like I’m a lone, nearly-extinct species myself.  I’m the product of a hippy-like, back-to-the-land, technology-free childhood based in nature.  There aren’t too many of me around.  Sure, I suck at most of my generation’s cultural references, but frankly, I’d take knowing how to paddle a canoe, bushwhack a trail, light a fire, and identify fish species any day over being a Star Wars expert.

I grew up outside, pounding together concoctions of pine needles, weeds, and balsam sap, rowing around the lake in my square-nosed punt, having tea parties in the tree house that creaked as the trees swayed, climbing the cedar that hangs out over the lake, identifying beetles, salamanders, frogs, and the fish I caught off the end of the dock, kept in a bucket for a few hours, then dumped out.  Night-time choruses of spring peepers were my lullaby.

I want my kids to have the same experiences, yet I feel worried that they won’t.  Of course I’ll do whatever is in my power to take them outside and teach them, but then I look across the street and see the hideously ugly school yard that they might attend: Astroturf soccer field, spongy plastic playground, concrete all around, chainlink fences, no trees within the perimeter – what are people thinking??  I would have died in a playground like that.  Kids needs bushes, trees, streams, rocks, hills, holes, and dirt.  They need to build, pull apart, destroy, create, roll, throw, and climb – not get herded around like cattle in a CAFO (confined animal feeding operation).  They’re not animals to be “aired out”, then let back inside.  Just imagine – kids can spend an entire day without coming into contact with real earth.  From the floors inside their house, to the asphalt driveway, to the car ride, to the concrete sidewalk into the school, to the indoor floors of the class, to the Astroturf playground, and back again – that’s just wrong.

I don’t know what I’m going to do, other than be sure that I’ll be looking at playgrounds when weighing my kids’ future school options.  Nature walks will become a weekly event in our household.  We’ll start bug collecting, once I’m sure the toddler won’t eat them.  The garden is already planted and generates much interest.  We read books outside in the shade under the maple trees, and play soccer on the grass, and collect pine cones.  It will become easier once they’re older, and then we’ll camp, hike, canoe, and climb.  This is a new mission of mine.  I’ve been inspired by Louv’s book that my kids will know Nature, and love her and respect her, and will want to work to protect her when their generation has come of age.

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22 thoughts on “On Nature-Deficit Disorder : book review

  1. “I’d take knowing how to paddle a canoe, bushwhack a trail, light a fire, and identify fish species any day over being a Star Wars expert.”

    Reminds me of when I used to bullseye womp rats in my T-16 back home…

    Never underestimate the power of the Force!

    Seriously though, great post! It’s one of your best so far, and I’m all for more outdoor time :)

  2. It seems that we keep our kids sterilized. I see Emmanuel how happy he is when we spend hours and hours in the park and how unhappy he is when we are in the tiny apartment. We go out for long walks and play daily.

    • That’s wonderful. He needs it for sure. We’re finally getting to the stage where A. can walk alongside me without wanting to run away, and he also responds when I call him back, so our walks are becoming more frequent. Both kids love it outside. They calm right down, A. asks millions of questions, and I relax, too.

  3. This was an excellent review of Louv’s book…and I’ve read lots of them. I’m going to share your take on Nature Deficit Disorder with my community members (West Seattle) who are banding together to oppose a plan to turn over a section of our world-class nature parks (Lincoln Park) to a private company to install a tree-top zipline “adventure” course…right through a prime segment of urban forest. I’ve been stewing for quite some time how to
    address the bogus fears of nature, and of how to get people connected back to nature. I’m hoping this issue in our parks can be the impetus to get a real movement going…preserve nature areas in perpetuity, and get kids back into nature. People are hopping mad, so I am encouraged that this could be kick in the pants we need. The beauty of Louv’s work is that it gives environmentalism a new angle. It’s not just about bugs and birds anymore. It’s about the kids. And there’s nothing people care about more than their kids! Thanks for such a great synopsis.

    • Thanks, Denise. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the post. I can only imagine how stressful your battle for Lincoln Park must be. Keep it up! The world needs fighters like you and your community members to remind us of how important it is to preserve nature for our kids. You’re right about that being a powerful tactic of Louv’s, to remind us of the future generation and our responsibility as parents to them. Good luck.

  4. Utterly and completely true. And yes, it is truly terrible.
    I’m a lover of cinema and various “modern” and “urban” aspects of life and in fact live in the big city myself. But at least once a year I make a trip to somewhere in the countryside with friends and relax and get back to nature, truly appreciate the simple joy of life and the world we live in.
    Your point about being afraid of being sued and such – it’s one of the banes of our modern society where we misuse this so extensively and wastefully.
    To be honest though, I blame the parents most of all – my family is a city family but whether willing or kicking and screaming, most of our parents took us to nice places and natural places and to parks and gardens and picnics and such every so often. My dad was into gardening and so even though I wasn’t into it, I did it and developed an appreciation for it over the years.
    We even had computers and cable tv while I was in school and not watching too much tv and such were fights even then, but we went out to play because we’d been taught to use our imagination and play with just toys and friends when very little so that we retained some desire for that as we got older and even as we got consoles, we played them only part of the time.
    It’s all about ensuring your kid does all things. I’d like to think when I have kids I’ll let them dabble in all the most ultra-modern there is to offer while giving them (by force if I have to) a chance to be simple kids and enjoy nature and understand the basics of it at the very least. What they do after that… well I suppose that’s just going to be part of their own development because there’s only so much one can control.

  5. Also, most developed countries in the west – especially the US! – need to stop medicating their kids! (not counting the kids with GENUINE problems which NEED meds)
    I mean seriously!! I think this is half the problem because like a stand-up I was watching a while back – maybe your kid doesn’t really have ADHD or some other disorder, MAYBE HE’S JUST SEVEN!!!
    Kids are kids. They are hyper. They are hard to control and can be wild. Always have been. Parents are just less patient and parenting in my opinion. They need to man-up (so to speak) and deal with it and discipline their kids and be real parents.

    • I agree wholeheartedly. It’s downright scary how many kids are medicated for behavioural issues and while I believe there is a time and place for it – and thank goodness for it – it’s far too easy to overdo it. Kids ARE energetic, even wild at times, but it’s part of being a kid. A child who lacks that vivaciousness and imagination and energy and mischief is a stunted individual. It kind of freaks me out when I see kids without much personality, as if they’ve become dulled and bored by over-stimulation, or over-medication, or who knows what. I recently wrote a post about my little brother, and he’s totally the kind of kid who could’ve been prescribed Ritalin. But my parents never considered that option. Yes, he’s a challenge, but there’s something wonderfully refreshing about his intensity and curiosity about the world. As for disciplining and being ‘real’ parents… hear, hear!

  6. This post really resonates with me right now. We just moved back to a semi rural mountain after a year in a bedroom community of a big city. The first thing my 5 year old said when we got home was “I love nature. I’m glad we moved back.” Like you, my childhood was the open door and let child roam type and while not quite as liberal in my parenting as my own ’70s upbringing I am a big believer in children knowing how to DO things. We will all be lost if this generation can’t function during a power outage!
    As a quick FYI – my son has a little battery operated bug catcher. It looks like a small vaccum tube with a clear attachment and he LOVES it. He likes to check out the crawly things up close and then let them loose back in the woods. I would highly recommend one for your little ones as it can be used from a young age and alleviates that bug for lunch issue.
    -Laura

    • That bug catcher sounds like a really good idea. I’ll look into that for sure. We met some kids catching frogs with a net yesterday morning and that generated many questions, so I think he’s reaching that stage where closer interaction with bugs/animals is good.

  7. I moved my kids to a city for my own academic pursuits. It was a tough decision but was made strictly based on the fact that it is temporary! It is mine and my kid’s first time ever living anywhere other than the wide open country and it is such a different lifestyle! It is so much harder to connect with nature in the city – we are completely surrounded by and overwhelmed with the urbanized lifestyle it is hard work to disconnect from it – but I do! luckily we live in a city that seems to appreciate nature. There are many trails, protected areas, streams, rivers, conservation areas, etc. Although it is all much different than the ‘real’ nature you get in the country, we make the most of what we are given at this time! I refuse to lose touch with nature or let my children grow up without it! It is work but it is completely worth every effort.

    I read this book while studying outdoor recreation and did a research paper on NDD – it is sad how many children aren’t given the opportunity to explore nature. Thanks for the post and for advocating for a different way of living, it is definitely an area I am passionate about!

  8. No, you aren’t alone. My brother, sister, and I grew up with our activities focused around the outdoors. Not only did we grow up in a rural area, but our vacations and activities were almost all to outdoor recreational sites: National Parks, camp grounds, etc. While my parents weren’t farmers, growing a substantial garden was a hobby of theirs (and a chore for us kids). Boy Scouts, horse-back riding, etc. were my summers. Things obviously have changed; because I know when I visit the rural road that I grew up on, I don’t see the kids outside fishing, etc. like me and the other kids from that area did. I got to admit, though, the video games they have nowadays are way cooler than the pac-man I had growing up.

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