“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.