Skylar Burris's Reviews > Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder

Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv
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Sep 01, 2014

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bookshelves: parenting, politics, sociology, education, psychology
Read in October, 2008

This is typical sentence from Last Child in the Woods: "he offered no academic studies to support his theory; nonetheless his statement rang true." That about sums up this book: it's not empirical, but, nonetheless, it rings true'"more or less. Louv draws his conclusions far too widely and gives too much credit to what nature will do for kids, but the general idea rings true. Kids should play in nature '" not because (as Louv questionably implies) it will cure ADHD, make them better athletes, increase their math and language test scores, prevent depression, or guarantee great creativity '" but because it's fun, it's freeing, it's healthy, and they're kids, and that's what kids have done for centuries.

The author takes an unfocused and largely anecdotal approach to supporting his argument that playing in nature makes kids better off in a myriad ways. He dubs the results of modern lack of contact with nature "nature deficit disorder." He cites some studies but often ignores the maxim that "correlation does not necessarily imply causation." A typical support goes something like this: look at all these creative people. They used to play in nature as kids. Playing in nature must make people creative. It's rather like picking the most creative people of the current youngest generation and saying '" look at all these creative people. They used to surf the internet as kids! Surfing the internet must have made them creative!

It makes sense, however, that nature would have a calming effect on kids; that balancing on fallen trees as you cross the creek would build coordination, that spending time imbibing the wonders of the great Creator would inspire human creativity. And I join in a feeling of sadness for a world that is largely gone; I want my children to have the childhood I had, spending hours after school exploring the creek with friends, building forts from scratch in the woods, catching waterbus and tadpoles and butterflies, digging pits in the earth, and engaging in neighborhood-wide, week-long war strategy games from patch of woods to patch of woods. I don't necessarily agree with all of his solutions, and I don't think he realizes how large a share of the problem is owing to private familial choice and not external circumstances, but I dearly want my kids to play in nature.

Louv has ideas for improving the problem, but, as is true of most people making public policy proposals, he doesn't really consider the cost or practicality of implementing them. And ultimately it isn't schools or poor city planners that keep kids from nature, it's family culture. And he does mention this: the overscheduling, the fear of allowing children to wander off on their own to explore, and the permissive use of electronic entertainment. But roaming freely in packs from school until dinner time is the way children have always explored nature, so until you change that private family culture of fear, structure, scheduling, and plugging-in, no amount of city planning or tinkering with the public school curriculum is going to address the problem of "nature deficit disorder." This is why I think this is much more a private family issue than a public policy issue, and while I think this book is a good kick in the pants to parents (including me), it's not necessarily a good springboard for policy making, being based almost entirely on emotion rather than reason and lacking sufficient empirical verification of the claimed benefits of free play in nature or evidence that the particular policies he supports really would sufficiently increase free play in nature.

The truth is '" nature is still there. Development has made the areas smaller, but they're there. The very same creek I explored as a child is right where I left it. The question is '" are we individual parents going to allow our kids to explore it on their own and encourage them to? Or are we going to say, I want you home after school, in your room, studying until basketball/football/piano/band practice? Even the author of this book doesn't let his kids explore the canyon behind his own backyard without taking their cell phones, and he has taught them to be appalled by hunting.

Some questions I wished he'd addressed better (or at all):

(1) How much of our perception of the problem might be connected to mere romantic nostalgic longing for our own pasts? I was not born into a world of personal computers (though I got my first in 4th grade) or of the Internet (which I didn't use until college); the world has changed irrevocably, and there is more difference between the childhood lifestyle of my children's generation and my own generation than there was between the childhood of me and my parents, or even me and my grandparents. The talents the future world will demand will be different; we have to acknowledge this and prepare our kids for it.

(2) How much of it is that nature has a calming effect on children, and how much is it that in open spaces, adults are more tolerant of children acting like children? (3) I want my kids to explore nature on their own, but I did this with friends as a kid because this is what kids did. Now, how will my children make and maintain friends spending most of their time doing things most other kids simply aren't doing?

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Reading Progress

10/08 page 96
28.66% "Well, it's not the most focused or substantiated argument so far, but it did inspire me to take the kids creek exploring today. Great time!" 1 comment
02/08 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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message 1: by booklady (last edited Oct 10, 2008 02:40PM) (new)

booklady It IS hard to get out-of-doors, but oh so worth it! Even if they only go out into their own backyard and dig in the mud. We gave over our 'landscaping' around the trees in the back and let the kids dig tunnels for trucks, horses and farms. It wasn't exactly 'nature' but it was dirt, climbing trees, making 'soups' and 'stews' out of leaves, and other 'ingredients' they found. If you have a fenced in yard with a few trees, some bushes, sticks, branches and old baby blankets, dress up clothes and odds and ends you can almost have the same effect. Many happy hours were spent this way with friends, neighborhood kids, cousins, etc. Ours was a favorite backyard because we allowed what other parents wouldn't--a mess. Over many years we had the empty plastic containers from baby wipes, large building blocks, designated outside toys, etc. As you said, it was great for creativity. My girls still remember those years fondly! They were still 'playing' outside like that until they were 12 and 13.

Skylar Burris We are fortunate to have a fenced in back yard, although it is largely treeless. Plenty of dandelions for picking though! This book did really give me a kick to take her creek exploring at least once a week too, though, which I have found she REALLY loves.

message 3: by Karen L. (new)

Karen L. Skylar, wonderful review of the book. Something my kids seemed to really get from being out in nature, was a respect for it as well as, a desire to maintain and keep it beautiful. We have raised our family in the city, so we really have had to make the effort to be with nature. Camping has been such fun for us. It takes us DAYS to pack and DAYS to unpack- lol! Still we love the dirt, the tree climbing, the camp fire stories and the squishing into the crowded tent.

It is sad that we can't let our kids wander the woods like we did as kids. My kids love biking to the park, but I do make them take a cell phone.

And Cathy, I must tell you that my 18 year old daughter who is a college student and works part-time still likes to get into our boxes of dress up stuff with her friends!

message 4: by Adrienne (new) - added it

Adrienne What a wonderful review! Sounds like you gave this some good thought. Family culture family culture family culture!

Ken-ichi Hm. So do you know of any similar works (books or papers) that attempt to support these claims with evidence? I've thought about reading this, but unsupported polemic tends to drive me nuts.

message 6: by Murray (new)

Murray Terrific review, Skylar. I’m fortunate to have a home with a river running through it and mountains to explore all around. There is nothing more psychologically or spiritually uplifting than taking a walk away from people for a few hours, or tossing a dry fly in the water searching for a small mouth bass that I will gently toss back if I catch it. But I also love my time on the computer—where else can you enjoy a book club with millions of people around world? I probably won’t get around to reading this book, but your analysis seems right on. We have evolved in and are part of nature, and need to spend more time experiencing nature. But we also need to adapt this need to the trappings of modern life, for better or worse. Finding the right balance is important to our children and us.

Skylar Burris That's very true, Murray. Balance.

message 8: by Kyle (new)

Kyle Traveler Thanks for this excellent review. I largely agree with the author but people like you point out how his arguments need to be made better. I especially like your point about family culture being the cause of all this. It's private choices that add up to have such a wide effect.

Erin Great review!

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