This is a repost of a 2006 column on Richard Louv's "Last Child in the Woods." He has been named the featured author for the 2013 Fox Cities Reads and will make multiple appearances for the Fox Cities Book Festival.
By David Horst firstname.lastname@example.org
A book that finds hope for Earth’s future in treehouses and walks in the woods has been sweeping the nation, or at least the part of it populated by environmental educators and advocates.
As with most things, I caught the back of the wave. Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” (Algonquin, 2006) was already out in paperback by the time I picked it up.
Louv had me in the introduction. In recounting his childhood, he described mine. Knowing every bend in the creek. Wandering the woods on well-worn paths. Building forts. Catching crayfish with bits of liver tied to string.
My well-worn paths ran along Lincoln Creek (that’s pronounced “crick”) in Milwaukee. The crayfish came from the big lagoon at McGovern Park. The fort was in my friend Richard’s back yard, built with wood from my dad’s job site.
But that was then and now is a world of stranger danger paranoia, videogame hypnosis and league play for anything that would take a child outside.
Lincoln Creek proved to be an open sewer. McGovern Park has become a dangerous place. Taking wood from a job site now would probably get a boy charged as an adult.
Louv bemoans the loss of that carefree exploration of the outdoors that nurtured future eco-friendlies. We have scared and legislated and organized children right out of nature. And nature out of them.
He quotes one child saying he prefers to play indoors, “’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”
He coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” as a word play, but then went on to find pretty compelling evidence that more experience with nature – even looking out the schoolroom window at it – reduces attention deficit disorder as well.
He quotes scads of scientific studies – enough to require nine pages of footnotes – though he starts by quoting poets to arrive at his definition of nature, which covers everything from virgin forests to an urban vacant lot.
Sandy Vander Velden, a teacher at Appleton’s Fox River Academy Environmental Charter School, says she sees that in the learning her students experience right outside the door in Pierce Park.
“To be there at their moment of discovery, that’s the best time of my teaching life,” she said.
Two years ago, Fox River Academy supplied all of it is students’ families with copies of “Last Child in the Woods.” Parents found a lot they agreed with.
“Richard Louv gives parents and educators a sense of hope,” Vander Velden said. “All is not lost. There are studies to indicate that these childhood conditions can be improved by providing children with opportunities to be outdoors and up close with nature.”
The isolation of children from nature is real, according to Joann Engel, another teacher at the school.
“I have taken hundreds of groups of children on hikes out to the woods and I have had five-, six- and seven-year-old children who have never been in a woods. For some this is a special experience and for others it is a fear of the unknown,” she said.
Louv calls on parents to get their kids outside enough to discover that they like it and schools to build significant relationships with nature centers and environmental groups. He also goes a bit off the deep end about how a “fourth frontier” is coming to repopulate rural America.
Louv quotes Robert F. Kennedy Jr., one of the real defenders of the environment for our time, describing the aquariums that filled his room as a young child.
“We don’t want to live in a world where there are no recreational fishermen,” Kennedy says, “where we’ve lost touch with the seasons, the tides, the things that connect us to ten thousand generations of human beings that were here before there were laptops, and ultimately connect us to God.”