Nature deficit disorder is not a psychological diagnosis, yet its meaning is clear. Increasingly our children are suffering from the lack of a relationship with nature, and the consequences are both deeper and broader than you might think. Award winning author Richard Louv exposes some of the consequences we are already seeing, and links them to the roots of the problem. Last Child unveils ways in which raising a generation disconnected from nature destabilizes not just our physical world but our entire social fabric.
Today’s children are tomorrow’s decision makers. Children who don’t experience nature won’t grow up valuing nature, and if they don’t value nature they won’t care about protecting nature. Chapter twelve asks “Where Will Future Stewards of Nature Come From?” Until now the environmentalists message has been that we must preserve nature for nature’s sake. This book helps us realize we must preserve nature for our own sake.
Somewhere along the line we lost track of the essential difference between observing nature and experiencing nature. Louv presents a number of child development specialists’ opinions on how children learn through hands-on experience, and that experiential learning, despite to our fervent desire to believe otherwise, does not come via a keyboard. Children learn with their senses, and our senses are most alive in the outdoors. Chapter 5 “A Life of the Senses: Nature vs. the Know-it-All State of Mind” asks, “If we have taught our children the value of information, and that they can learn everything they will need to online, then why should they engage with nature?"
The book reads like a personal conversation “…baby boomers or older, enjoyed a kind of free, natural play that seems, in the era of kid pagers, instant messaging and Nintendo, like a quaint artifact…. Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment – but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature is fading. That‘s exactly the opposite of how it was when I was a child.” Louv shares his personal reflections on the issues, refers to over 130 published research studies, and includes quotes and insights from interviews with people of every background: school teachers and principals, child development specialists, physicians, university professors, psychologists, parents, religious leaders, politicians, and certainly, children.
In many ways, the message that playing outside is good for us is a “motherhood” statement. Yet it is sobering to read the many ways in which we are giving today’s children conflicting messages – that playing outside is often not welcome, and sometimes even not allowed. Knowingly and unknowingly, parents, teachers, and communities as a whole have been contradicting our own “motherhood” ideals.
It’s not all just hopeful dreaming. Changes are possible, and Last Child in the Woods has already had an impact in countless communities. Since its release there has been a groundswell of interest and support for the “Leave No Child Inside” movement, which in Canada is associated with the “Children and Nature Network”. The 2008 updated edition includes “100 Actions We Can Take” with ideas for families, communities, educators and schools, and goals for governments, and “notes from the field”, with comments from the author on the changes he’s seen since the original publication.
The first four pages are filled with “praise” for the book from leaders of national environmental organizations, leading child development experts and leading American newspapers. They aren’t wrong. Read this book. You won’t be able to think about your relationship with nature, or with children, the same way again.
Brenlee Robinson is a volunteer at LEAF. She has a Masters of Forest Conservation from the University of Toronto and her current focus is educating urban dwellers on the importance of our forests.