Book Review: Last Child in the Woods

by Caroline Brown

Title: Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder
Author: Richard Louv
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication Date: 2005

Much has been written about “kids these days” who don’t know that hamburgers come from cows or who’d rather play Nintendo than play outside. And we all sympathize with the plight of “poor urban kids” who have never seen trees or stars. But in his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv provides a much more comprehensive—and heartbreaking—analysis of the relationship between American children and nature.

A columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune with two college-aged sons, Louv traces the relationship between American youth and nature through three stages, what he calls the “three frontiers.” In the first frontier, European settlers and their families moved further and further west, experiencing nature directly and practically. The harshness of nature forced parents and their children to develop inventive and utilitarian ways of dealing with it.

But by the 1890s, the western frontier was closed. The era that Louv calls the second frontier began as the era of the family farm, and by the end of World War II, it had become the era of suburban expansion. In the second frontier, Americans moved away from direct utilization of nature but were romantically attached to it. Children didn’t live on the prairie or explore canyons anymore, but they pretended to.

In 1993, the U.S. Census Bureau ended its annual survey of farm residents, explaining that because the American farm population had dwindled from 40 percent in 1990 to just 1.9 percent in 1990, the survey was simply no longer relevant. This marked a turning point in American history—the beginning of the third frontier:

Many of us now in our forties or older knew farmland or forests at the suburban rim and had farm-family relatives. Even if we lived in an inner-city, we likely had grandparents or other older relatives who farmed or had recently arrived from farm-country…For today’s young people, that familial and cultural linkage to farming is disappearing, marking the end of the second frontier.

Americans in the third frontier are electronically detached from nature. Nature is no longer romanticized because it’s no longer relevant to the American experience. In the resulting culture:

Access to nature is restricted. Kids don’t play in abandoned lots because neighbors complain. Public lands are disappearing and open space is shrinking due to overzealous developers. Housing developments restrict the construction of outdoor play structures such as treehouses.

People fear nature. Parents want to know where their children are at all times. “Good” parents don’t allow their kids to roam around alone in the woods or down by the swimming hole, because they might get lost or bitten by a snake. National parks are places where people get kidnapped and killed.

Children are distanced from nature. A necessary reaction to damage caused that humans, environmentalism creates public awareness of ecological deterioration and animal rights activists discourage fishing and hunting. Louv supports environmentalism and doesn’t hunt (he does fish), but he acknowledges that the environmental and animal rights activists have increased children’s awareness of the fragility of nature, which leaves them feeling distanced from and frightened by it.

Playtime is structured. The importance of academic and career success is emphasized at a very early age. Team sports, structured learning activities, heavy homework loads, and parent-organized “play dates” have taken the place of unstructured play. “Goofing off” is discouraged; parents make sure that their children are too busy to lie in the grass and look at clouds.

Electronics are pervasive. Television, video games, and the Internet have changed children’s definitions of interesting and boring. These and other forms of entertainment encourage mental and physical passivity instead of activity.

Technology-based educational methods are emphasized. Today’s curriculum standards focus on basics such as reading, writing, and math, often leaving classrooms devoid of nature. Traditional natural sciences have fallen out of favor while more technical disciplines have increased in popularity.

Despite this dismal analysis, Louv closes the book on a positive note. He describes efforts to repair the damage that’s been done, holding hope in examples such as local nature programs and community gardens that help re-connect children with nature; nature-based teaching curricula and teacher training programs developed by organizations such as the National Wildlife Federation and the Orion Society; experiential learning occurring in home-schools and through programs such as the Foxfire Approach to Teaching and Learning; and “green urbanism,” a community planning movement that advocates re-inventing the urban landscape so that nature is included in residents’ daily lives.

Louv also offers parents suggestions for re-engaging children with nature:

Nurture constructive boredom. Louv says that parents should (literally) disconnect electronic attachments and spend more time with their children. Bored children often get in trouble, so adults must find the right balance between providing direction and killing creativity.

Encourage respect of nature.
Parents should teach children to be “hyperaware” in nature without being “hypervigiliant.” Spending time in nature helps them learn how to take controlled risks, build their confidence, and reduce their fear of the unknown.

Deal constructively with “stranger-danger.” It’s difficult for parents (including Louv) to deal with the fear of strangers harming their children. He acknowledges that there aren’t any concrete solutions, but says that moving beyond the hysteria of “stranger-danger” is critical for a child’s emerging self-esteem and self-confidence.

Re-connect with wildlife and nature. Parents should take children to local parks to play and hike, and explore local conservation areas with them. Parents can introduce their children to activities such as wildlife viewing, birding, and nature journaling, which can help them become more observant. And parents can enlist their children to help in a backyard garden, become involved in a community garden, or take them to visit a local farm.

All of this involves time, and that’s in scarce supply right now in the third frontier. But if you’re taking the time to read this review— especially if you’re a parent, teacher, or have influence on a child in any other way—then I hope you take the time to read this book.

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6 Comments to “Book Review: Last Child in the Woods”

  1. Another great review. Sounds like a book well worth reading.

  2. For parents that lack the time to take their kids outdoors, there’s always Scouting. I’m disappointed Louv didn’t mention that in his book.

  3. Hi Fred, The book was a library book and I don’t have it anymore…so I can’t check to be sure. But, I believe Louv does mention scouting in his book. I just didn’t mention it in my review. Here’s an article from Scouting magazine that discusses Louv’s book in the context of Scouting a little bit more.
    http://www.scoutingmagazine.org/issues/current/a-wndr.html

  4. This is such a good topic to comment on/read about. So true. Being the fossil that I am LOL…I remember fondly many activities that children now rarely have the time, interest or opportunity to pursue. Camping, nature walks, baseball, baseball and more baseball ,building forts out of straw and grass (and in the winter ice block houses!!), campfires, lots of swimming in lakes, visiting ALL the neighbours, sitting on the porches…telling stories, playing marbles in the grass.

    We NEVER sat for hours in front of a computer (Im catching up with this now, shame on me) but even that would be alright, if kid’s activities were balanced with lots of fresh air and family time. I think some parent’s are making the effort for quality family time but there is still a long way to go. I just commented on my blog earlier re: all the obese children I cringe to see, again part of the whole scenario, isn’t it. Thanks for an interesting read. G 🙂

  5. I agree with all of the points made in “Last Child in the Woods” . If we do not help children reconnect with nature we will have little support to take care of open space, national parks and wildlands.
    This is what I do to “do my part”.
    I always pick up litter wherever I walk. I teach kids about restoring degraded creeks. When I take my kids hiking we look for salamanders and bugs and make a game of it.
    Do lots of games outside-hang out outside send the kids outside.
    I would like to continue a blog correspondence what are some of the ideas other do to keep kids in touch with nature?

  6. Mr. Willow, you might be interested in the organization called Children and Nature Network, http://www.cnaturenet.org/. It’s a national campaign, inspired by Louv’s book, to reconnect children to nature. There are lots of good ideas there.

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