The Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder
Louv, Richard (2005).
Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books; 336 pages. $24.95. ISBN 1565123913.
Richard Louv's book is of considerable interest to the community of researchers and professionals working with children, youth and the outdoors. Louv is a journalist and writer with a strong, abiding interest in children and childhood, and his book attempts to translate for a broader public the research findings of scholars that publish in places like CYE. Briefly, the book ferrets out nearly every conceivable angle and anecdote, and a goodly portion of the research, to argue that children since the baby boomer generation have been growing up without much first-hand experience in nature, that nature experience is valuable for health and development, and that thus the trends that have cut children off should and can be combated if we seize the opportunity. Although this book is about North American trends, the underlying factors of urbanization and technology are widespread. There are several angles researchers and practitioners might want to take on this book. In this review I will first consider the book's intellectual soundness and contributions, which are of primary concern for readers of this review. Secondly, the book should be judged in terms of its genre and evident intentions. Thirdly, in light of both of the above, does (and should) this book affect the terrain or substance of our scholarly and applied work, and if so, how?
On one level, Louv's book is an accessible review of research about children and nature. The first two sections (chapters one to eight) touch on many concepts advanced in the last 20 to 30 years, including: evolutionary origins of a relation to nature; biophilia; Howard Gardener's "naturalist" intelligence; ecological psychology and ecopsychology (which he confounds); the Kaplans' work on attentional fatigue and restoration; pet-facilitated therapy; the “significant life event” work stemming from Tom Tanner’s first assay; sense of place; Edith Cobb's notion that nature experience is the wellspring of creativity, and Louise Chawla's careful re-examination thereof; therapeutic effects of nature exposure; David Sobel’s notion of “ecophobia;” the work of Andrea Taylor and Frances Kuo on attention-deficit symptoms; conservation psychology; and more. Louv's presentations of these theories are usually superficial but acceptable. His examples are usually well-matched to the particular concepts. He notes where research is weak or incomplete, such as the lack evidence for the full set of Gardener's criteria for an “intelligence” of the “naturalist” variety. He also acknowledges the need for, and distinct nature of, further high-standards scientific work. The book may introduce a popular audience to this modest and mixed but growing body of research.
Expectably, there are flaws from the scholarly point of view. Louv briefly explains methodology in reporting on some studies; other studies are not elucidated. He seldom tests his audience's patience; for example, once averring, "the controls in this study were more complex than space allows me to describe, but suffice it to say, the research team was careful to account for variables" (105). At times, studies are almost indistinguishable from anecdotes. Naturally, the research consulted falls far short of exhaustive—excusable given the book's intended wide appeal, but the endnotes are incomplete. A concern, despite his saying we should be wary because the literature has its limits, is Louv's dramatizing style. After a fairly careful explanation of some studies, for example, he blurts, "to take nature and natural play away from children may be tantamount to withholding oxygen" (108). The central exaggeration is his notion of "nature deficit disorder" itself. He qualifies this as a non-scientific, non-medical term, but flies with it nonetheless. For the non-scientific reader, it is these punchy one-liners that will stick. Louv has his hardest problems making sense of larger conceptual matters (such as the cross-cutting paradigmatic commitments in the field; questions such as how should we think of “nature;” what is “postmodern;” nature-nurture matters); similarly, his demarcation of the “revolutionary” current third “frontier” of child-inaccessible nature is conceptually weak, and he is not particularly self-critical of the historical origins of his notions. But indeed, it takes years of studious steeping in this field to become well-oriented. A quick study, Louv benefited by the guidance of senior scholars such as Louise Chawla and Robin Moore, to whom he had the wisdom to listen carefully. His wide embrace of the value of any nature experience (he makes room for practices he could not countenance himself, such as his friend's slaughter of a daughter's favorite young goat for food) balances his account—or makes it less coherent. But theory construction is not his real aim; rather, it is issue construction. Mixing journalistic distance with the zeal of a story teller on a mission, Louv finesses a number of tough issues.
Does this book reach a wider audience with a message of the vital importance of nature in human experience? We should ask several questions. What exactly is the audience? How well has he crafted a rhetorically effective case? And what have the effects been to date, as well as we can tell? Louv is genuinely aiming wide, judging by his ecumenical attitude toward all nature experiences, his modest emphasis on “environmentalism” and aversion to too much protectionism, and his implicit address to “many Americans” who feel they should pass on their love of nature (41). Romanticizing nature of the past probably sells well, at least (if he is right) with baby boomers and older Americans. The book is well crafted to hit its target. It first lays out a plausible big-picture trend of the loss of nature experience, then enumerates the actual benefits of nature, examines and challenges the reasons for the deficit, and lays out an agenda to reclaim children's nature experience in dozens of ways. Louv unfolds his case with a richly crafted tapestry of resonant epigraphs, research summaries, and stories. I counted 68 anecdotes illustrating 12 concepts in the first 111 pages. Louv talked to many, many people in preparing the book. This is not qualitative research, but Louv’s roving and questioning mind provides some critical checks. His informants’ stories add flow, rich details, personal voice, readability, and the "conviction" of reality (as opposed to the abstractions of research). How large an impact has Louv's book had? According to his website, the work has been featured over 20 times, at least ten in national venues (including broadcast); there is a ten-city tour, and targeted marketing to reach parent associations. Less than a year now since its release, Algonquin reports seven printings and 65,000 copies "with no end in sight," and it ranks respectably at about 1000 on Amazon.com's sales ranking.
This book leaves no doubt that there are many unanswered questions in our field, and that appropriate and rigorous research is needed. Explicitly, or by anecdotally-advanced assumption, Louv leaves us a busy agenda: What do we know about children's use of open areas? How is experience with nature distributed demographically? Does the newly blurred line between machine, human, and other animals affect children's concepts of life and experience of nature? In what sense and to what possible effect are off-road-vehicle enthusiasts "nature-hungry"? What are the links between nature and mental health? Is it possible to develop a more coherent account of nature’s psychological importance? For practitioners—and anyone troubled by the trends he outlines—Louv offers many possibilities, such as: For a generation that is experiencing technology before nature, how to best introduce nature? How can technology be used well? How can the obstacles to nature experience (shrinking accessible open space, over-booked childhoods, technologies (cars, computers, televisions), "criminalization" of nature play, parents' fears, removal of nature from school curricula, and so on) be reduced? Will we apply knowledge of nature's importance in the design of environments for children?
For every one of these issues and more, there are professionals at work; Louv has brought their work to light. He has framed their work using potent issue-construction rhetoric. It will be interesting and hopeful to see if Louv has reached beyond the choir; if indeed, the conjunction of children's welfare and access to natural areas strikes a harmonious chord in dissonant America.
Department of Environmental Studies
Huxley College of the Environment
Western Washington University
Gene Myers, Ph.D. is an associate professor in the Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University. His interests include research and teaching on children and animals, conservation psychology, and environmental education.