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.
Author and journalist Richard Louv’s stated purpose here is to document the radical transformation of the culture in which American children grow up, a transformation in which “young people are being taught to avoid direct experience in nature.” The New York Times review of this book (McKee 2005) alluded to the unsettling implications of these changes in the review title, “Growing up Denatured.” Indeed, what is winning this book popular attention is the catchy term “nature deficit disorder,” coined by Louv and his editor at Algonquin Books. It is a clever way to define this change as pathological (which it is), and to shift onto those who would neglect nature the burden of proof to justify how this neglect benefits children’s welfare. Just as Hurricane Katrina has provided a convenient, though tragic, wedge to force a reluctant citizenry to discuss global warming, ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) provides Louv a vehicle for the discussion of the broader issues and implications of children’s changed relationship to the natural world.
ADD is prevalent among the mental disorders suffered by nearly eight million children in the United States. It is a persistent and disturbing pattern of inattention or hyperactivity, and an issue of heightened concern among parents and educators. ADD is increasingly treated with powerful and largely untested drugs such as Ritalin. However, new empirical research indicates that being in a natural green environment boosts a child’s attention span and actually alleviates symptoms of ADD. In particular, Louv cites Taylor, Kuo and Sullivan (2001), researchers at the University of Illinois, to show that the greener the setting, the more the relief. This research supports Louv’s personal claim that, as a child, “the woods were my Ritalin. Nature calmed me, focused me, and yet excited my senses.” Louv summarizes the restorative effect of nature identified by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan (1998) through research based on William James’ work on involuntary attention. His weaving of personal story with thorough research throughout the book is a very effective means of engaging the lay reader on both personal and potentially political levels. What Louv makes clear in his summary of the research is how little we actually know beyond anecdote about children and the outdoors. In fact, not much has changed since Roger Hart noted in Children’s Experience of Place (1979) how much more we know of the natural history of most animals than of human children. “Who is going to pay for that research?” Louv cynically asks. “What toy can we sell for natural play?”
As pressure for academic performance mounts, and as “good intentions” mandate that we supply children with ever more computers, television, car travel and inside activities, we have not, until recently, sought to quantify the effects of the loss of what Yale psychologist Stephen Kellert terms “direct experience of nature” (Kahn and Kellert 2002). Louv wants us to consider that cost: “at the very moment that the bond is breaking between the young and the natural world, a growing body of research links our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our association with nature—in positive ways.”
Much of the academic debate about children and nature is derailed at the definitional stage. What is nature? The material world and all its objects—including machines and man? Or is nature everything apart from man and the man-made (and therefore a fragile wilderness that must be protected from humans)? Humans are part of the wildness, Louv says, the “energy and richness of wild systems,” thereby endorsing with John Milton via Gary Snyder the poetic proposition that nature is a “wilderness of sweets (p. 8).” Nature means, in this book, natural wildness: “biodiversity, abundance—(whether) related loose parts in a backyard or a rugged mountain ridge” (p. 9). Louv thus comes down on the side of nature as phenomenological richness and the freedom to explore, citing Nicholson’s (1971) theory of loose parts, Robin Moore’s (1997) advocacy for natural play space in terms of social justice, and Louise Chawla’s (2003) and others’ documentation of childhood experience as the source of adult empathy and stewardship.
This position must be fought for in a culture of virtual reality, a culture that associates nature with doom (ecophobia), that increasingly defines reality as only a construct—(that we are what we program), and in which our academic training excludes natural history and hands-on learning in favor of high stakes testing and more remunerative fields of study like microbiology and genetic engineering.
“For a new generation, nature is more abstraction than reality. Increasingly, nature is something to watch, to consume, to wear—to ignore” (McKee 2005). Indeed, reading the book I felt the walls closing in. Even though Louv backs away from declaiming disaster, (“I tried not to make this book too depressing” (McKee 2005), time for effective action is clearly short. While Louv touches on issues of evolutionary biology and notes how human attitudes affect nature, he stops short of explaining the bi-directional influence of the environment and organism—the ways in which the changing environment can literally change the development of the organism itself, in this case, the human child. As Bjorklund and Pellegrini put it in The Origins of Human Nature (2002), “To the extent that an organism grows under conditions similar to that in which its species evolved, development will follow a species-typical pattern....Organisms inherit environments…and it is within these environments that genes are expressed and phenotypes derived” (35). For thousands of years the species-typical environment for human beings was the “wilderness of sweets,” where we had to function with all our senses in order to survive. This present generation is engaged in a radical experiment of environmental change. The nature-deficit Louv documents so well can be expected to affect not just our behavior and mood, but perhaps our very evolution as a biological type. Louv’s book constitutes a mandate for a formal research program to explore and document both children’s loss of direct experience of nature and to describe systematically the ways that children may benefit from being “where the wild things are.”
In “Part VI: The Fourth Frontier,” Louv struggles with the dialogue between the power of place and the love of the particular on the one side, and on the other a bland new green urbanism that proposes spreading people anonymously across the landscape. This latter simplistic and very American formulation skips over minefields of race, class, immigration, and politics. Nonetheless, he outlines some of the interesting planning and design initiatives working toward sustainability.
The structure of this wide-ranging book can be fitted into Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) model of ecological development as Louv moves outward from individual childhood experience to public school to public policy. Futuristic thinking, he declares, is essential because, despite individual efforts, the nature gap will continue to widen “unless we change cultural patterns and the built environment.”
Louv’s engagingly presented findings are a challenge to parents, educators, urban designers and public policy experts to address needed changes in our present way of doing business as a culture. The research presented in his book will serve two purposes. It will provide parents, teachers, and those involved with public policy with a compelling story, as well as an overview of current research, both qualitative and quantitative, which is convincing but notably thin. Additionally, it should push the environmental behavior research community to outline and fund a research program to investigate and understand what happens and why when children spend time in the natural world. Approvingly, Louv cites University of Illinois researchers Taylor and Kuo who declare, “the greatest need is for controlled experimental studies” (p. 306) to compare the role of nature to existing methods in healthy childhood development.
Using the child as a proxy for the plight of humankind, this passionate book stands as a brave and wide-ranging indictment of our “lavish, throw-away lifestyles,” weaving together personal experience, anecdotes from interviews and existing research to build a compelling and accessible case for child advocacy at a global ecological level. It is to be praised specifically for incorporating and resolving many different voices and political points of view, and for extracting commonalities across ideological, geographic and religious divides in an intelligent and helpful way. It also gathers together and provides the researcher with access to a very broad interdisciplinary network of scholars and practitioners who are working to change the current landscape for American children.
Bjorklund, David F. and Anthony D. Pellegrini (2002). The Origins of Human Nature. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Bronfenbrenner, Urie (1979). The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Chawla, Louise (2003). “Spots of Time.” In Kahn, Peter H. and Stephen R. Kellert, eds. Children and Nature. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Hart, Roger (1979). Children's Experience of Place. New York: Noble Offset Printers.
Kahn, Peter H. and Stephen R. Kellert (2002). Children and Nature. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Kaplan, Rachel, Stephen Kaplan and Robert L. Ryan (1998). With People in Mind: Design and Management of Everyday Nature. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.
McKee, Bradford (2005). “Growing up Denatured.” The New York Times. April 28, F1.
Moore, Robin C. (1997). “The Need for Nature: A Childhood Right.” Social Justice 24(3): 203-220.
Nicholson, Simon (1971). “The Theory of Loose Parts.” Landscape Architecture 62(1).
Taylor, A.F., F.E. Kuo and W.C. Sullivan (2001). “Coping with ADD: The Surprising Connection to Green Play Settings.” Environment and Behavior 33(1): 54-77.
Virginia Sullivan is an early childhood educator and principal of Learning by the Yard, Consultants to School Grounds, in Conway, Massachusetts. She is a Ph.D. candidate in the College of Design, North Carolina State University. Her research interest is the relationship between children’s language learning and their direct experience of the natural world. Her dissertation research is a case study of a natural schoolyard, using children’s natural language recorded in the field as the primary data.