Everybody has a theory about what’s wrong with the kids these days. Some scream that they play too many video games. Others say that they eat too much fast food. Some say it’s the teachers, whereas others say it’s the parents. Some argue it’s cell phones and others argue it’s street gangs. But if all of these people have one thing in common, it’s that they believe there is something wrong with this generation of children.
Newspaper columnist and child advocate, Richard Louv, threw his hat into this never-ending argument with his new book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. And ironically, Louv agrees with pretty much every theory postulated above. Indeed, he links the vast majority of the problems with youth in America today to living inside with a focus on technology in conjunction with a systemic lack of outdoor and nature related experiences. He calls the result of this modern lifestyle, “nature deficit disorder.”
Louv takes a close look at many of the chronic problems that children have today and relates them directly back to wilderness and nature oriented experiences. On the one hand there are the creative elements that evolve in children who spend time outdoors. They create games and fantasies, build forts and take on characters. On the other hand they develop a number of higher function cognitive and psychological skills by spending time in such an environment. They do this through self-imposed rules that evolve out of unstructured play.
Louv provides an apt example with a discussion about a tree fort. Children learn a great deal from both the building of the fort, as well as the subsequent play in the fort. First, there’s the construction. That’s where they learn about architecture, mathematics and geometry. Then there’s the use of the finished product. Suddenly, it’s no longer a bunch of wood haphazardly nailed to a tree, but a spaceship or a castle. This unstructured play allows children to stretch their imaginations. Their fantasy worlds have rules (i.e. the tree is a monster and if you touch a certain branch it will eat you). The playacting that takes place in a tree fort allows children to work on their executive function . This cognitive skill is incredibly important to a child throughout his or her entire life. Strong executive function helps students concentrate in school; it helps them control themselves and it helps them understand abstract concepts.
Louv offers a number of dire warnings in his book. Children who don’t spend time outdoors will not value green space or fight for the environment in the future. Children who don’t go camping or spend time in national parks will not become stewards of parks and wilderness areas. Children who don’t spend time outside are far more likely to develop childhood obesity, ADD or ADHD among a number of other ailments.
Ultimately, Last Child in the Woods is not all gloom and doom. Louv passionately argues that a return to the “way it was when we were kids” when parents just let their kids run around the neighborhood to climb trees and dig holes and ride bikes and play will at least partially heal a number of these social ills. He argues that it’s time for our culture to reacquaint our children with the outdoors. There is no doubt that those who read this book will be convinced. The only problem with his argument is that he is likely to be making it to the very people who already encourage their children to spend time outside.