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"Last Child in the Woods": Our Interview with Best Selling Author Richard Louv

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LastChildinWoods.jpg In a few days, a new and expanded edition of Richard Louv’s best-selling book, Last Child in the Woods, will hit bookstores around the country. Louv’s book has fueled an international movement to combat what he calls “nature deficit disorder,” children’s growing alienation from the natural world. (Louv’s term for the disorder is quickly catching on, turning up in major newspapers, on television, and even in a February cartoon by Bloom County creator Berke Breathed.)

A quotation from our recent telephone interview with Louv elegantly captures the thrust of his argument: “[T]he message we’re sending kids is that nature is in the past and probably doesn’t count anymore, the future’s in electronics, the boogeyman lives in the woods, and playing outdoors is probably illicit and possibly illegal.”

Development is choking off access to nature, kids are succumbing to the attractions of televisionRichardLouv.jpg and computers, and—yes—time for school recess has dwindled dramatically in the past decade. To make matters worse, Louv argues, parents, educators, and even environmentalists have been complicit in erecting barriers to the natural world. We keep our children indoors to protect them from real or (very often) imagined dangers, we regulate and confine their play, and we tell them to not to disturb delicate flowers, quiet streams or pristine undergrowth.

Louv does find encouraging signs of change in the rapid growth of “Leave No Child Indoors” movements around the country. (Many movement leaders credit Louv’s book for greatly accelerating that growth.) Nature is far too elemental a human need, he argues, for Nature Deficit Disorder to grow unchecked. For an overview of "No Child Left Inside" initiatives around the country, see the Children and Nature Network.

Hear a recording of highlights from the interview (5 minutes), or check out the transcript below:

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: What, in a nutshell, is the central argument of Last Child in the Woods?

LOUV: The central argument is that you have an increasing pace in the last three decades, approximately, of a rapid disengagement between children and direct experiences in nature. And that this has profound implications, not only for the health of future generations but for the health of the earth itself.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: What are these effects for children?

LOUV: Finally, we have a body of scientific evidence that's emerging that shows just how important nature experiences are for child development: everything from a positive effect on the attention span to stress reduction to creativity, cognitive development, and their sense of wonder and connection to the earth.

In terms of creativity and cognitive development, studies of how kids play reveal that kids who play in a natural play space are far more likely to invent their own games and to play cooperatively. On cognitive development, a number of studies were done in the 1990s that showed that schools that had outdoor settings for learning, like an outdoor classroom, had students who did better across the board, from social studies to standardized testing.

There was a study that came out almost three years ago in California that looked at three school districts that had some kind of immersion program in nature, and found that so-called "at risk kids" did 27 percent better on science testing in that environment than they did in a typical classroom.

When we are outside in nature, we're using all of our senses at the same time. That's the optimum state of learning. We're open to incoming information then, of all kinds, and when we're outside, we're making sense of that information. We're seeing the patterns.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Urban students have less access to nature. Is this true? Or is there a way of overcoming that particular disadvantage for those students, to give them greater exposure?

LOUV: Yeah, and that's a great question. One of the things that the Sierra Club does is sponsor a program called "Inner City Outings," and they'll go into the inner cities and they'll put backpacks on the kids and the first thing they'll do is go for a five-mile walk in their own neighborhood. And they will find nature. It's called "nearby nature."

This is true whether you're in the inner city or in a suburb. There is always some nature around, even if it's been manicured. In the suburbs, the trees at the end of a cul‑de‑sac. Or the ravine behind the houses. That is nearby nature, and that, to a child, can be the whole universe. Those places are important, too. We're not just talking about taking kids to Yosemite.

And the same is true for schools. Many of them have trees nearby. A ravine. A canyon, nearby. Those are extraordinarily helpful as classrooms.

The message we're sending those kids is that, "nature's in the past, probably doesn't count any more. The future's in electronics, the bogeyman lives in the woods, and playing out doors is probably illicit and possibly illegal." And that's the message that's getting through to kids. Almost every new housing development built in the last 35 years is controlled by neighborhood associations. So just try to put up a basketball hoop in some of those neighborhoods, let alone let the kids build any tree house or fort. It's not going to happen.

 A few weeks ago I was in South Carolina, and someone who attended one of my speeches came up and said that their community association had recently decided there were too many flowerpots in front of the houses, so they came up with a regulation that you can have only three flowerpots, and they can only be 10 inches across. You know, flowerpots: the enemy within.

So we put up these barriers that we tend to no longer even see, because they're so common. And then we wonder why the kids are sitting on the couch. What's going to happen if we raise a generation that doesn't care about nature, if we don't turn this around? Environmentalists in the future will carry nature in their briefcases, not in their hearts.

Some of the environmental organizations are also recognizing that they may have, in a small way, been part of the problem. The "look, but no touch" ethic is quite appropriate in many areas where there are a lot of endangered species that can be destroyed easily. However, kids tend to do a little damage in mucking around along a stream: those kinds of activities that are traditional, that you and I did. And increasingly, kids are being told they can't do that.

 I think it's important to realize how much is happening, however, very, very quickly. The national legislation, the state legislation, the governors of at least ten states that have established some kind of statewide campaign to get kids outside. The book has been a useful tool, but there have been many, many people working on this long before the book came along. For whatever reason, I think the book was part of a kind of perfect storm of trends that came together to make this issue-to push it closer to the front burner of the culture.


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