(I wrote this review several years ago for the newsletter of the DFW Herpetological Society.)
When I was about ten years old, the girl from across the street asked if I wanted to go snake hunting. We spent the day wandering the fields in our little part of a suburb of Denver, caught a garter snake, and a lifelong passion for nature and herpetology was born. I still remember a vacant lot where sunflowers grew tall and dragonflies hovered. This was the kind of childhood that allowed for unstructured time spent in nature, and Richard Louv argues that there is less and less of this contact between kids and nature. He argues unstructured play in natural areas is important not just to cultivate love for nature, but also for our well-being. He refers to what happens when kids are cut off from nature as “nature-deficit disorder.”
Louv draws a distinction between nature on TV or nature as an intellectual exercise and direct experience of nature as kids (or adults) play in an unstructured way, building forts or wading in creeks. None of us would say that nature on TV is a bad thing; he simply argues that it is not the same as time to lie in the grass and watch the clouds, or climb trees, or catch snakes and frogs. He also says that exposure to nature has benefits even if it is relatively undeveloped spaces in urban landscapes.
Regarding nature-deficit disorder: the author makes clear he is not saying it is a recognized medical disorder. However, he does quote studies showing how hospitalized patients recover more quickly when there is a view of trees through the window, and how seeing images of nature result in people calming more quickly after a stress. Louv talks about the relationship between the epidemic of childhood obesity and the indoor and sedentary ways of modern children. Taken together, there is a noteworthy association between contact with nature and various measures of social, emotional, and physical health.
He also speaks of conversations with children and adults, illustrating the importance of a particular place or experience. One fifth-grader spoke of a particular place she had, where she could recover from being mad or just be at peace. She said she dug a hole near this creek and waterfall and sometimes would sit in it and watch the trees or the sky. She said that one day, they cut the trees down and destroyed the place. She said that it was like they “had cut down a part of me.” On the other hand, some interviews reveal children’s separation from nature. One boy said that indoor play was best, because “that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”
This is certainly not a pessimistic book. It is filled with descriptions of places or classrooms where individuals or small groups of people have come up with creative ways to encourage greater connection with nature. He talked about how, in recent years, a movement has begun with the aim of addressing nature-deficit disorder. There is an organization called the “Children & Nature Network” to document and encourage this movement. You can visit the website at http://www.childrenandnature.org/
Those of us who love to share reptiles and amphibians with others, and who hope for a greater appreciation of nature, wild places, and wildlife, will be glad if this book reaches a wide audience.
Richard Louv (2008) Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder (updated and expanded). Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books.