All parents hope that their children will grow up to be happy adults who are able to find creative solutions to the challenges of life. Yet children don’t come with an instruction manual, and most now live in a world far different from the one of their parents’ childhoods. Schedules are tight, and after-school hours once spent climbing trees or sloshing along stream banks are now clicked away in front of a computer. Nature is taught in schools and appears regularly on TV, but children rarely experience it firsthand.
Therein lies the problem that author Richard Louv eloquently explores in Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Piece by piece, Louv presents evidence of what a life without nature means to children, their families and the social agendas that lie ahead. He cites study after study that validates involvement with nature — including good old free-form outdoor play — can increase children’s attention spans, improve their ability to concentrate and even foster relaxation in children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
Time spent playing in mud puddles or collecting fort-building branches also may constitute one of the best foundations for the emergence of creativity. When compared to styling a secret sanctuary for tadpoles, not much original thought is needed for children to play with most modern toys. Rambling through meadows or daydreaming in the sun, children often experience transcendent, self-defining moments that stay with them for life. The connectedness that comes with these experiences opens young minds to a world far more vast and mysterious than the more familiar one that relies on gizmos that plug into wall sockets.
In Louv’s view, children need more free time outdoors, and parents should sort through real and not-so-real fears regarding their children’s safety. Yet the responsibility for correcting nature-deficit disorder extends beyond the family to educators, city planners, community leaders and green-thinking landscape designers.
Neighborhoods can include safe, diversified green spaces; trees and butterfly gardens can be incorporated into playgrounds; and cities can make room for pockets of wildlife habitat. Louv thinks the possibilities are especially exciting for small rural towns, which can quickly become ideal habitats for adults and children.
Louv clearly defines the problem and introduces a number of solutions, many of which are quite simple. For example: When shopping for a house, the availability of nearby hiking and biking trails might be worth much more than a good real estate deal or a top-rated school system. The best use of a free weekend might be an inexpensive camping trip. Turn off the TV. Unplug the computer. Make a garden. Go fishing. Lay on the ground and study the night sky.
The father of two boys, Louv knows these suggestions might not always be popular ideas. Go for them anyway. If children did come with an instruction manual, these are the kinds of things you would find on page one.