I originally posted this in February of 2007:
I’ve got Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods out from the library, and I’ve kept it way overdue. It’s a very good, thought provoking book, and it speaks very eloquently of the need to bring nature back to childhood. In Louv’s analysis of childhood today, he finds five trends:
1. a severance of the public and private mind from our food’s origin
2. a disappearing line between machines, humans, and other animals (cyborgs, etc.)
3. an increased intellectual understanding of our relationship with other animals
4. the invasion of our cities by wild animals
5. the rise of a new suburban form (one with even less open space and with covenants that keep people from having overgrown yards or gardens)
Louv mentions John Dewey, and his warning not to overemphasize “secondary experience” in life or in education. I think that is a big part of the problem with the way we raise children now (and live ourselves). We just don’t get dirty enough. Everything is too removed, processed, artificial, or simulated. Even reading is a secondary experience – reading tons of books about knitting won’t teach you to knit and reading books about nature won’t replace going out and experiencing it first hand.
Even when we are outside, so much of what we do is artificial. Playgrounds and sports fields replace natural settings, and we are left with fewer chances to observe wildlife or plants. Physical activity is important, and I don’t want to see it gone. But we need the garden and the woods and the meadow too. Louv cites a study that found that children in natural settings had more creative/”fantasy” play, while children in traditional school yard settings had hierarchical play based on physical competence (p. 87). I thought that was a very interesting idea, and it made me think about my own childhood play. My fondest memories of playing with my brother are all in forts we made in bushes, or when we were doing an “archaeological dig” in our backyard, or playing commando in a neighbors wooded lot. We were never tempted to play in the large open sports fields.
Louv suggests that getting back into nature could fight the obesity problems we have now. In discussing the fearfulness that leads parents to restrict their children’s outdoor play: “so where is the greatest danger? Outdoors, in the woods and the fields? Or on the couch in front of the TV? A blanket wrapped too tightly has its own consequences” (p. 131).
In education, we have a disconnect with the places that we live. We teach about the rainforest, and about climate change. But we don’t teach how to identify the local wildlife and plants, or how to live with those species. It’s hard for a child to want to save the environment if they don’t have some connection with it. Louv suggests a daring idea – that attachment theory applies as much to place as it does to people, and that we all need to feel rooted in a stable home.
It’s very thought provoking, and it has inspired me to envision a space in my yard where the kids can build and make their own little forts, etc. It also reinforced my plans to study natural history with the kids, and to teach them identification, gardening, and hands on wilderness skills.
One last quote: Emphasize opportunities for children to get their feet wet and their hands dirty … Yes, we need playing fields and skateboard parks, but put them where they belong, on already urbanized land – on multi-use school sites, for example. Prize the natural spaces and shorelines most of all, because once they’re gone, with rare exceptions they’re gone forever. In our bones, we need the natural curves of hills, the scent of chapparal, the whisper of pines, the possibility of wildness. We require these patches of nature for our mental health and our spiritual resilience. Future generations, regardless of whatever recreation or sport is in vogue, will need nature all the more. p. 256.
And once you are inspired to create a more natural, wonder-filled space for your children, this book will give you ideas and jump-start the process:
I love the photos in this book – I wish I had grown up in that garden!