Author shares his insights about childhood outdoors
July 18, 2007
It’s hard for kids in Summit County to imagine what it might be like without being able to meet the mountains outside their backyard.
Spencer King, 14, and his sister, Kristy, 13, the youngest of nine kids, notice the new developments in Oakley, but they’ve not yet snuffed out their natural playground. Spencer has a job this summer, and Kristy has morning chores. When they’re done, Kristy says she likes to go fishing in the Weber River behind her house, and Spencer says he goes camping.
Their parents give them the free time and call neighbors when they need them home, says Kristy. Without that free time to explore and have fun, she guesses she’d feel like she’d grown up.
"There’s nothing to live for without being outside," Spencer says.
Richard Louv argues the same in his book, "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," and last Thursday shared his thoughts at the Santy Auditorium. He was speaking, in part, on behalf of the Trust for Public Land, an organization that protects everything from farmland to inner-city parks to wilderness.
"What would happen if future generations do not have nature in their hearts?" he asked the Park City crowd. "It seems like a light, fluffy issue, but I think it’s a fundamental issue of our time."
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Last weekend, Louv’s book, which has been on library and bookstore shelves for two years, ranked 25 on the New York Times Bestseller list for paperback nonfiction. Louv attributes the increase in interest to media coverage and the issue of what he calls "nature deficit disorder," a term he defines in his book: "the human costs of alienation from nature."
"We are all desperate for something to agree on and what I’ve learned since I’ve written this book is that [nature-deficit disorder] is something that brings people together who otherwise don’t agree on very much," he said.
"Last Child in the Woods" discusses what Kristy and Spencer cannot fathom, or, as Louv observed, avoid thinking about because "it’s too painful:" the loss of a child’s intimate relationship with nature.
Unlike Kristy and Spencer, increasingly, most kids these days are put under what Louv calls "virtual protective house arrest." The amount of unsupervised outdoor play has dwindled since the baby boomer generation and so has the amount of space they are allowed to explore outside, he says. Only recently have psychologists begun to take note.
"Our society is teaching young people to avoid direct experience in nature," he writes in "Last Child." "That lesson is delivered in schools, families, even organizations devoted to the outdoors, and codified into the legal and regulatory structures of many of our communities. Our institutions…and cultural attitudes unconsciously associate nature with doom while disassociating the outdoors from joy and solitude."
But Louv does not blame technology, he blames fear.
"People say it’s [because of] video games and television, which is seductive, but [my generation] grew up when color TVs were in, and it didn’t kill outdoor play," he said Thursday. "It’s that we live in a climate of fear."
Louv, a journalist, holds his profession partly responsible for conditioning fear into the public by stressing a handful of terrible crimes against childhood that leads to a skewed perception of crime rates, he says.
Other factors that keep kids indoors are fears about getting them into competitive colleges and the fear of lawsuits, he said. As an example, in "Last Child in the Woods," he mentions a Pennsylvania community where three brothers, ages 8 through 12 years, were ordered by a district council to tear down a tree house because they had no building permit.
According to Louv, "well-meaning public-school systems, media, and parents are effectively scaring children straight out of the woods and fields."
Spiritual life begins with a sense of wonder, he says, and nature provides a window into that wonder. Louv claimed Thursday that there is research that suggests a dose of the outdoors might heal most of childhood maladies such as obesity and attention deficit disorder.
Louv says restoring the experience of the outdoors and reducing "nature deficit disorder" for children is critical to the future of the world.
"The health of the Earth is at stake as well," he writes. "How the young respond to nature, and how they raise their own children, will shape the configurations and conditions of our cities, homes our daily lives."
Later in the book, Louv muses, "one wonders how the children growing up in this culture of control will define freedom when they are adults?"
A remedy Louv offers to restoring a child’s bond to nature is to schedule unstructured experience in nature and parents need the help of organizations. It’s a paradoxical solution he admits is "quite tricky," but is already at work.
When he published his book, Louv says he searched the internet for "nature-deficit disorder" and retrieved zero results. Today, the same search yields 122,000.
Listening to Louv’s lecture in Park City was Dexter Richards, secretary and founder of the holistic nature school Mountain Spirit Institute, an organization with a mission to "facilitate one’s connection to self, each other and the environment." The Mountain Spirit Institute is based in Park City and Sunapee, N.H., and hosts trips to Peru and South Dakota with an emphasis on solo expeditions.
Richards helped to develop the concept of the institution the 1990s, and says Louv’s book is often quoted during his organization’s discussions.
"What he says about the gateway experience into nature is vital the big thing is the experience," Richards said after Louv’s lecture. "What we like to say is, ‘let the woods speak for themselves.’"
Some new Park City parents are also already on board for the unstructured outdoor play Louv prescribes.
Jean Carlan, innkeeper at the Washington School Inn, says her daughter, Megan, barely a year old, has showed her what nature means to her without words. Megan tends to stop crying if she’s taken outside, Carlan says. The bird feeder makes Megan particularly happy, and she often reaches for an opened front door when crawling inside.
As Louv noted Thursday night, "running around is what kids have been doing for eons," and, it appears, there is no substitute.
He is the author of seven books and several articles in The New York Times, The Times of London and The San Diego Union-Tribune. Yet he readily admits it — he prefers fishing to writing.
"Nature is like pornography," he said at the auditorium. "We know it when we see it."