Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder was an interesting read on the results of having a generation of kids growing up disconnected from the natural world they live in, and what some of the solutions might be. It's not just TV and gadgets keeping kids away from nature, it's also the busy society we live in, fear of lawsuits and kidnapping (we feel like we can't let kids play in vacant lots or back woods anymore; many of the risky activities my Dad enjoyed as a child would simply not happen today), organized sports that take kids outdoors but don't give them an opportunity to connect with the natural world, and even environmentalists who work to forbid things like kite-flying, bug collecting, fishing and tree houses in order to "protect" nature.
The result is children (and eventually adults, because kids grow up, right?) who know a lot of politically correct factoids about recycling and endangered species, but couldn't name most local plants or animals or care about protecting them. Elaine Brooks is quoted in the book saying "people are unlikely to value what they cannot name" (page 41) . I found this interesting in light of man's first task of naming the animals.
Other societal problems linked with nature deficit are obesity, mental health problems (including skyrocketing depression in preschoolers and young children), lack of creativity, poorer motor skills in children, and a poor foundation for understanding things like the laws of physics. Unstructured outdoor play time (think building forts and mixing mud soup) is the ultimate open-ended toy and helps kids develop skills like setting goals, experimenting, and calculated risk-taking. ADD/ADHD is also an increasingly common diagnosis in today's kids. There are different theories about why this is, but it is noted that increased TV time increases the possibility of kids being diagnosed. Time in nature may not be able to fully prevent attention problems, but there is interesting research showing that when people experience "directed attention fatigue", they become agitated, impulsive, and unable to concentrate. Nature tends to hold our involuntary attention (fascination, the opposite of directed attention) and gives our directed attention a break. We are better able to concentrate after time spent outdoors in nature.
Chapter 12 asks "Where Will Future Stewards of Nature Come From?"; I liked the wording of this question since I believe humans were given a role of stewardship by God. Many kids today are either scared of nature (because of the fictional or dramatized accounts they see in the media), or bored and let down by nature (because it isn't as exciting as the fictional accounts in the media). Boredom in general, the book contends, is a relatively new concept, culturally. In Medieval times, the state of boredom and listlessness was called Acedia, and it was considered a precursor to sloth, one of the seven deadly sins. Acedia was thought to devalue the world and it's creator.
Part V of the book (Chapters 16 and 17) talk about how schools and camps can better encourage kids to benefit and learn from nature and natural play. Whether that be lessons, field trips, gardens, or differently designed playgrounds, there are many things schools can do. There is solid research along with anecdotal evidence described in the book. This section of the book was perhaps my favorite, as education is a field I can have an impact on, unlike things discussed in later chapters like city planning and plant genetic research. I would recommend that educators skim through these chapters even if you don't have time to read the whole book. The last book I read (not counting kids' books) was about the educational methods of Charlotte Mason, a British Christian educator who lived in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Among other distinctive ideas, she emphasized spending time outdoors and nature study as a subject. As a Christian, I admire her perspective and how her goal was to keep the love of learning alive. Reading these two books consecutively gave a unique perspective.
I didn't take as many notes on the end of the book...it was late, my pencil was lost, excuses excuses. The section on urban planning offered interesting (if a bit "ecotopian") scenarios of how future development in our country could be designed to allow people, especially children, to benefit from and connect with the physical world of nature. There were also some good examples of existing small and large communities that have done this without turning into hippie communes. Sioux Falls, South Dakota even got a mention as a growing diverse city that some people are moving to, or moving back to, in order to get away from the commotion of the big cities. America has historically valued keeping pockets of open green space within big cities too (for example, New York's Central Park) and planners of new areas can imitate and expand on those traditions.
The last section of the book: "To Be Amazed", discussed the spiritual implications of the disconnect from God's creation. Being as the book is not written from a specifically Christian perspective and quotes a wide variety of people, I found plenty to disagree with. No, I do not think it would be good news if Sunday School started to sound a lot like Ecology 101. I believe that God reveals himself most powerfully in his Word and in his Son; experiences in the beauty and order of God's creation can draw us to praise him, and we are designed to interact with the rest of God's creation, but "nice spiritual experiences" in nature are of no use without Christ. Some of the people quoted in the book elevated nature too much, but I enjoyed the comments from Suzanne Thompson, a "religiously conservative Christian" who is suspicious of the "environmental agenda" and bioegalitarianism, yet realized something had to be done to change her neighborhood. She felt the area was sterile and unsafe for children, so she ripped up her front yard and built a natural-feeling courtyard with Adirondack chairs where neighborhood kids and adults were free to socialize together. Whatcom County, WA (Lynden area), "steeped in Dutch religious traditions" is mentioned on page 300 for it's citizens striving to live out their faith and care for the land they are entrusted with.
This doesn't fit chronologically into my review, but I enjoyed the biographical tidbits about famous people and their experiences with nature as children: Ansel Adams, Beatrix Potter, Ben Franklin, and others that you might not expect were shaped by their early exploration "in the woods".
We'll always be a technology family and I hope my kids are not just proficient, but downright brilliant with a computer. But there will continue to be limits on screen time in our house. After reading this book I would be less likely to choose a computer-based school or curriculum for the kids, and I will be conscious of taking them to natural areas to play, not just structured playgrounds, as well as encouraging creative outdoor play in our own yard space.
What about you? What were your favorite "wild places" as a child and what did you learn there? What are you doing to give the children in your life that same opportunity?
Toby and Grandpa H. at Bateman Island this fall shortly after getting his cast off.