Thursday, June 28, 2007

Last Child in the Woods

" Kids today can tell you many facts about the Amazon rainforest, but they can't tell you about the last time they went out in the woods." --Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder

Richard Louv begins each of his talks by asking his audience to think of their special childhood places, the places where you first encountered the natural world. For me, an easy task: The woodlots and fields behind my home in northcentral Pennsylvania. These areas--not wilderness, but full of wild creatures and places of adventure--were central to my childhood. Nearly every day, my brother and I explored the hills, caught grasshoppers and crayfish, built dams on streams, tracked deer and just generally rambled about. The first day of deer season was an official school holiday, one that many of us spent months dreaming about. In the winter, the hills were packed with families out for an afternoon of sledding. Most days, an informal game of kick ball could be found, and if not that, then certainly plenty of bike riding.

It all seemed so normal, then. Louv, who spoke last week at the annual Outdoor Writers Association of America conference, knows that many in his audiences had these kinds of experiences. But that is no longer the norm. The fact that kids are no longer spending time outdoors is hardly news, and the signs of it are everywhere. National park visitation is down. Same for state park visitation. Sales of hunting licenses are dropping dramatically. Bike sales? Down 30%. Conservation organizations? Average age of members keeps growing older.

Some consider all this to be nothing more than misplaced nostalgia--with stories like mine corny, cliched, uncool testaments to that fact. Louv disagrees. He sees a direct correlation with the disconnect from the natural world--which he calls "nature deficit disorder"--to the spike in childhood obesity, depression and attention deficit disorder. At a time when enrollment in organized sports is the highest in recorded history, the rates of childhood obesity are also the highest in history. Unorganized, outdoor play is important. But how to restore it?

The reasons are numerous and complex, but Louv is not content in blaming video games, television and the usual suspects. Instead, he believes that "stranger danger" plays a significant role: Parents are adverse to allowing their kids to roam the woods out of fear of abduction. Media reports indicate that this is a real fear, but the reality is that the chance of childhood abduction by strangers is no greater now than in the 1950's. These are individual tragedies, but a child today is still more likely to be killed by falling down the stairs.

The return to unsupervised play, though, is not easy. However, kids can be introduced to the outdoors with parents, and there are new programs to find ways to connect youngsters with the natural world. Perhaps no issue is so important for conservationists today, for if no one cares about open spaces and running waters and frogs, then all our conservation work will have been for naught. Louv's book has become a phenomenon, and it's starting the conversation: Now we just have to make sure there isn't a "last child in the woods."--Matt Miller, blog editor

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