As a boy growing up on the edge of the Kansas City suburbs, Richard Louv could walk out of the back door of his parents’ house right into a cornfield, and from there into the woods. So he did. A lot. And as a result, he says, half a century later, “I have a place in my heart that I go to. It’s that cornfield, and those woods.”
It’s now five years since Louv published Last Child in the Woods, a huge and unexpected US bestseller that explores what happens, to individuals and society, when kids stop going out into the natural world to play (“nature deficit disorder” he called it — the term has caught on). Great things have happened since, of which more shortly, but Louv’s core question remains the same: will future generations of children have that place to go to?
It’s worth asking. I grew up about a decade later than Louv, in a slightly scruffy village on the outer fringes of London. Like him, I had a field at the bottom of the garden and woods beyond the field, and a stream in the woods. I spent a lot of time in all three, dissecting cowpats, climbing trees, building dens and dams, tormenting sticklebacks, being Will Scarlet or Hawkeye or (if no one was looking) an Ent.
For some reason I relate all this to Louv within three minutes of meeting him (he invites it, I think). He is entirely unsurprised. The thing is, I say, as he nods, that I acquired, without necessarily meaning to, a certain familiarity with — even a knowledge of — the natural world. I could tell a beech from a birch, a jackdaw from a jay, cow parsley from catkins. I became a budding birdwatcher.
And even if my parents sold up and moved away 30 years ago and more, that field and those woods are, in some large and largely unsayable way, a very important part of me. “You owned them,” says Louv, approvingly, a grey-haired and avuncular figure on the sofa.
“It’s that sense of ownership that’s important — ownership of nature. How many children get that now? For this generation, nature is more of an abstraction than a physical reality. Kids today can tell you about the Amazon rainforest, but not about the last time they went into a wood alone. Nature is something to watch from a distance, something to consume. Something very profound has happened in children’s relationship to nature.”
He’s right, of course. I only have to look at my oldest, now nearly 10: his abiding passions are a long way from mine at his age and nature and wildlife, do not currently rank among them. Not for want of trying on my part, I hasten to add; just, well, we live in the city. We don’t have a field at the bottom of the garden and if we did I’m not entirely sure we’d be happy letting him out into it. Plus there’s the TV, the Nintendo, the computer. You know how it is.
It’s a syndrome Louv, a newspaperman and well-regarded columnist for most of his career, first encountered when researching another book in the late 1980s; one that is perhaps best summed up by the words of the anonymous San Diego pre-teen who told him back then: “I like to play indoors better, cos that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” A recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the average eight to 18-year-old American now spends more than 53 hours a week using “entertainment media”, up from 44 hours five years ago.
But it’s not just video games that are responsible. “Video games draw kids inside, but what pushes them inside is their parents’ fear: of traffic, certainly, but also of abduction and abuse — stranger danger. Which is interesting, because in the US at least, the number of abductions by strangers has been falling steadily for the past 20 years. I’m not saying there’s no risk out there — there is, even in nature. But it’s a small risk. And kids need a little risk,” he says.
There are other factors, Louv adds: children’s time is so much more pressured these days. All those improving after-school activities, plus the very modern notion that a kid’s time must be put to constructive use — no room for just hanging out in the woods. Not to mention health and safety.
In short, for a whole range of reasons we no longer let our kids anywhere near the natural world on their own: a 2007 survey by the Children’s Society found that 43 per cent of adult respondents believe children should not be allowed outdoors unsupervised before they are 14. Not for them the joys of den-building or tree-climbing. More children, it seems, are now admitted to British hospitals for injuries incurred falling out of bed than falling out of trees. “Broken bones,” Louv notes, “used to be a rite of passage for children. Now all paediatricians see are cases of obesity and repetitive strain injury.”
Does it matter? It does, says Louv forcefully, and for several reasons: obesity is just the most visible of them, but there’s also an increasing body of research showing that time spent in the natural world has a significant impact on more than physical well-being. “Kids can grow fine up without nature,” says Louv, “but with it, there are marked improvements in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning ability, creativity and mental, psychological and spiritual health.
There’s a Natural Teachers Network, a natural leaders programme aimed at young people and 74 family nature clubs have been founded around the country to help families get out into the wild together. Progress is being made at a more official level, too. Louv is delighted to be delivering the keynote speech at the American Academy of Pediatrics’ upcoming annual conference. Two weeks ago, the head of Portland city parks department in Oregon announced a partnership with the city’s health services: GPs will start formally prescribing “family time” to be spent in a park, the parks department will check they show up, and the health department will study the results.
As the majority of us now live in cities, Louv is becoming more and more involved in the burgeoning debate around “nearby nature” — working to ensure that wherever possible, urban design starts incorporating nature in ways it hasn’t until now; exploring ideas of eco-villages, urban wildlife corridors and, more recently, child corridors; nature trails instead of golf courses; natural regeneration plans for abandoned malls and inner-city wastelands.
— Copyright: Guardian News & Media 2010