Richard Louv's book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, brought the need to reconnect children with nature to the forefront of childhood issues. The book describes the current status of children and nature play, noting the growing divide between the two. In coining the layman's phrase “nature-deficit disorder,” Richard has assisted in naming the problem and its consequences, and identifying solutions.
First published by Algonquin in 2005 and updated and expanded in 2008, Last Child in the Woods has since been translated into ten languages and published in fifteen countries. The book has sparked an international dialogue about the declining relationship between children and nature.1
Richard declares that “nature-deficit disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses. The disorder can be detected in individuals, families, and communities.”2
Stress reduction, learning, and creativity are some of the benefits of nature time. Playing in natural settings is how children work through the issues that face them. As Dr. Robin Moore states, “Children live through their senses. Sensory experiences link the child's exterior world with their interior, hidden, affective world.”3
Nature play also rejuvenates after an overload of directed-attention activities. Symptoms of this “directed-attention fatigue” include impulsive behaviors, agitation, irritation, and the inability to concentrate. Richard sites the research of Stephen and Rachel Kaplan which shows that the involuntary attention in nature play relieves the direct-attention fatigue of traditional learning and working.4
In conclusion of the benefits of nature, Richard theorizes that “To take nature and natural play away from children may be tantamount to withholding oxygen.”5 Or as others have said, “We can now assume that just as children need good nutrition and adequate sleep, they may very well need contact with nature.”6
Richard postulates that the American society is now in its third frontier. The first frontier was when the continuous expanse of undeveloped land was directly utilized through homesteading and westward expansion. This was followed by the romanticized concept of nature, where the open lands were celebrated and enjoyed through recreation. “If the first frontier was explored by the acquisitive Lewis and Clark, the second frontier was romanticized by Teddy Roosevelt.”7
The third frontier is characterized by an urban disconnect with a direct experience with nature. Richard identifies five trends in this current frontier: a lack of awareness of where food comes from, the blurring of the line between men and the nature world, an intellectual understanding of the natural world, the increase of wildlife in urban settings, and the creation of a new kind of suburbia.8 He illustrates how these five trends create a nature deficit which harms the American society as a whole and the rising generation of children in specific.
Characterizing the third frontier as a “rapid slide from the real to the virtual, from the mountain to the Matrix,”9 Richard notes the factors that have brought these conditions: time pressures, safety concerns, litigation fears, education trends that rely solely on direct attention methods, society's growing obsession with order, and the commercialization of playgrounds.10
The balance of Last Child in the Woods is concerned with solutions to the nature-deficit problem beginning with the home. Richard invites parents to view nature as an antidote. “Stress reduction, greater physical health, a deeper sense of spirit, more creativity, a sense of play, even a safer life – these are the rewards that await a family when it invites more nature into children's lives.”11
Solutions for children's safety issues are explored and then concluded with Richard's theory, “To increase your child's safety, encourage more time outdoors, in nature. Natural play strengthens children's self-confidence and arouses their senses – their awareness of the world and all that moves in it, seen and unseen.”12
Environmental education solutions are outlined, including the successes of the Finnish educational system which places first in the world for literacy and in the top five for both math and science. Their system incorporates regularly the power of play, especially in natural settings. They believe that “The core of learning is not in the information...being predigested from the outside, but in the interaction between a child and the environment.”13
Richard concludes that the best education isn't one of incarceration, but rather one that is “a portal to a wider world.”14 He envisions each school or child care facility being connected to wildlife preserves and natural play spaces. He sees a world where the nature deficit is replaced with nature abundance, even within urban environments.
With this vision, Richard challenges society to open a fourth frontier, one that will bring people back to a daily direct communion with nature through the creation of “Green Towns.”15 He sees people living on their own land in small communities that are technologically connected and largely self-sufficient. Richard believes that “unless we change cultural patterns and the built environment, the nature gap will continue to widen.”16
Richard is a journalist and author of seven other books about the connections between family, nature, and community. He is the founding chairman of the Children & Nature Network, an organization which helps build the movement to connect children to the natural world. Richard has received many awards for his advocacy including the Audubon Medal awarded in 2008.17
- 1. “About Richard Louv.” Richard Louv. < http://richardlouv.com/about/ > 28 July 2011.
- 2. Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hills, 2008. p. 36.
- 3. Op.cit., Louv. p. 66.
- 4. Op.cit., Louv. pp. 103-104.
- 5. Op.cit., Louv. p. 109.
- 6. Op.cit., Louv. p. 3.
- 7. Op.cit., Louv. p. 18.
- 8. Op.cit., Louv. pp. 19-26.
- 9. Op.cit., Louv. p. 4.
- 10. Op.cit., Louv. pp. 18, 115-116.
- 11. Op.cit., Louv. p. 163.
- 12. Op.cit., Louv. p. 186.
- 13. Op.cit., Louv. pp. 204-205.
- 14. Op.cit., Louv. p. 226.
- 15. Op.cit., Louv. p. 272.
- 16. Op.cit., Louv. p. 286.
- 17. Op. cit., “About Richard Louv.”