Whenever I visit my parents in a suburb of Rochester, New York, I pack my binoculars and slip into a black-willow forest behind the 2-acre parking lot of a nearby Jewish temple. I can walk to this forest in 7 minutes from my childhood home. I cross a ditched creek and begin to cast about for a fading trail that leads into a 20-acre cattail marsh.
Growing up, this marsh was our wilderness. It was big enough to be scary, but scary in a good way. This was where we hunted frogs, turtles and snakes, and fell slowly in love with the earth. The persistence of this lovely marsh (which we mistakenly called The Swamp) ìis nothing short of miraculous. Only its un-drainable clay substrate has saved it from the upper-middle-class residential development that now completely encompasses it.
I’m thankful that I can still reconnect with the place that molded me, but going there always makes me sad. In terms of habitat, The Swamp has actually improved; there are far more deer and herons than when I played there 44 years ago. But I would gladly trade the deer for a few grubby kids; in the past 20 years I’ve never seen a youngster in The Swamp, or even any sign of kid activity.
Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv, is an in-depth analysis of this disturbing trend. But it’s more than a lament and warning. The book is also a celebration of the child-nature bond, and a challenge to adults who must defend it. Today’s children are the first generation on earth to be raised without meaningful interaction with nearby nature. Louv points to rapidly accumulating evidence (îboth scientific and anecdotal) that the disconnect is a fundamental cause of growing problems such as childhood obesity, attention disorders and depression.
The book has caused a stir in educational circles and among city planners. From the perspective of Discovery Southeast, Louv’s book provides a welcome validation of our work. Although the importance of the child-nature bond is intuitively obvious to most Discovery members, objective evaluation of the long-term benefits of natural history education and hands-on outdoor experience is very difficult. Last Child presents results of the latest of these studies that collectively are beginning to constitute a mandate for educational and land-use reform.
Obstacles to the child-nature bond are unfortunately many. As with wildlife (and kids are wildlife), habitat-loss is probably chief among these obstacles, at least in the lower 48 states. Vacant lots keep disappearing, and No Trespassing signs are harder to ignore. Another issue that was of little concern to my parents but much in the nightmares of today’s young families is what Louv calls the bogeyman. The media loves child-abduction stories almost as much as mountain-lion attacks, and although the statistical likelihood of either is vanishingly small, perceived risk is keeping kids out of the woods. Yet another obstacle is the “criminalization of natural play. . . As a powerful deterrent to natural play, fear of liability ranks right behind the bogey man.”
Legal obstacles to nature play come from 2 basic sources: the fear of injury to children (and the landowner’s consequent fear of lawyers); and the well-intended restrictions on land use meant to protect natural habitats. One of Louv’s pet peeves to which I can relate is the illegality of tree-houses. His 4-level childhood treehouse (in an oak) sounds strikingly similar to mine (in a willow). As opportunities in nature decline, distractions increase. Malls, electronic games, computers, and heavier school and extracurricular schedules are keeping kids indoors. Louv concludes that, ironically, parents must structure “unstructured time.”
Okay, so the child-nature bond is seriously threatened throughout the lower 48 states. But is this a problem in Southeast? Many of us came here for Alaska’s increased elbow room, lower crime rate, and easy access to nature. In theory, even an urban community like downtown Juneau, or suburban developments like Mendenhall Valley should provide more opportunities for children to connect with nature than anything an unlucky rich kid in Rochester, New York could dream of. And certainly some families have achieved this. But ask any Discovery naturalist what percentage of the students in his/her classes have significant contact with nature. It may vary from school to school, but the average is probably less than half. Louv has identified an ailment of sweeping proportions. The child-nature bond has been breaking down long enough that even the parents of many of our grade-schoolers—few of whom grew up in Alaska—had little childhood experience in the woods. What they never knew, they can’t pass on. Last Child will sadden and inspire you, and provide some of the tools we all need to reconnect people and place.