Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv

Solid insights on how Nature Deficit Disorder is damaging kids and adults

This American book is a cogent, well-researched explanation of the many ways that kids benefit from contact with nature, the problems if they don’t, and ways to tackle the problem. Much of it is relevant for adults too.

Louv coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder: this book is a persuasive and upsetting account of a widespread problem.  He cites numerous studies, from the US and Europe: for example, a US study showed that 70% of today’s mothers recall playing outdoors every day as children, but only 26% said their own kids play outdoors daily.  Also the area of outdoors where children play has been hugely constricted: many are only playing in their backyard or school playgrounds. 

Why is this happening?  He observes that many parents convey fear messages about nature, for example ‘stranger danger’.  Many ‘play’ activities of forty years ago – climbing trees, lighting bonfires, may now be seen as dangerous.

And even nature education may be a problem. Louv quotes leading environmentalist Theodore Roszack: “Environmentalists, by and large, are deeply invested in tactics that have worked to their satisfaction over the last 30 years, mainly scaring and shaming people...”  Put another way, it’s easy for environmentalists to see children as part of the threat to nature, not as the potential future guardians of it.

The damaging effects of Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD) can be deduced from numerous studies showing the benefits of contact with nature. A 10-year study in 160 US schools showed that outdoor education had substantial benefits on academic learning and such wider skills as critical thinking, problem solving and decision making, social skills, and also reduced disciplinary issues.  Both children and adults gain a greater sense of wellbeing from time in nature – and even from views of it.

Louv points out that the major growth in problems of nature deficit disorder and obesity among US children have coincided with major growth in the number of kids participating in organised outdoor sports, so one of his key points is that the need is for unstructured experiences, and exposure to wild nature where possible.  He quotes the “loose-parts” theory of play, invented by UK architect Simon Nicholson: “In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.”  Natural settings can potentially be the ultimate loose-parts toy, but this clearly needs children to be free to interact, eg making shelters, digging and planting, playing with mud and water etc.

Louv hopes that a mainstream movement will emerge to promote these ideas.  He is the chairman and co-founder of the Children and Nature Network (www.childrenandnature.org) which aims to promote this. The UK edition of Last Child in the Woods, by Atlantic Books, ends with a Field Guide, which has been specially researched for the UK, including relevant books, organisations, and potential action points for parents, schools, business etc. 

At Hazel Hill, we are exploring all this through a range of programmes for children, including Kids in the Woods, school groups, and Family Conservation weekends. See more at www.hazelhill.org.uk.