Last Child in the Woods....
There's a powerful book out there that parents and anyone who loves not just national parks but forests and wilderness areas and wilderness-quality areas needs to read. It's been out nearly a year, and I wish I had read it as soon as it hit the bookstores.
In his book, "Last Child in the Woods, Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," Richard Louv paints not only a disturbing picture of how we're losing bits and pieces of our natural landscape, but how we're failing our children by not working harder to introduce them to nature.
Mr. Louv points out something that's frighteningly obvious, if we only take a moment to look around.
Through urban sprawl, through the magic and wizardry of the Internet, through computer games, and through fear of many of the neighborhoods we call home, we're spawning generations of kids who don't know what it's like to have warm mud squish up through their toes as they wade in creeks to catch frogs or to hear the gentle whooshing of a forest's canopy under the breath of the wind as they play hide-and-seek.
I grew up in New Jersey back in the 1960s. Even back then, despite the many Jersey jokes, my friends and I had woods to play in, ponds to fish and skate across come winter, and rivers to explore like Huck Finn away from the hot asphalt of roads, sidewalks and parking lots.
Not even Al Gore thought of the Internet back then, and pure joy for a kid was found outside four walls. I thought nothing of hopping on my bike after school and peddling not only to the end of my neighborhood but through the woods to my friends' neighborhood. Scouting was a natural endeavor, one that led us farther from civilization and deeper into the woods and out onto lakes.
That's the way it was. Sadly, as Mr. Louv points out, that's not the way it is.
America's frontier, he writes, "which existed in the family farm, the woods at the end of the road, the national parks, and in our hearts, is itself disappearing or changing beyond recognition." A few pages later he adds that, "In the space of a century, the American experience of nature has gone from direct utilitarianism to romantic attachment to electronic detachment."
Indeed, the advent not only of the Internet but of cell phones, PDAs, MTV, and High Density television programming have nefariously conspired to push nature even farther away from the younger generations.
"Urban children, and many suburban children, have long been isolated from the natural world because of the lack of neighborhood parks, or lack of opportunity -- lack of time and money for parents who might otherwise take them out of the city. But the new technology accelerates the phenonenon," writes Mr. Louv, who then proceeds to quote from Daniel Yankelovich, a public opinion analyst.
"'What I see in America today is an almost religious zeal for the technological approach to every facet of life,' says Daniel Yankelovich, the veteran public opinion analyst. This faith, he says, transcends mere love for new machines. 'It's a value system, a way of thinking, and it can become delusional.'"
The Outdoor Industry Association has surveys that show Mr. Louv knows of what he writes. Within its State of the Industry Report the organization defines "who" is playing outside, and the definition is somewhat troubling.The bulk of the outdoors audience, says OIA, are Baby Boomers, those born from 1946 to 1964, and 'Millennials,' those born between 1978 and 2003, give or take a few years.
What's troubling is that while Baby Boomers "know the thrill of summiting a mountain, the solace of canoeing pristine lakes and the excitement of having new experiences," Millennials are more focused on "action, speed and adrenaline," fixes they get more from a skateboard park, white water park, or bouldering, than from hefting a pack on their backs for a 50-mile backcountry adventure or slipping a canoe into a lake or down a river.
While both groups have non-sedentary lifestyles, which is good to note these days when media point out America's alarming battle with obesity and the dropping by many schools of physical education requirements, as Baby Boomers continue to gray there's a chance the following generations will not share their love for the landscape, and so not be concerned about its stewardship.
"I think that's a real risk," Michelle Barnes told me.
As OIA's vice president for marketing, Ms. Barnes shoulders her industry's concern over not just the results of its surveys but also of the contents of Mr. Louv's book.
"Eighty percent of Millennials live in urban areas, which is a pretty high number," she said. "To actually get to a national park to recreate isn't something that they can necessarily do in a day, unless there's good transportation or access or they have a huge desire. So their recreation might center on what they can do close to home."
That point is driven home in OIA's State of the Industry Report.
"Mastering a kick-flip at the skate park is as satisfying to a Millennial as summiting Mount Rainier might be (or have been) to a Boomer," said Beaver Theodosakis, founder and president of Prana, a manufacturer of climbing wear.
So what are we to make out of this?
"We're seeing obesity and inactivity numbers of youth at rates that have sent a big message to the industry that we need to do something to reserve this trend," said Ms. Barnes. "Outdoor recreation takes a backseat to Nintendo."
Within the outdoor industry, leaders are stepping forward to brainstorm ways to get youth re-connected with nature, she told me, whether that be through mentoring boys and girls clubs or helping provide access to the out-of-doors.
"The step we're in right now is awareness, letting people know there's an issue," Ms. Barnes said.
Too, with the increasing diversification of American society, the industry realizes it has to reach out not just to middle-class Caucasians but also blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Eastern Europeans -- kids of all colors and ethnicities and income brackets.
"We're getting more and more diverse, so we need to make sure that we're creating (access) in a way that's inclusive of all Americans," she said. "I think a lot of people are passionate about this and want to make a difference. It's just a matter of people getting organized and trying to figure out how and when."
People in all walks of life need to get organized. And many are. I recall a visit to Yosemite National Park two summers ago when I encountered a band of inner-city kids who had come to the park for a glimpse of nature. Amazingly, some of those kids, outfitted in tread-bare sneakers and toting half-gallon soda bottles of water, made the long hike to the top of Half Dome. And scouting continues to introduce kids to the outdoors. But, as Mr. Louv's sobering book points out, we need to do so much more.
As for Mr. Louv, well, he's cautiously optimistic for the future of nature and youth.
"Speaking with college students during the research for this book did give me hope," he writes. "When the issue of nature's role in health -- physical, mental and spiritual -- was introduced into the conversation, the tone changed; what often began as a fatalistic, intellectual discussion about the hole in the ozone layer quickly turned personal. Some students approached me to say they had never thought about the fate of the environment in such a personalized, direct way. I sense that these young people, who belong to what could be considered the first 'de-natured' generation, hunger for a greater purpose. Some of these students wrote me later to describe how the conversation with their classmates about children and nature moved them. Even dormant, the seed of nature grows with just a little water.
"Perhaps, as the years go by, these young people will realize their sense of purpose in this cause, and dedicate their career skills to it," he adds. "Not just as a matter of ideology, or even survival, but because they see the potential joy that they and their own children could share someday, as could many of us -- if we act quickly."
Some startling facts: By the 1990s the radius around the home where children were allowed to roam on their own had shrunk to a ninth of what it had been in 1970. Today, average eight-year-olds are better able to identify cartoon characters than native species, such as beetles and oak trees, in their own community. The rate at which doctors prescribe antidepressants to children has doubled in the last five years, and recent studies show that too much computer use spells trouble for the developing mind.
Nature-deficit disorder is not a medical condition; it is a description of the human costs of alienation from nature. This alienation damages children and shapes adults, families, and communities. There are solutions, though, and they're right in our own backyards. Last child in the Woods is the first book to bring together cutting-edge research showing that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development—physical, emotional, and spiritual. What's more, nature is a potent therapy for depression, obesity, and ADD. Environment-based education dramatically improves standardized test scores and grade point averages and develops skills in problem solving, critical thinking, and decision making. Even creativity is stimulated by childhood experiences in nature.
Yet sending kids outside to play is increasingly difficult. Computers, television, and video games compete for their time, of course, but it's also our fears of traffic, strangers, even virus-carrying mosquitoes—fears the media exploit—that keep children indoors. Meanwhile, schools assign more and more homework, and there is less and less access to natural areas.
Parents have the power to ensure that their daughter or son will not be the "last child in the woods," and this book is the first step toward that nature-child reunion.