Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv

Mr. Louv's thesis is that depriving children of experiencing nature - whether it be fishing, hunting, building forts in the snow or tree houses, or just laying in a field looking at clouds - is a really bad thing.  It leads to attention deficit disorder, obesity, and a disconnectedness with the environment which will have lasting negative consequences.

The outlook is depressing.   Consider this:  "In the era of test-centric education reform and growing fear of liability, many [school] districts considered recess a waste of potential academic time or too risky.  'Lifers at Leavenworth get more time in the exercise yard.'" [p99]

What's the cause of this problem?   Mr. Louv points to insane litigiousness accompanied by ridiculous legislation in some areas and perhaps more worrisome, that we as a society are willing to tolerate the anti-common-sense nuttiness of some of this.  He points to regions in the US where rules prohibit kids from building tree houses, or playing in the grass.    

Some Girl Scout camps, it seems, don't allow real interaction with nature. "Liability is an increasing concern. 'When I was a kid, you fell down, you got up, so what; you learned to deal with consequences. I broke this arm twice,' says Narayan.  'Today, if a parent sends a kid to you without a scratch, they better come back that way." [p154]

Then there's the over-scheduling issue:  from school to after school study sessions, tennis lessons, soccer practice, perhaps a violin lesson, there's not much time to allow as free form playing in the wild.

Rabid environmentalists are painted as sacrificing human interest to save their favorite salamander, but that's not new news.  (Kids flying kites might get in the way of a bird.)   Just depressing.

We don't spend much energy in society or schools pushing kids toward nature.  We do spend energy on the opposite. "Public education is enamored of, even mesmerized by, what might be called silicon faith: a myopic focus on high technology as salvation. ... The problem with computers isn't computers -- they're just tools; the problem is that overdependance on them displaces other sources of education, from the arts to nature." [p137]

The big issue is probably the "bogeyman syndrome."    Can you let your child just go out and play, without knowing where she is?   What if she gets hurt?    

There are two dimensions to this.  The first is the scare tactic.  "Fear of traffic, of crime, of stranger-danger, and of nature itself." [p123]   As in many things hyped by the media and exploited by those with agendas, statistics, facts and logic tend to be ignored in the world of stranger-danger.   It seems as though about 200 kids are at risk of abduction each year in the US.

The cost of over- vigilance is with the sacrifice of age appropriate, fun and important activity for millions.   "One stranger abduction is too many, but in New York state [sic], only three children were abducted by strangers in 2006." [p127, from a NY State Criminal Justice Services report]   Of abductions in general, "by a wide margin, most of the abductors weren't strangers, but family members or someone the family knew."

Clearly any hurt child is one hurt child too many.   But bad things do and will happen, so it only compounds the pain to save kids from scary things by saving them from life itself.

Consider:  "Teaching kids intelligent caution around strangers is certainly important; how to say 'no' to potential child abusers is essential. But we need to create a balanced view of danger. The damage that has been caused when you have families teaching their kids never to talk to another adult in a society where you desperately need more communication -- what does that do to the kid?"  [p126]

An analogy is dealing with terrorism.   The saying is, if you give in to terrorism then the terrorists win.  Instead you should continue to {fill in the blanks -- fly, go to New York City, shop, sit in a coffee shop even in Haifa, etc.}.

Consider:  "The child psychologist Erik Erikson described the child's need, particularly in middle childhood, to establish a self beyond adult control, and the important role of forts, hideouts, and other special places near the home." [p124]

The second dimension:  nature is scary.  
"So where is the greatest danger? Outdoors, in the woods and fields?  Or on the couch in front of the TV? A blanket wrapped too tightly has its own consequences. One is that we may end up teaching our children, in the same breath, that life is too risky but also not real -- that there is a medical (or if that fails, a legal) remedy for every mistake."
"In 2001, the British Medical Journal announced that it would no longer allow the word 'accident' to appear in its pages, based on the notion that when most bad things happen to good people, such injuries could have been foreseen and avoided, if proper measures had been taken. Such absolutist thinking is not only delusional, but dangerous." [p132]
So should you read this book?   Yes, I believe so.  Even though it is depressing; it feels as though everyone is intent on preventing kids from having a real nature experience:  the litigation model, over-zealous environmentalists, PETA members who dislike fishing, headline -happy media outlets who of course sell more air time with horror stories than with joy, uptight adults who love an excuse to keep kids off the grass, school districts (driven to insanity by educational goals set up by nincompoops in state and federal roles) that are trapped between rocks and hard places.

It seems there's no end to the problem.   So read this book if it will help you become indignant about the topic.   And, there is a section in the back of the book that lists activities for parents and school activists.

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