Thursday, September 29, 2011


Richard Louv begins the final section of his book, Last Child in the Woods, with a question posed by his then four-year-old son, Matthew, "Are God and Mother Nature married, or just good friends?" Later, Louv and his son share this question with Fred Rogers whose reply includes this request to Matthew, "Will you let me know, as time goes by, what answer you find to your question?"

The relationship between God and nature guides only a portion of this interesting and carefully-researched book, but it is the final portion. It wraps up the story Louv weaves with perhaps the most effective argument favoring reconnecting children with nature, and that is to strengthen their spirituality. The argument leans towards no particular denomination or church, rather towards a spirituality rooted in the amazement that overcomes one in the face of an incredibly large, steep, and jagged mountain, the reflection of tree-covered hillsides, blue skies, and white clouds in the smooth surface of a mountain lake, the arching flight of a hawk overhead, or the cautious steps of a suddenly alert deer on the trail ahead.

Louv's telling of this exchange between his young son and Mister Rogers ends in the same manner the book proceeds, with respect for the question and the child asking it, with compelling interest in how the answer comes out. I know it will take some time, but please let me know the answer you find.

Although Louv clearly makes the case for the importance of nature in the growth and education of children, he does it gently, with openness to ultimate alternatives. Yes, he cites many examples, many research studies to support his contention that connections to the natural world help children learn science and math and language, cope with danger as well as with difficulties, appreciate the unknown, and even come to know God. But he entertains as much uncertainty in exactly how exposure to nature does these things, and how we might improve the connection down the road, as he acknowledges in dealing with his son's question about God and Mother Nature.

Although Louv has two sons, it is his younger son Matthew who opens both the book and its last section. This time the question has to do with Louv's oft-repeated recollections of playing outdoors during his own childhood, something Matthew felt he had missed out on growing up in the last decades of the 20th century, so Matthew asked how come it was more fun when his father was growing up. With this opening, Louv describes in disturbing detail the many obstacles preventing our children from experiencing nature with the same ease and wonder enjoyed by earlier generations.

Whether it's homeowner association rules prohibiting treehouses, forts, or any free, unsupervised play in open areas, the replacement of unstructured woods and vacant lots with ball fields used only for structured games, or the fearful restrictions placed by worried parents on how far afield their young offspring may go, there is little doubt of the differences kids experience growing up today compared to 40 or 50 or more years ago.

How many 5th-graders today ride their bikes several miles along major roads on their way to school? I asked my mother recently if she worried about me on those days in suburban Baltimore when she let me take a big spin towards independence. She recalled a strong fear for my safety, but she still let me ride. Of course the world was different then, recall there were no bike helmets or even seat belts!

And in the list of obstacles to kids enjoying the outdoors, did I mention the seductive draw of electronic gadgets yet? Richard Louv certainly mentions them! Couch potato may have been invented to refer to middle-aged men watching football on Sunday afternoons, but the term has been usurped by today's boys (and girls?) playing computer games and texting back and forth. I put girls in parentheses as our three daughters never owned a Playstation or similar electronic gaming device during their entire childhood - a part of "family life" we missed?

Louv highlights research documenting these things that remove kids from nature, but he also goes on to highlight as well the costs of that separation. He acknowledges nature-deficit disorder is not a formally recognized illness, but nonetheless reports many problems that may arise when children grow up with little to no exposure to the natural world of trees, dirt, creeks, bugs, mud, frogs, hills, and ponds.

But Richard also explores how we may return, not to the good old days, but to an exciting new future where parents and children have the opportunity to share an
easy, hand-dirtying, imagination-filled examination of a hillside of bare soil, a flowing creek, a climb-able tree, a trail of ants, or the capture of a frog by a snake! Louv does not spell out exactly how this will or must happen. Instead he shares an array of examples where that future has already begun to happen, and examines and discusses a variety of projects, programs, even movements, that could lead us further in this direction.

To paraphrase an apt question asked by one of my daughters at age four, but did we wanted to go there? Having spent a portion of my time reading this book gazing at high mountain ridges and walking alongside cool alpine lakes with mule deer and ravens, and once or twice passing by a class of adventurous ninth-grade students camping out and hiking in the woods, I know the answer I would give. But the more difficult question is how do we get there, to this new future.

Although Richard Louv does not have all the answers, he's posed important questions, and supported well his contention that most of our kids need and would benefit from more time spent in nature. He has also described a many-branched set of pathways to that hoped-for nature-filled future. And he's reminded us that to be human is to be constantly and repeatedly and deeply amazed, at a mountain, a tree, a waterfalls, a hummingbird, a sandy beach, a child.

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