My rating: 4 of 5 stars
We are separated from nature and it’s dangerous to our children. So goes the thesis of Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, a critique of our society’s relationship with nature and a guide to how we can reconnect. Louv describes how unstructured play in nature has given way to regimented, supervised, and risk-free activities like organized sports that take place on artificial turf. Free play has become criminalized or outlawed, parents are overprotective and live in fear of the unknown. Louv acknowledges the legitimate reasons why these cultural norms developed, but pushes back on them with evidence of the benefits of quality time spent in nature – and dangers of times spent without. “Permanent disconnection of the young and nature,” he says, “is not inevitable.”
Throughout this well-researched, broad examination, Louv looks at the micro solutions to the child/nature separation as well as the macro societal changes that need to be made. He offers ways to talk about nature to our children or our students, and ways to reimagine the way that cities and towns across the country are designed, engineered and built. Through the lenses of law, religion, school, civil engineering, design, and environmentalism, Louv covers in great detail the depth of the problem – and ways to fix it.
Louv uses a few psychological theories or diagnoses to explain what happens when we remove ourselves from nature. These emotionally resonant examples, such as “nature deficit disorder” or “cultural autism,” help drive home the point that nature is a powerful force in our lives and its impact runs deep into our hearts and minds. Louv also uses beautiful imagery of the natural places in our collective memory, like the edge of the vacant lot, the natural fort under the trees in the cul-de-sac. These descriptions sent me back to thoughts of my childhood and the ways in which I interacted with nature on a daily basis in my suburban yard. I think this is a brilliant part of Louv’s approach: we must reconnect to the value we experienced of nature in order to reprioritize similar value for our children.
In parallel to learning more about the impacts of technology on our lives, I’ve also been learning about systems thinking, and Louv sketches a complete picture of the system which leads to a deficit of nature in our lives. Because he carries out his thesis in so many detailed and varied examples, Last Child in the Woods avoids shaming or blaming any particular group (parents, educators, politicians) for the problem. Instead, the book is solution-oriented – offering folks in any role ways to start small in making a change. I appreciated Louv’s emphasis on practical advice to parents and institutions. While it can be overwhelming to think about global warming or the degradation of natural spaces in our country, I felt settled to think of small, concrete steps I can begin to take, in my classroom and my community. One classroom approach with which I was already familiar was place-based education, especially through the lens of David Sobel. Louv sketches out ideas and examples of how schools around the country are connecting with place rather than through the internet to develop children’s skills and helping them learn endangered knowledge of how the natural world works.
Reading Last Child in the Woods wraps up my study of the case against technology integration in schools. I expected to feel defensive while reading this book, but I actually agree with Louv on his opinion of computers: “The problem with computers isn’t computers – they’re just tools; the problem is that overdependence on them displaces other sources of education, from the arts to nature.” Throughout my study of the case for and against technology integration, I’ve come to firmly stand behind the “both/and.” Computers are both incredible tools for education, and impediments in the way of learning. Interactions with nature are both essential for development and not the only path toward healthy development. This echoes what I believe about teaching as a whole: there is no silver bullet, single strategy or tool that works or doesn’t work for everyone. After my study, I feel optimistic about balancing my passion for educational technology with all that’s valuable about the unconnected world.