When I made the quick decision to homeschool Levi for preschool, I began doing what I do best: compulsive research. I looked into different homeschooling blogs, followed different homeschooling moms on Instagram, and began to understand a few of the various styles of homeschooling out there.
One book that kept coming up in my research was Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Many homeschooling moms referred to it while explaining why they placed tremendous importance on having their child outdoors in nature.
This was something I identified with. Two years ago, on a near-perfect autumn day, I took Levi to a local park. It took me a minute to realize that the reason we were the only people there on such a glorious day was because all the other kids were in school. I remember thinking, “How sad it is that children are stuck at a table in a climate-controlled room when they could experiencing a day like this!” That moment stuck with me and became part of my rationale for homeschooling my kids.
In any case, the title of Louv’s text intrigued me, so I placed a request for it from my library, and dove right in.
Last Child in the Woods
Louv’s book is a thoroughly researched piece of rhetoric, arguing for changes that will, as the title states, save our children from what he aptly calls “nature-deficit disorder.” He thoroughly explains the current situation of children and nature (which doesn’t look good, my friends), why kids need nature, and why this generation is so separated from the great outdoors. The second half of his book is a series of evidence-based suggestions for reversing the curse, some of which are big picture (from natural school reform to creating green spaces in cities) and others which are easy to begin implementing immediately.
There is so much to appreciate about this text. Firstly, Louv shows himself to be an active participant in the research. He tells his own stories and explains his interactions with different interviewees. It is clear that he cares. Secondly, he provides a ton of research, which the nerd in me ate up. It was easy for me to catch his passion and want to make a change in my child’s life.
I totally recommend the text, but I also know not all of us have the time to read, so I wanted to share with you some of my take aways.
Our Children’s Generation is Different
You don’t need to read the text to know that our children are growing up in a strange and unfamiliar time. With information being accessible 24/7 (both consciously and subconsciously), screen-time at an all-time high (about thirty hours a week for US kids ages six to eleven), physical and mental health issues on the rise (specifically obesity, attention-deficit disorders, autism, anxiety, and depression), and a society that feeds on fear (both of others and nature), our children are certainly set up for struggle.
This generation, more than any other, is stuck indoors. For many of the adults in our culture, childhood was set outdoors. Whether it be in the woods or in a field, in a vacant lot or on a baseball diamond, cherished memories and life-changing moments happened in nature. Our children, however — in this hyper-vigilant, indoorsy, all-things artificial culture — are estranged from it. This disconnect will only further exasperate the problems they’re already facing.
They’re also ignorant of nature. Though our kids may learn about endangered species or the importance of land conservation in school, they are not experiencing it for themselves. Kids are more likely able to correctly identify ten Pokemon than five trees that grow in their community. Most children don’t know where their food comes from, and many of them are eating stuff that isn’t even real food to begin with. Today’s kid’s don’t have hands-on time alone exploring the great outdoors for themselves, and while parents may believe they’re protecting their children by keeping them safe in a controlled environment, today’s children are less imaginative, autonomous, connected, and healthy than most of their predecessors.
Louv makes the point: our kids are suffering from nature-deficit disorder.
Kids Need Nature
The antidote then, is getting them outside. Get them outside to play freely (organized sports aren’t the same), to explore, to observe, to experience, to learn, to love. Get them outside often, and, when it’s safe, without constant adult supervision.
He had many anecdotes to show the amazing restorative power of nature. He tells the story of a hyperactive child who got kicked out of school, but was soothed by nature. His parents took him to various natural settings to help him, and he became the famous photographer Ansel Adams whose love of nature has turned him into a national icon. There’s the story of a group of delinquent urban youth who were court-mandated to spend time in the wilderness of Alaska among a native people group. These youth came back sober and transformed.
He makes the point, too, that time outdoors isn’t only good for children, but for all of us. For the vast majority of history, humans have lived among nature. We’re designed for it and function best when we are immersed in it.
Time in nature can improve our physical, mental, and spiritual well-being; it increases one’s physical activity, improves our kinesthetic skills, reduces stress and anxiety, declutters the mind, disarms aggression, promotes creativity, provides a safe haven, engages our senses (in the right way), and fosters connection. It reminds us that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. We need nature.
We Must Model a Love of Nature
As parents, it is one thing to look up from our place on the couch, eyes glued to our phone and say, “Go outside and play.” It is a completely different thing to set distractions aside, get out the door, and show our kids how to do it.
Since I’ve read this book, I’ve been living differently. When Levi asked if we could play outside on a rainy day, I took a deep breath, searched for an umbrella, and, as a family, we ventured out into the mess. Together, we took in the sights and smells and sounds of our street in the rain. We watched our kids gleefully drop leaves in the entrance of a drainage pipe, then run a few feet down the street to see if it would find its way out. It was…fun.
I’ve encouraged my kids to play outside more, preferably barefoot, taking it in as much as possible. I’ve had to do more laundry, but I’ve also seen a lot of smiles and heard a lot of keen observations. I’ve been outside more, too.
I’ve also become convicted of my own ignorance. I can’t identify all the trees, birds, or plants that grow in our little community, nor the parts of a bee or the phases of the moon. I’ve mislabeled the animals at the zoo and the birds that come to eat at our bird feeder. I have vowed to become a better student of the world around me. Then, I will be better equipped to help develop a “nature intelligence” in my children.
And I can start in my own backyard. It’s easy for me to look at images of children gallivanting among the Rockies or wading in the tide-pools by the shore and think, “I wish my kids had that backyard.” But nature is nature wherever you go. I’ve been especially impacted by this native American saying which Louv references a few times: “It is better to know one mountain than to climb many.” I want my children to know this “mountain” well, and I do, too.
Perhaps above all, I want to value and appreciate nature. In the text, Louv takes a few pages to address the issue of boredom. He explains that the word “boredom” only came around in the nineteenth century. “In medieval times…if someone displayed the symptoms we now identify as boredom, that person was thought to be committing something called ‘acedia,’ a ‘dangerous form of spiritual alienation’ — a devaluing of the world and its creator” (pg 168). How devastating, to be surrounded by so much beauty and detail and artistry and ingenuity and to become apathetic about it.
I then, must practice wonder and amazement at the world around me. I must walk outside with eyes and heart open to see that which has been ingeniously crafted, and give honor to the One who created it. If I do that, then it’s my prayer that my children will, too.
My favorite poet, Mary Oliver, has been inspiring me for years with her love of nature. Today, I read this poem by her, and it is a perfect representation of how I hope my children see me live. I will end this post with it.
by Mary Oliver
I see or I hear
that more or less
that leaves me
like a needle
in the haystack
It is what I was born for —
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world —
to instruct myself
over and over
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant —
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations.
oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help
but grow wise
with such teachings
as these —
the untrimmable light
of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?