Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods has been on my reading list for a long time; I never seemed to get around to it because I felt like I probably already agreed with it in principle so why not skip straight to the ‘what to do about it’ books? I’ve been reading some of those too (more to come in future posts) but over Christmas I finally got my act together – and I was glad I did.
Take this excerpt, in which Louv describes a conversation between a youth from Los Angeles who was sent to spend two weeks with Native Americans in Ketchikan, Alaksa as an alternative to jail time:
“I met a little boy and spent a lot of time with him,” said one of the young women in the room [a youth who had gone on the Alaska trip]…”One day I was outside – this was right before we went into a sweat lodge – and he asked me, ‘Can you touch the sky with a stick?’ I answered, ‘No, I’m too short.’ He looked at me with disgust and said, ‘You’re weak! How do you know you can’t touch the sky with a stick if you don’t even try?'” Recalling the riddle, the young woman’s eyes widened. “This was the first time I’ve ever been spoken to like that by a four-year-old.”
Earlier that morning, Alvin, Carys and I had gone for a walk down to the pier on the river in the town where his family lives. (The holiday weather has been crazy on the East Coast; it was cloudy and muggy the whole time we were there.) It was breezy on the pier and dark grey clouds were scudding quickly past the slightly lighter grey clouds above them. Carys was absolutely fascinated by having the water all around her; she kept pointing and signing ‘water’ and turning a bit and pointing and signing again. She enjoyed standing on the long bench and looking down to the water, and at one point she reached down as if to touch the water. I said “It would be fun to touch the water, wouldn’t it? I don’t think you can reach it, though,” which at the time I thought was a decent blend of encouragement and acknowledgement of reality. Just a few hours later I got home and read the above passage and realized I’d unintentionally shut her down – just acknowledging her desire to touch the water would have been enough. I made a mental note to myself that next time I should just observe, and let her experience for herself whether or not she can do a thing.
I skimmed quickly through the first quarter of Louv’s book, which goes through a predictable summary of the effects of the lack of nature on childhood: increased amounts of ‘plugged in’ time, rising levels of childhood obesity, and the link between a withdrawal from nature and increasing ADD diagnoses. Pretty much what I was expecting, and while it was probably ‘new news’ when it was originally published, there are now no surprises here.
Things start to get more interesting in Chapter 6, where Louv provides a list of descriptors for children with the ‘eighth intelligence‘ of ‘nature smart’ from Professor Leslie Owen Wilson at the University of Wisconsin. I thought a bit about how these descriptors apply (or not) to Carys at the moment; she’s too young for several of them but quite a few of the 10 descriptors are applicable even at 18 months:
2. Readily use heightened sensory skills to notice and categorize things from the natural world (Carys is very observant of natural things that are important to her – at the moment this includes a lot of berries that are out in our neighborhood, but also the moon – if it’s up when we’re hiking, she’ll see it.)
3. Like to be outside, or like outside activities like gardening, nature walks, or field trips geared toward observing nature or natural phenomena (Definitely a yes on this one. At the end of the day she runs to the hiking pack and says ‘ba-pa!’, and always likes to get in it to go for a hike. She has increasingly been ignoring the equipment at playgrounds in favor of running around on the grass or investigating trees or roots or bushes.)
4. Easily notice patterns from their surroundings – likes, differences, similarities, anomalies (She spots things that ‘don’t quite fit,’ including an odd bush along our regular hiking route that has big pods growing on it, and she can spot a tree with moss on its bark – which she loves to stroke, especially after rain – at 100 yards.)
5. Are interested in and care about animals or plants (Definitely interested in both, and is actually rather more gentle with animals than I would think is normal for a kid her age. A bit less gentle with plants, and is quite willing to pick flowers and berries just to hand them to me.
6. Notice things in the environment others often miss (For sure; I wrote about this already a few weeks ago)
One of the aspects we will most struggle with will be the ability to provide Carys with unstructured play time in outdoor settings where she’s really free to do whatever she likes. We will likely end up providing components of this in a variety of ways, including:
- Giving the opportunity for lots of unstructured play time at home, including outside – but our garden is small and while I’m hoping to include an area for her to dig and play in our forthcoming garden renovation the majority of the space won’t be available for open play;
- Providing natural materials as play equipment at home, including sticks, pine cones, leaves, dead tips of redwood trees collected from the ground…
- We will continue hiking, but time in our local parks will be necessarily supervised for at least the next few years due to a lack of proximity;
- Even when she’s old enough to go to parks alone she won’t be able to really do whatever she likes in these protected areas, but luckily we have the Berkeley Adventure Playground for that when she’s a little bit older;
- Modeling the importance of making things for yourself by spending time doing arts and crafts at home, using a variety of tools and equipment, and encouraging her to make things she’s interested in owning and learning about rather than buying them.
Louv makes out that our excessively litigious society that restricts kids’ ability to build things like tree houses in public places, but in reality I think there just aren’t enough trees for everyone to be able to do this. He lists out the things he probably learned when building tree houses as a kid, some of which are:
- Common sizes of lumber, plywood, studs, and nail sizes, and how they fit together
- That bracing stiffens the structure and is needed especially at corners, under floors, and around windows
- The difference between screws and nails
- That sloped surfaces shed rain
- How to cut safely
- How to measure and use three-dimensional geometry
- How the size of one’s body relates to the world: the length of arms and legs to the diameter of the tree trunk; his height to the tree height; his legs to the spacing of the ladder rungs; his reach to the spacing of the tree branches; his girth to the size of the trap door; the height from which he could safely jump…
Quite an impressive list for an activity that a lot of parents today might not consider valuable (unstructured, unsupervised outdoor play time). Indeed, according to Stephen Kellert, professor emeritus of social ecology at Yale notes that “experience in the surrounding home territory, especially in nearby nature, helps shape children’s cognitive maturation, including the developed abilities of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.” So TV “has lasting negative effects on children’s language development, reading skills, and short term memory” while nature supports brain development. Sounds like a win-win to me.
When I am tempted to schedule activities for Carys (play gym, playdate, whatever), I remind myself of a mother whom Louv quotes:
“When I think of my own childhood, I particularly remember those special times when I was climbing my tree, or playing pirates in the wash behind my house, or sliding down the wash sides on a piece of cardboard. But I realize now, after talking with my mother – who said she scheduled a lot of my childhood… – that the free time in the wash may not have actually occupied that many hours of my childhood. But those are the hours and moments I remember absolutely vividly. Even with my own children, I am often amazed how some activity that I have carefully planned pales in their long-term memories compared to another activity that was completely spontaneous and hardly memorable to me. As adults, we can plan a million things to take up our kids’ time in a meaningful way, but what really clicks into their inner being is beyond our control. Sometimes I wonder why we think we need so much control.”
It seems that time spent on unstructured activities is maybe even more important than all of the educational and socialization opportunities that we try to schedule into our kids’ lives.
As children get older their distance from nature tends to increase as their unstructured play time decreases, a trend not helped by the anatomy of the modern classroom, which has very few (or no) natural elements. Children learn about nature through books, “in a dry, mechanized way. How does the bat sonar work, how does a tree grow, how do soil amenities help crops grow? Kids see nature as a lab experiment.” Perhaps this is connected to research I read recently (can’t remember the source now, darn it!) which found that kids today have a better understanding of global environmental problems (deforestation, climate change) than of nature in their own back yards.
Instead we could use nature to draw out our children’s intrinsic creativity and ‘teach’ them important concepts at the same time – much as Louv learned math in building tree houses, we could use nature to teach about art, the sciences, and the web of life that supports us all. But as Deborah Churchman wrote in the journal American Forests (cited by Louv):
“Your job isn’t to hit them with another Fine Educational Opportunity, but to turn them on to what a neat world we live in…take [kids] down to the creek to skip rocks – then snow them what was hiding under those rocks. Take a walk after the rain and count worms. Turn on the porch light and watch the insects gather.”
This approach generates an endless series of questions – why don’t the rocks just sink? Why are the worms above ground? Why are insects drawn to lights? – that can provide fodder for children to chart their own curriculum, following their interests and using tools (like math!) to do research on topics they really want to understand. At the same time, it instills a connection to a place, and between Carys and her caregivers who discover nature alongside her.
The involvement of caregivers is, I think, an under-developed theme in the book. It appears as though many of the objectives related to exposing kids to nature could be achieved by enrolling them in a nature-based educational experience (where available). For me, the co-discovery is just as powerful an experience as what is actually discovered. I love to hike alone and be quiet with my thoughts, but just as much I love to hike with Carys and discover new things with her, even if what is discovered is as simple as a “fwuffuh” (fluffy) stem of Fountain Grass, and I think our relationship is better for the time we spend learning and experiencing new things together.
While we may not be able to exactly replicate the childhood experience of Louv and his peers for Carys, my hope is that we can cobble together the important elements of it in different ways to provide her with some of the same understanding, knowledge, and appreciation for the natural world, and deepen our relationships with her at the same time.