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Last Child in the Woods

The tame generation: Do today's children hear the call of the wild?

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Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder
By Richard Louv
Algonquin Books, 390 pp.

My mother had a remarkably effective way of encouraging her kids to experience the great outdoors. If we were cooped up in the house too long, our bickering, roughhousing and whining would reach critical levels and trigger a moment of highly persuasive parental guidance: Pitching her voice at about 130 decibels, just below the threshold of permanent hearing damage, she would shriek, "GO OUTSIDE!"

We got the message. Today, with the great profusion of indoor entertainment devices at their fingertips, too many children don't. The Audubon medal-winning writer Richard Louv, a former columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune, has just released an updated version of his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder to address the problem and to create a movement of sorts to set it right.

In the first 200 pages, Louv sets out to prove that: 1) kids need to get out more, and 2) they need to spend more time in the woods. He name-checks a great many currently fashionable social criticisms, from standard-issue environmentalism to our society's over-litigiousness, over-reliance on pharmaceuticals, overprotective parenting and underperforming school systems. Throw in more of the usual suspects like suburban sprawl, childhood obesity, hilltop removal, bioengineering and Internet addiction, and there's hardly a social ill that escapes indictment. Louv is precisely correct in his arguments and entirely convincing, but if you've been keeping up with the news you've heard it all before.

To many people, the fact that kids need fresh air is plain common sense. But, as Louv points out, when installing backseat TV screens in cars is considered acceptable parenting, further argument may be needed. In making his case, however, Louv never strays from the well-trod paths of the prevailing liberal consensus; the only hint of a controversial opinion comes when he second-guesses his love of fishing in light of animal rights activists' opposition. There's a tedious sameness to his prose, too: fact, reflection, anecdote; fact, reflection, anecdote. The many asides in which adults reminisce about carefree childhoods spent at the creek, or up a tree, or on the farm, begin to sound interchangeable.

Things get more interesting as Louv shifts from defining the problem to finding solutions. First, he argues, schools should put nature studies on the curriculum and get kids outdoors—or, at the very least, bring back recess. On a more fundamental level, he describes two promising new trends in city planning that stand to bring kids and nature into closer contact: one, which he calls "zoopolis," involves incorporating wild (or at least green) land into urban spaces through "green roofs," urban gardening, greenways, stream corridors, and the preservation and expansion of open space; the other, which he calls "green towns in the countryside," has much in common with the New Urbanism movement and foresees the creation of small, bounded communities (to prevent sprawl) set within buffer zones of wild land and coexisting with small farms nearby.

These ideas have been elucidated in greater depth and detail elsewhere; here, they simply join a long chain of cursory observations—which brings up the main problem with Last Child: It's not so much a book as a movement trapped in a book's body. The mélange of perspectives Louv brings to bear reflects the confluence of many social currents that have been gaining momentum for some time. If Louv hadn't written this book, someone else would have.

This is not to minimize Louv's contribution to the changing zeitgeist; he has written other books bearing titles that reflect similar interests. This latest effort is his seventh, and it seems to have struck a particularly strong chord. Louv is currently on the lecture circuit, giving more than 250 speeches a year on the subject of bringing children back to nature. Since the first edition of Last Child was published in 2005, he founded the Children & Nature Network to spearhead the campaign to "Leave no child inside." To persuade readers that the change he envisions is within reach, he refers to the great success of the anti-pollution and anti-smoking crusades:

Those of us who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s remember a time when people thought little of tossing an empty soda can or a cigarette butt out a car window. Such habits are now the exception. The recycling and anti-smoking campaigns are perhaps the best example of how social and political pressure can work hand in hand to effect societal change in just one generation.

The new, expanded edition of Last Child reflects the author's move from theory to action, with a postscript that updates readers on the movement's progress and lists "100 Actions We Can Take." Despite its flaws, the book's accumulated weight of evidence adds up to a very effective call to arms; I suggest readers start by doing as I did and take the advice of Action #36: "Read outside."

Richard Louv will make a presentation Saturday, April 19, at North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, as part of its "Planet Earth Celebration" program that runs 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Visit www.naturalsciences.org/calendar/events.html.

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