“In nature, a child finds freedom, fantasy, and privacy: a place distant from the adult world, a separate peace.” Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder (7)
In Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder journalist and child activist Richard Louv defends his argument about the need to reconnect children with nature with the assertion that “nature gives itself to children – for its own sake, not as a reflection of a culture. At this level, inexplicable nature provokes humility,” (9). Amassing a veritable barrage of pedagogical, sociological and medical research, Louv argues that we are losing touch with our environment, more particularly, the “natural” world. Louv argues that this trend is particularly alarming for children raised in the modern world of the internet, wireless technologies and other forms of rapid and instantly gratifying consumption. Louv argues that reduced time playing “in the wild” has resulted in what he calls “nature deficit disorder”:
Nature deficit disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses. The disorder can be detected in individuals, families, and communities. Nature deficit can even change human behavior in cities, which could ultimately affect their design, since long-standing studies show a relationship between the absence, or inaccessibility, of parks and open space with high crime rates, depression, and other urban maladies. (34)
Pointing to an overly-regulated culture that treats uncontrolled nature as a “bogeyman”, Louv argues that modern life coddles children instead of allowing them the freedom of unstructured play. His message has caught on with a number of children’s and environmental protection associations. New alliances, which seek to connect and protect increasingly sacred conceptions of “nature” and childhood, openly cite Louv as inspiration. In Canada, for instance, the recently formed Child and Nature Alliance – which is affiliated with the Louv-inspired Children and Nature Network – is teaming up with provincial and municipal governments, conservation groups, education experts and environmental activists with the goal of connecting “Canada’s children and families with nature and the outdoors in the settings where they live, play, learn and work.”
These are laudable goals, but this revival of sorts of the “back to nature” urge and a connection to fears about wasted youth certainly should give us cause for some deeper questioning about what sort of embedded biases, exclusions and constructed sense of “nature” and “childhood” are included in this impulse. Aside from the medicalized label of “nature deficit disorder”, Louv’s prognosis of the problem could easily be credited to a number of nature and children’s activists since the mid-nineteenth century. The idea of “nature” in its various constructed forms – be it in a conservation area, national park, summer camp, urban park, arboretum or what have you – as solution to “modern” ills in Canada goes deep into our past. Canadian historians such as Patricia Jasen (in Wild Things: Nature, Culture, and Tourism in Ontario, 1790-1914), Tina Loo (in States of Nature: Conserving Canada’s Wildlife in the Twentieth Century) and Sharon Wall (in The Nurture of Nature: Childhood, Antimodernism, and Ontario Summer Camps, 1920-1955) have all tapped into wider historiographical currents to problematize and historicize Canadians’ complex relationships with “nature” and its supposed curative powers. Loo, for instance, considers the “shifting and conflicting attitudes toward the natural world” (4) in her study of the conservation movement in Canada, which reveals a “normative project of social, economic, and political change”(6). Wall, meanwhile, focuses on the blend of antimodernist sentiment and modern “progressive” education in the rise of the Ontario summer camp to reveal the myriad ways in which normative forces around class, gender, race and sexuality could be reinforced or challenged in the constructed “natural” space of camp. The concern over the negative effects of city life thus meshed with similar concerns about future leaders and citizens; somehow the “bad” effects of the city needed to be attenuated by nature’s classroom in order to ensure a healthy and vibrant future for Canada.
Sound familiar? To those who have read Louv, it should. Indeed, his arguments about our overly-regulated society seem, at first glance, to clash with his highly medicalized argument about “nature deficit disorder” and the therapeutic benefits of just having fun in the woods. When placed in the context of other children’s and nature activists who have consistently blended often highly emotive arguments about nature with scientific expertise, Louv’s arguments certainly seem to be part of a longer historical pattern. I am not seeking to downplay the urgency of dealing with some of the issues Louv, and others, have identified as challenging modern youth, nor those who believe that we need to work to establish more awareness about our connections to our environment. I do, however, hope that, in our quest to solve seemingly “modern” issues such as declining levels of physical activity, urban intensification, loss of knowledge/experience of the “natural” world, we continue to question and investigate the complexity and potential pitfalls of the seemingly “natural” assumption upon which our prescriptions to “cure” what ails our kids are based.