If you go out to the woods today….From the “rest cure in a canoe” to “nature deficit disorder”

“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)

Source Glenbow Archives NA -4487-12

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.

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5 thoughts on “If you go out to the woods today….From the “rest cure in a canoe” to “nature deficit disorder”

  1. Lisa Rumiel

    After reading this, I’m unclear about what you want us to be critical of? You think it’s bad that he medicalizes the problem? What are the biases you want us to interrogate? I’m seriously interested.

  2. Jamie Trepanier

    My concern, pehaps not stated forcefully enough (as I agree with much of what Louv has to say about the benefits of more time spent outside), is that activists such as Louv see “nature” as too much of a panacea for modern life, and do not problematize its own constructed nature. It is as if “nature” in this sense exists outside any power structures related to class, gender or race. If we really want to reengage our youth with the natural environment these are issues that need to be addressed. His label of a “deficit disorder” ties well into the tendency to medicalize what is, at its core, an antimodernist critique. The “how” of my challenge is something I am still grappling with.

  3. Jim Clifford

    I’ve not read Louv, but I have heard David Suzuki use his arguments a number of time on the radio. I think I share Jamies discomfort, as I agree with the general idea that kids benefit from spending time in the woods or canoeing on lakes, but I’m very uncomfortable with the simplistic representations of nature as a force of good and urban-culture as a force of destruction. It seems to have a lot of the same ahistorical assumptions as another trope used by Suzuki (and James Cameron): the ecological Indian. Raising concerns about cultural and physical degeneration of our urban civilization and presenting a simplistic cure – a timeless ecological and spiritual balance between humans and nature in aboriginal societies – might be a powerful rhetorical argument to target some segments of our society, but it does not provide much of a pathway towards a sustainable and resilient future.

  4. Lisa Rumiel

    WRT medicalization: we can see why they do that, though, right? Science holds enormous power in our society, so if he can make the case that there is a public health crisis caused by our way of living and he can name it, he has potential power to shape policy. Which is what lots of these folks are trying to do: they want to increase the amount of time kids spend outside during school; they want kids to be outdoors in all kinds of weather; they want playgrounds to be reconceptualized to incorporate “nature” and to be cognizant of environmental footprints; and on and on and on. Sure, it’s an anti-modernist critique, but it is also related to public health, mental health, cognitive development, and so on. I too find it irritating that it’s not enough to point to health concerns…we must give it a name. Did you know there’s such a thing as traveler’s diarrhea!?!? Ridiculous!

    I haven’t read his book, so I’m still not sure what you mean by problematizing nature and how constructed it is. From what I know about Active Kid Clubs and such, it doesn’t strike me as a problem, though. By nature, they just mean going outside, ideally finding a patch of green, but just having kids do unstructured free play outside the home. i.e. we aren’t doing our kids any favours by scheduling every minute of their day with piano, soccer, tutors, ballet, and on and on and on. Are you talking about the accessibility of wilderness spaces across class and racial lines? ‘Cause that’s a problem. One thing that irritates me about these get outside groups is that they mythologize the virtues of communing with nature with your kids during times that are often filled with stress and anxiety related to getting your kid to school on time or getting to work. A lot of them are run by yuppie/hippie folks (forgive me yuppie/hippies!) with a stay at home parent, which is great, but isn’t really realistic for the rest of us and certainly not for people who are struggling to make ends meet.

    Anywho, I blabber and should get to work.

  5. Joffre Williams

    You’ve done well to focus on how difficult it is to accept one of the central assumptions of Louv’s prescription; that is, in order to access “a place distant from the adult world, a separate peace,” a child must first pass through a funnel of of medical and sociological research that diagnoses that child as deficient. It’s hard to see how even a well-intentioned organisation such as Active Kids can provide a child with an experience in “nature” that is relatively free of normative socio-cultural forces, when a specious diagnosis is taken as the starting point. To argue, as Louv does, that nature has the power to ‘cure’ attributes a spiritual dimension to nature that fits to easily into a binary opposition of good-nature,outside/bad-urban,inside. That asks too much of a collection of streams/trees/dirt. Perhaps nature has some capacity to change undesirable social behaviours like criminal activity or affect illnesses like depression. If so, it’s best that as much care be taken to not burden an introduction to the outdoors with the another layer of disturbing normative bias – i.e. teaching a child that the experience is a necessary step towards the kind of wonderful life that could not be lived within a supposedly stagnant and corrupted urban space .

    Jim, congratulations on your successful defense

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