"I like to play indoors better Ė Ďcause thatís where all the electrical outlets are."Anonymous fourth-grader.
Iíve read Richard Louvís Last Child In The Woods and already Iím fighting mad.
Louv makes a case for a condition he has unofficially coined "nature deficit disorder" and argues Ė quite convincingly Ė that not only are children these days suffering from too much time indoors and not enough out, but weíre also causing it to happen.
Certainly, itís a different world we live in, and it changes, becomes more complex, every day. But Louv convinces that during the course of that change, we somehow have shooed our kids indoors, whereas we ourselves were shooed outdoors.
You all remember that, donít you? You left after breakfast on your bike, skateboard or hoofed it, and you didnít come home until lunch, if then, otherwise it was dark-thirty. You parents made sure you were outside, not because they thought you were receiving some grand education in biodiversity or even that you would receive some calming balance to your psyche. They just wanted you out from underfoot!
But somewhere along the line, us same kids that spent the evenings after school, the weekends and all of summer vacation nosing around in vacant lots, poking through rotten logs for grubs, pitching stones in water, making tree houses, swimming in the crick or just lying in a field of grass finding shapes in cloudsÖweíre keeping our kids in the house, arming them with video game controllers and countless unhealthy snacks.
Louv makes the argument that weíve scared ourselves into this sin, and in the process, weíve scared our kids into it, too.
Well, youíre thinking, what parent in their right mind would send their kids off to play in the woods, the cane fields backa the reservation, that empty acre-sized lot down the street?
Mine did. Iím betting yours did, too.
So what changed? Lots of things. We got the tarnation scared out of us, mainly. Certainly many kids hunt and fish today and some still are booted out the front door to "Go play!" but the fact remains, a huge percentage of our generation got scared senseless. Charlie Manson. Tylenol killer. The pervs in white vans. Vicious dogs. You name it.
But Louv posits a cause not only derived from a gnawing fear of the out-of-doors, but an outlawing of it, too.
I was coming out of lunch at the hospital the other day with my Banner cohorts and, without really thinking about it, I stepped off the sidewalk to the grass. I always prefer to walk on grass than concrete, itís easier on the feet and just feels better.
You coulda sworn I had slapped my mama the way some of them reacted. I said something arrogant, as is my way, like, "Hey, my taxes paid for this grass!" but the truth of the matter is "Keep Off The Grass" has transformed from something you sometimes saw on signage 25 years ago to something you just do now. We gravitate to the sidewalk, follow the concrete, and avoid the grass like the forbidden zone in Loganís Run.
In parks, kids canít climb trees for fear theyíll fall and break a leg, and the officialdom will get sued. "No Trespassing" has become a mantra, not a warning. In fact, the "No Trespassing" signs are vanishing too, because the forbidden zones are becoming the norm, not the exception.
Kids are told to not get dirty; donít touch that, itís unclean and you might get sick; stay out of the mud; donít ruin your good clothes; donít be so loud, the neighbors will complain; stay behind the house and donít leave the sidewalk; no, you canít go over there, we donít know who those people are; stay away from the water, you might fall in and drown; donít climb, youíll break your neck; leave that alone, youíll put your eye out.
And itís no wonder theyíve retreated to the indoors, the safety of a set of controllers and a video game just to get away from the nagging. To them, we must sound like the adults in the Charlie Brown cartoons.
Furthermore, Louv says, children have come to view nature as something "outside" themselves. Your basic kid has no idea where milk comes from except some arbitrary declaration "from a cow" which is what parents spout off as they rush to work or to shuffle the kids off to schools without windows in the classrooms. Zoning laws prevent kids from building tree houses in some areas of the country; there are schools with "No Running" signs on the playgrounds for fear of being sued. Insanity!
"On the first day of the book tour, a woman told me that her community association had just outlawed chalk drawing on sidewalks Ė which, you know, does lead to cocaine use," Louv said in an interview.
Louv didnít come up with this out of thin air. He interviewed thousands of adults and thousands more children for the book over ten years. Nature, he believes, has become something "out there" that they know exists, are aware of and that at some level they should fear, revere, conserve, consume, protect because theyíve heard about it in the classroom, on the television and in politically-correct bedtime stories. Yet they have no connection to it whatsoever.
He describes a group of hard-core ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, kids taking Ritalin just to get by day-to-day in the world. They were taken off their meds, allowed to get at their absolute worst in distraction and behavior, then taken to a nature preserve.
During the entire time in the preserve, not a one showed a single sign of ADHD. Not a single one, not a single sympton.
"You watch CNN or Fox or MSNBC and they take a handful of really terrible crimes against children and repeat them over and over and over again," Louve relates. "When they get done telling us about the crime, they tell us about the trial over and over and over again. Itís no accident people think thereís a bogeyman on every corner. Weíre literally being conditioned to live in a state of fear, and this predates 9/11.
"The future's in electronics. The bogeyman lives in the woods. Playing outdoors is illicit and maybe even illegal."
While walking Bogie in a field out away from the beaten path the other day, sweating in the sun, I was wishing for a shade tree something awful. And thatís when it occurred to me: You know, thereís no place left. Louvís right. For kids or adults. Thereís no place left to take a walk through the woods. Itís either posted or restricted or just plain gone. Someoneís going to run you off. If itís not a park Ė essentially a playground around these parts, which isnít remotely the same thing Ė you have few options. There might be a half-dozen trees in a corner to satisfy our urge for shade. All else is privately owned and we live in such a litigious society, such a chemically-abusive society, such a culture of fear, the police will show up soon enough. Iím not knocking police, please donít misunderstandÖbut Iíve turned off concrete roads unto a dirt headland to go fish a pond and fallen under suspicious scrutiny by officers that happened to notice me. They have to do their jobs, itís not a knock on them. But itís indicative of the kind of suspicious, fearful society weíve created for ourselves and our children.
Louv noted that "weíre raising a generation of children under virtual house arrest" and as I stood there in the hot sun I understood how right he was. Despite the fact that participation in organized sports is higher today than ever before, Louv recognizes, "The kind of energy expended once or twice a week or once or twice a month in soccer is not the kind of energy that is spent when kids are playing outdoors in the woods or in the back yard or digging a hole in the backyardóthat kind of constant activity that occurred in past generations when they got home and they burst out the back door into the back yard or the field or the woodsóthat is a different kind of exercise."
The worry of it all is that when children so detached from nature grow up and find themselves in the position to manage and conserve it, what will they do?
Louv says heís not suggesting we just turn our kids loose in the woods and on the streets. But there should certainly be some encouragement and reason for kids to get out of the house. The last child in the woods might not give it up quite so easily then.