On my Bedside Table

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Last Child in the Woods

by Richard Louv

I picked this up because I heard the author being interviewed on a radio program about half a year ago and it stuck with me. The premise is that kids today don't get outside enough. Soccer practice doesn't count -- it's a qualitatively different experience than exploring, making forts, catching frogs and climbing trees. Our children's lives are poorer because of this. A crucial part of their development -- physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual -- is being stunted because of this lack.

Where do I even start? Argh! He's right! My kids don't go outside enough! And I know what they're missing, because I was a very lucky kid in this regard. All through elementary school I lived in a house next to the school, with fields behind it giving way to the swamp (of course we'd call it wetlands now) which froze over every winter, giving everyone a place to skate and play hockey. You just had to steer clear of all the cattail stubble. There was a willow I used to climb up into so I could survey the fields. At my grandmother's there were woods and a stream behind her house -- that's where all the good salamander hunting was. My dad's house had neighbors on both sides and an apartment building behind, but we would climb over the stone wall that marked the back of our property, cut through the apartment building's lot to get to the park. It had everything -- a big pond, fed by a stream, swampy areas (where you could find tadpoles when I was little -- brush gradually filled that spot in over the years) woods, fields, blueberries on the hill overlooking the pond, mulberry trees, hickory trees.

Over the course of 30 years visiting the park I'd seen deer, rabbits, kingfishers, pheasants, frogs, turtles (once I watched a snapping turtle eating a dead fish underwater). Once after a fresh snowfall I saw where a crow had taken flight -- crow footprints leading up to a perfect, crisp impression of crow wingtips, feathers spread, in the snow. Once after a particularly heavy snowfall (maybe 2 feet) in the clear day that followed I saw 10 or 12 bluebirds -- the first I'd ever seen. They looked like bits of sky flying from branch to branch.

And I pretty much always went exploring on my own. Kids aren't allowed to be on their own these days, and they don't generally have access to the kinds of places I used to hang out, and they'd rather be on the computer. The world changed while we weren't looking, and no one asked if we wanted it this way.

So my kids are having a very different childhood than I had. But I had a different childhood than my parents -- my mom grew up on a farm. I missed out on a lot by not having a chance to do that. And I was so jealous of my uncle who was in 4H and had his own flock of sheep to take care of.

But our kids are overscheduled to a ridiculous degree in structured activities that basically demand they perform to a certain standard -- and they don't get a chance to just hang out with no agendas to fulfill. And I don't know how to fix it. I work full time. I come home and work some more. When I was a kid, the number one time to get sent out to play was when the kitchen floor was being washed -- but I don't send my kids out while I do housework.

Louv presents ideas for contering this deficit. They involve restructuring school curriculae, redesigning suburbia, basically reimagining society. I don't know if we have the will to do that. Don't know that anyone cares that much. When we buy a house, though, I'm holding out for one that backs up to woods or fields.


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