walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

Richard Louv, _Last Child in the Woods_

Subtitle: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder

Louv is a boomer.

Louv grew up in Kansas, but lived and raised his children in San Diego.

Louv would like to see the cities depopulate and return to spread out across the land (Usonian style?) in small, human scale villages in the prairie.

Louv wants a world in which children can build tree houses. His own experience is his prime referent for this: contractors who let him take 2 X 4s from building lots. And 4 x 8 sheets of plywood.

Louv thinks that arguments based on God's Creation will be more effective in convincing people to return to nature than utilitarian arguments.

What is that, five strikes? You might reasonably ask, why, dear, did you finish this book? Good question. I almost didn't. I bought it in June 2005, before the birth of my first child. I had grown up constantly being kicked out of the house to "play outside", but was extremely limited in where I could go outside, when, and what I could do. Needless to say, pretty dull. My two preferred out of the house activities were the playhouse (back inside) and the swingset (in retrospect, easy to argue that was stimming). We also rode our bikes, initially up and down the street (dead end), then in circles just outside our house and up and down the driveway, and then around the house. The increasing limitations (backwards, much?) was an artifact of restrictions in the wake of incidents (bullying at the end of the street, cars turning onto the street, us hitting those cars riding down the driveway). Dumb parenting, in other words. I remember going camping once with cousins, and riding down a river with rapids in an inflatable raft with my uncle. Fun! Altho, wow, he took some risks, almost as bad as the time another uncle took me out on the back of his motorcycle. My mother's brothers were nuts and I apparently had no fear. Again, Never Again after those incidents.

Despite all that, I (re)discovered hiking and camping and hanging out outdoors as an adult and didn't want my kid missing out on 20-30 years of Playtime Outside because I was screwing up as a witless parent.

Louv provides no assistance here. He thinks taking a cell phone someplace will help keep kids safe and that they should have one with them 24/7 (but that those GPS leashes are ridiculous). If you do get into trouble and rely on a cell phone (but don't have GPS, and in the days he was sending his kids out, they didn't), good freaking luck communicating to 911 service where you are. This particular strategy was roundly mocked in the 2 week WFR course I took -- based on how that turned out for people who got into trouble.

Louv's definition of nature is so slippery it makes Kuhn's use of the word paradigm in _Structure of Scientific Revolutions_ look like something S.I. Hayakawa would look on with approval. It seems to include the following:

no adult supervision
not within adult-built structures
no structured games (like soccer -- I wonder if he knows about orienteering?)
hunting and fishing are definitely nature activities, altho he recognizes some issues there
cutting down trees is definitely a nature activity, somewhat ditto

He's really enamored of the idea of a frontier, and of going back to the land, and he seems to loathe cities and want to de-densify them (increase open space, whether parks, vacant lots, etc.), get animals back into them, make them look like open plains, get people out of them, etc. He's perfectly happy to use bankrupt studies from Brookings to try to convince the reader that metropolitan regions in the West are denser than Eastern metropolitan regions. Which, if you choose "region" correctly, may well be true, but isn't particularly useful.

This is a lot of negatives, so it isn't very surprising that he's having a hard time coming up with a specific, detailed and compelling program for Reconnecting Kids with Nature, altho he seems to think that scaring parents that their kids are ADD because of lack of connection to nature will somehow motivate their parents to become avid birders and that will somehow fix the problem. Interestingly, he is contemptuous of walking on trails and just looking at stuff.


I should have liked this book. I liked the topic. He's spoken to some interesting people. If he'd paid more attention to his research, he might have come up with some stuff like this:

Kids can't drive, but they can walk or ride bikes or other non-powered vehicles like scooters, if there is a safe place for them to do so and destinations of interest to them. We should design our residential areas to support kids walking/riding to places that are interesting to them, including skateparks, appropriate trails for walking, appropriate trails for mountain biking, places to swim/wade/waterplay in the summer, skate or sled in the winter, etc. They should be shaded (if it is hot). They should be protected from wind if that is a problem. They should support spending many hours (picnic tables, food vendors, drinking fountains, public restrooms) within an easy walk of activity areas. Do that, and it won't be all about the ball field and the playset any more. If you go a bit further, and make sure there's ample native vegetation, there will even be little birds and animals scattered about. As for his comment about suburbia being impenetrable to nature, I'll just mention the robins that hatched out of the tree next to our front door (which we use), and the baby bunny I saw run into a bush on the side of Lothrop near where it intersects with Spencer. It's not just squirrels, chipmunks and crows around here.

Large parks with a lot of places for kids to hide are hugely dangerous. The first half of the book, where he talks to people about their memories of childhood, sounds horrifyingly risky. The second half of the book, where he talks about how he raised his kids, sounds bizarrely overprotective. It's not clear this guy grasps where danger is and how it can be managed. If he _did_ grasp where danger is, and how it can be managed, he would have suggested park monitors, so parents would not have to accompany their are-they-old-enough-yet kids to the park (which age seems to have crept up to, oh, gosh, they have a license, can't control them now, can I).

Finally, and I apologize for hammering on this, but I'm a dog with a bone on this. IT IS NOT ABOUT THE SIDEWALKS. Drive through a large, spread out subdivision in Anycity, USA. Sidewalks galore. That end at the end of the subdivision. They are suitable only for strollers and accompanied kids on ride on toys, trikes, etc. If you are close to places you want to go, sidewalks will follow. If you are not close to places you want to go, sidewalks will not help you get there. Period. End. See earlier posts about Dutch trip length.

Oh, and one more thing: public bicycles are an appealing idea, but fundamentally not a good one. It is incomprehensible to me that in a world where there are more cars than there are people who can legally drive (never mind safely), and where you can get a bike from WallyWorld online for under a hundred bucks, that people think bikes should be provided for free. Free bikes will not solve this, any more than sidewalks will. You have to live _close_ to what you are going to do.

And then we can lobby for separated lanes, because it'll be obvious to everyone that the multi-use thing (whether a multi-use trail, or a sidewalk and car lane both doing double or triple duty) is not working.

ETA: In any event, Louv is not relevant, given the increasing numbers of young'uns who, in response to Michael Pollan's books and others, are doing internships on small organic farms, either as a break, or as a way to contemplate starting their own. Louv's assertion of the end of contact with nature doesn't make a lot of sense in this world, and that is hardly surprising. Judging by the apparent content of America II and its timing, Louv is _really good_ at chiming in at the tail end of a trend, and extrapolating it exactly the wrong way into the future.
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