Saturday, August 30, 2008

Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder

I heard the gimmicky title for this book, and just had to check it out. I have long worried about our increasing separation from nature, and what it means. In a sense, this is Christopher Alexander's main theme, and as I've said before, he is probably the most important person alive today, though we probably won't appreciate him for another hundred years or so.

The book is full of fascinating statistics... for example, children today have a roaming radius that is 1/9 of what it was 30 years ago. I know I experienced this first hand... at age 10, and even younger, I was free to walk for miles in the woods, to explore natural caves, to go boating alone. I don't know any kids that have that kind of freedom today. It isn't at all obvious what has changed. Perhaps we crossed some kind of population threshold? Perhaps cable TV made people worry about things they didn't used to worry about? I can't quite figure it out. But reading this book really made me realize how easy it is to become cut off from nature. Really, it's a state of mind, more than anything else. The outdoors might just be a few feet away, but if you have the windows closed, and your mind engrossed in television, it's like they don't exist.

It's only recently that it was even possible to cut ourselves off from nature this much -- to do so requires electricity, refrigeration, automobiles, in-home entertainment, and climate control. And the climate control part is not to be underestimated... when I was a boy, we had no AC, and I slept with the windows open for half the year, hearing the sounds, and feeling the temperature. It made me feel really connected with the outdoors, lying there at night listening to all the bugs and frogs, and really appreciating a cool breeze, or a sudden summer rainshower. My daughter gets none of this... every night, her window is closed tight, partly to control the temperature, but mainly for fear of intruders.

This book could have been written in an alarmist tone, but it really comes across very thoughtful and balanced, and provides realistic suggestions about how to reconnect with nature in everyday life, and the effect this has on children. This idea has been very much on my mind as I raise my daughter... I was horrified to realize, for example, that the "brownie" girl scout troop she is a part of does no actual scouting. In fact, they don't even go outdoors -- not even to sell cookies (parents today are too afraid to send their kids door to door selling things). The book told similar stories of scout camps full of computers, but where climbing trees was forbidden due to fear of litigation.

Reconnecting girls with nature was part of my inspiration when working on the Pixie Hollow game for Disney. Could it be that a videogame, normally considered a main culprit at separating kids from nature, could be a way to reconnect them with it? I hope so -- we're trying. It feels to me like kids today have a great restlessness about them, and I think that this restlessness is a hunger for something real. There is nothing more real than being in nature. We're trying to make Pixie Hollow a gateway for girls, back to nature... but it isn't easy. We may well fail, and the whole thing may end up feeling artificial... but I hope not. My secret hope is that the play patterns we are embedding (learning about and collecting natural materials, making gifts by hand, helping others, being a steward for the environment) will somehow transfer to the real world. I hope it works... but even if it doesn't, at least we can say we tried.

One thing this book convinced me of: there is value in learning the names of the plants and animals around us. I'm sick of looking at a tree and not knowing what it is named. So, I'm learning them! Next time you see me, I'll give you a dollar if I can't tell you the name of any tree you point to!


  1. Interesting. I, too, have wondered what effect the loss of the "independent meander", for lack of a better term, will have on the individual/the society.

    Interesting experiments we're doing with ourselves!


  2. Hi Pearl -- I think you phrase it well. It reminds me of Thoreau's "walking" essay... lots of people have read Walden, but not so many hav e read the shorter (and better?) "Walking."