I just finished Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods and am simultaneously overcome with the need to act, and paralyzed by indecision on how to proceed.
If you are unfamiliar with Louv and his work, he is a journalist, and the author of 9 books, 5 of which focus on the benefits of reconnecting with nature. In Last Child in the Woods Louv coined the phrase “Nature Deficit Disorder” which he uses to reflect the growing chasm between nature and the daily lives of most Americans. Among other things, Louv notes that 1993 was an historic year, as that was when the US census bureau stopped reporting the number of Americans who lived on farms.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’m not suggesting that we need to return to a more agrarian society. And neither, as far as I can tell, is Louv. Rather, he points out that in less than a century we have gone from a largely agrarian society where many people’s daily lives were intrinsically tied to the rhythms of nature, to one in which many children simply do not spend enough, or any, time in nature.
Rx for Nature: Treating ADHD Through Time Outside?
Interestingly, the rise of many psychological diagnoses, most notably the increasing frequency with which young people are diagnosed with ADHD, coincides with this move away from time spent in nature.
While I’m no psychologist, I wonder whether ADHD is instead an executive function deficit that could be treated without resort to costly pharmaceuticals that have untold side-effects, and treated instead by spending more time in nature.
According to Louv, “Some researches now recommend that parents and educators make available more nature experiences – especially green places – to children with ADHD, and thereby support their attentional functioning and minimize their symptoms. Indeed, this research inspires the use of the broader term ‘nature deficit disorder’ as a way to help us better understand what many children experience, whether or not they have been diagnosed with ADHD.”
I wonder if children who have been diagnosed with ADHD are just more active; if they are diagnosed with ADHD is because, biologically, they weren’t made to sit still in classrooms all day. It wasn’t long ago that these same children would have been running around the farm, helping raise crops, or hunting for food. The same characteristics that made them assets in a nature-centric, agrarian society now brand them as “difficult to control” or “lacking in attention.”
Louv writes “[M]any parents notice significant changes in their children’s stress levels and hyperactivity when they spend time outside. ‘My son is still on Ritalin, but he’s so much calmer in the outdoors that we’re seriously considering moving to the mountains,’ one mother tells me.”
Nature as an Alternative to Prison?
Louv also writes about New York public defender Daniel Ybarra, who devised an alternative punishment for juvenile offenders who had never spent time in nature. In collaboration with a progressive judge and with the assistance of various financial contributions, Ybarra sent several New York teenagers on a chaperoned trip for a week on the island of Kake, Alaska, as part of their probation. Many of these teenagers “had never been to the mountains or beyond earshot of a combustion engine…Suddenly…they found themselves among grizzlies on the beaches, sea elephants that loomed up from the channel, and bald eagles that sat ten to a branch, as common as sparrows.”
They returned transformed, having learned about “sha-a-ya-dee-da-na, a Tlingit word that loosely translates as ‘self respect,’ by being in nature, and associating with people who had never been separated from it.”
I look at young people here in Cleveland and wonder: how many of them have never spent a night sleeping outside, looking up at the Milky Way? How many have never seen the mountains, or green fields stretching as far as the eye can see? And how would their lives be different if they had?
As a lawyer myself, I wonder if there’s a way we can intervene in the lives of some of these young people and, instead of punishing them, give them an opportunity to improve their lives through the transformative power of nature.
Germs and Toxins: Inside or Out?
In another issue close to my heart, Louv notes that crime rates are substantially lower in national parks and national forests. In fact, contrary to popular belief, statistically speaking you are less likely to be injured in the wilderness than you are walking around your neighborhood.
Moreover, there are increasingly more toxins present inside our own homes than there are outside. Yet we worry more when our kids play in the grass, dirt and mud, than about the germs they bring home from school, or the chemicals they’re exposed to in the soap they use or the products we use to clean our homes.
Have I Found My Calling?
With the turn of every page, Louv struck a chord. When I finished the book, I felt like I’d found my quest – to play a small part in the re-introduction of nature to people here in Cleveland. But sometimes I’m unsure of the step I need to take next.