You are here

Last Child in the Woods....

Author : Richard Louv
Published : 2006-03-17

    There's a powerful book out there that parents and anyone who loves not just national parks but forests and wilderness areas and wilderness-quality areas needs to read. It's been out nearly a year, and I wish I had read it as soon as it hit the bookstores.
    In his book, "Last Child in the Woods, Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," Richard Louv paints not only a disturbing picture of how we're losing bits and pieces of our natural landscape, but how we're failing our children by not working harder to introduce them to nature.
    Mr. Louv points out something that's frighteningly obvious, if we only take a moment to look around.
    Through urban sprawl, through the magic and wizardry of the Internet, through computer games, and through fear of many of the neighborhoods we call home, we're spawning generations of kids who don't know what it's like to have warm mud squish up through their toes as they wade in creeks to catch frogs or to hear the gentle whooshing of a forest's canopy under the breath of the wind as they play hide-and-seek.

    I grew up in New Jersey back in the 1960s. Even back then, despite the many Jersey jokes, my friends and I had woods to play in, ponds to fish and skate across come winter, and rivers to explore like Huck Finn away from the hot asphalt of roads, sidewalks and parking lots.
    Not even Al Gore thought of the Internet back then, and pure joy for a kid was found outside four walls. I thought nothing of hopping on my bike after school and peddling not only to the end of my neighborhood but through the woods to my friends' neighborhood. Scouting was a natural endeavor, one that led us farther from civilization and deeper into the woods and out onto lakes.
    That's the way it was. Sadly, as Mr. Louv points out, that's not the way it is.
    America's frontier, he writes, "which existed in the family farm, the woods at the end of the road, the national parks, and in our hearts, is itself disappearing or changing beyond recognition." A few pages later he adds that, "In the space of a century, the American experience of nature has gone from direct utilitarianism to romantic attachment to electronic detachment."
    Indeed, the advent not only of the Internet but of cell phones, PDAs, MTV, and High Density television programming have nefariously conspired to push nature even farther away from the younger generations.
    "Urban children, and many suburban children, have long been isolated from the natural world because of the lack of neighborhood parks, or lack of opportunity -- lack of time and money for parents who might otherwise take them out of the city. But the new technology accelerates the phenonenon," writes Mr. Louv, who then proceeds to quote from Daniel Yankelovich, a public opinion analyst.
    "'What I see in America today is an almost religious zeal for the technological approach to every facet of life,' says Daniel Yankelovich, the veteran public opinion analyst. This faith, he says, transcends mere love for new machines. 'It's a value system, a way of thinking, and it can become delusional.'"
    The Outdoor Industry Association has surveys that show Mr. Louv knows of what he writes. Within its State of the Industry Report the organization defines "who" is playing outside, and the definition is somewhat troubling.The bulk of the outdoors audience, says OIA, are Baby Boomers, those born from 1946 to 1964, and 'Millennials,' those born between 1978 and 2003, give or take a few years.
    What's troubling is that while Baby Boomers "know the thrill of summiting a mountain, the solace of canoeing pristine lakes and the excitement of having new experiences," Millennials are more focused on "action, speed and adrenaline," fixes they get more from a skateboard park, white water park, or bouldering, than from hefting a pack on their backs for a 50-mile backcountry adventure or slipping a canoe into a lake or down a river.
    While both groups have non-sedentary lifestyles, which is good to note these days when media point out America's alarming battle with obesity and the dropping by many schools of physical education requirements, as Baby Boomers continue to gray there's a chance the following generations will not share their love for the landscape, and so not be concerned about its stewardship.
    "I think that's a real risk," Michelle Barnes told me.
    As OIA's vice president for marketing, Ms. Barnes shoulders her industry's concern over not just the results of its surveys but also of the contents of Mr. Louv's book.
    "Eighty percent of Millennials live in urban areas, which is a pretty high number," she said. "To actually get to a national park to recreate isn't something that they can necessarily do in a day, unless there's good transportation or access or they have a huge desire. So their recreation might center on what they can do close to home."
    That point is driven home in OIA's State of the Industry Report.
    "Mastering a kick-flip at the skate park is as satisfying to a Millennial as summiting Mount Rainier might be (or have been) to a Boomer," said Beaver Theodosakis, founder and president of Prana, a manufacturer of climbing wear.
   So what are we to make out of this?
    "We're seeing obesity and inactivity numbers of youth at rates that have sent a big message to the industry that we need to do something to reserve this trend," said Ms. Barnes. "Outdoor recreation takes a backseat to Nintendo."
    Within the outdoor industry, leaders are stepping forward to brainstorm ways to get youth re-connected with nature, she told me, whether that be through mentoring boys and girls clubs or helping provide access to the out-of-doors.
    "The step we're in right now is awareness, letting people know there's an issue," Ms. Barnes said.
    Too, with the increasing diversification of American society, the industry realizes it has to reach out not just to middle-class Caucasians but also blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Eastern Europeans -- kids of all colors and ethnicities and income brackets.
    "We're getting more and more diverse, so we need to make sure that we're creating (access) in a way that's inclusive of all Americans," she said. "I think a lot of people are passionate about this and want to make a difference. It's just a matter of people getting organized and trying to figure out how and when."
    People in all walks of life need to get organized. And many are. I recall a visit to Yosemite National Park two summers ago when I encountered a band of inner-city kids who had come to the park for a glimpse of nature. Amazingly, some of those kids, outfitted in tread-bare sneakers and toting half-gallon soda bottles of water, made the long hike to the top of Half Dome. And scouting continues to introduce kids to the outdoors. But, as Mr. Louv's sobering book points out, we need to do so much more.
    As for Mr. Louv, well, he's cautiously optimistic for the future of nature and youth.
    "Speaking with college students during the research for this book did give me hope," he writes. "When the issue of nature's role in health -- physical, mental and spiritual -- was introduced into the conversation, the tone changed; what often began as a fatalistic, intellectual discussion about the hole in the ozone layer quickly turned personal. Some students approached me to say they had never thought about the fate of the environment in such a personalized, direct way. I sense that these young people, who belong to what could be considered the first 'de-natured' generation, hunger for a greater purpose. Some of these students wrote me later to describe how the conversation with their classmates about children and nature moved them. Even dormant, the seed of nature grows with just a little water.
    "Perhaps, as the years go by, these young people will realize their sense of purpose in this cause, and dedicate their career skills to it," he adds. "Not just as a matter of ideology, or even survival, but because they see the potential joy that they and their own children could share someday, as could many of us -- if we act quickly."


You sold me on it Kurt! This looks like an important and interesting book. I've got to read it still of course, but it seems that kids these days have a lot to keep them from both entering and exploring they're public lands. As a park ranger, I was often disappointed that folks visiting the parks in RVs would pass on attending my evening campground programs (which I thought were pretty darn good) and instead watch Disney movies or Animal Planet. While their experience is different from years past, at least they visited the park. On the brighter side, I was fortunate enough to work closely with an amazing public school 5th grade program that brought kids camping in the park for 3 days to learn about nature. It was a powerful experience and it was common for kids to be in tears at the closing campfire program. I feel confident that the kids that I helped teach as a park ranger will be better citizens and have greater admiration for national parks and nature. I only wish there was more money so school kids across the nation could have similar experiences. While the park experience will always evolve somewhat, the bottom line for whether our parks and other public lands are protected in the future is based on a strong park constituency. Most park constituents happen—not surprisingly—to be the same folks that visit park. Hence my fear. Visitation to national parks, forests, and deserts began to decline in the late 90s, before 9/11. Hunting and fishing is also declining. One theory I have is that recreation fees have and are pricing many people off the public lands. In fact, NPS visitation started to decline the same year the Fee-Demo fee retention program began. With the incentive in place, cash-strapped parks bumped up entrance fees and put in place new fees for sites that were formerly free. Also in the late 90s, many state parks began to institute fees and visitation has seemingly dropped accordingly. With the American Society becoming more diversified, the aversion to fees by certain groups needs greater study. The studies done by agencies on people who have already paid fees is hogwash. Here are two articles that discuss how fees have harmed visitation. This Seattle Times article is on WA state park declines: It looks like fees have also impacted visitation to Canadian parks as well: Folks can learn more about the public land recreation fee issue at:

Thank you for highlighting this important issue. As a baby boomer and a new grandfather of a "whatever the 200X generation will be called" this has given me the inspiration to make sure that my granddaughter does not grow up with nature deficit disorder.

Great post. Another factor here is that most middle-class kids have their lives managed to a very high degree by parents concerned that every possible opportunity for enrichment be realized. It's certainly possible that nature can be scheduled into kids' lives this way and is; but still, parents are busy and convenience is a big decisionmaking factor. Then, too, one of the things our kids have lost is the opportunity for spontaneous exploration and experience. Of course, middle-class kids are *not* disadvantaged -- they're just being diverted away from learning for themselves how cool the world out there can be. The situation for truly disadvantaged kids -- like those my wife teaches in Oakland, California -- is truly dire. Safety issues, transportation issues, and all the effects of poverty combine to keep most of these kids from ever experiencing what most of us think of as nature. It's amazing when they do get the opportunity, though -- the joy and excitement is uncontained. Getting the next generations out into the wild really is important both for their own well-being and the well-being of this gift that's been handed down to us.

Dan, for those parents that program their kids time, but still want them to enjoy the health benefits of the outdoors, there's always Scouting. I wish Louv had mentioned Scouting in his book. Fred Goodwin A Scout volunteer San Antonio, TX

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide