Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Review: The Last Child in The Woods

I really wanted to like The Last Child in The Woods. I grew up in Singapore, in a city where door-to-door inspections have eliminated the Anopheles mosquito. Growing up, we hated visiting Malaysia, where mosquitoes were still prevalent and would make us itch. Our Malaysian cousins had all sorts of bite marks and nasty stuff on their legs, and we had no desire to become like them. My first camping experience as a kid was so unloved by me that I never considered camping again until I was in my twenties. I only became an outdoors person when recreational hiking and commuting cycling brought me into contact with so much natural beauty that I said to myself, "There must be more out there." Once I realized that as an adult I could plan my own trips around what I liked rather than being dictated to like a child, my enjoyment of the outdoors increased a million fold.

The Last Child in The Woods is about nature-deficit disorder. It's an entirely made up syndrome, and the author admits as much. After all, lots of children (especially those from Asia) grow up without any appreciable contact with nature (much like myself), but when given the opportunity as adults, do learn to enjoy the outdoors. The author cites many studies that demonstrate the calming effect of nature exposure to children with varying disorders (such as ADD), but then extrapolates that to include healthy, normal children. This is questionable and there's not a shred of evidence in the book to lead to that conclusion!

Then I ran across this passage:
One might argue that a computer, with its near-infinite coding possibilities, is history’s deepest box of loose parts. But binary code, made of two parts—1 and 0—has its limits. Nature, which excites all the senses, remains the richest source of loose parts. (Kindle Loc: 1261-63)
I don't know if Richard Louv could have destroyed his credibility or demonstrated his ignorance more.

This is a pity, as I agree with much of his complaints about American society and its approach to play and nature. For instance:
Typical Americans spend 101 minutes in their car daily, five times the amount of time they spend exercising. They also take fewer vacation days and work harder than the Japanese or Europeans. (Kindle Loc 1705-6)
I deplore the disappearance of see-saws from American playgrounds because of liability lawsuits. I definitely think that most American cities have little character and definitely aren't as livable as the European cities I've visited. I certainly agree with many of his prescriptions for building a more liveable, green, and environmentally friendly city, where kids get to build tree houses, and children falling out of those said tree houses and breaking body parts wouldn't cause multiple lawsuits and a media frenzy.

The reality, however, is that parents, if they truly cared about the issue, have a lot of control over what trips they take their kids on, and how they portray recreation with their children. For instance, I visited the Montebello OSP Backpack Camp expecting Bowen to be the youngest kid there. He was instead the oldest, with several 1-year olds who were ferried into the campground by dads on Mountain Bikes. I certainly do my best to take Bowen on trips where driving isn't the primary mode of transport as much as possible. There's tons of evidence that building aerobic capacity also improves intelligence and performance in school activities, so this sort of thing isn't even contradictory to being a tiger parent, if that's what you're after.

But Richard Louv chooses instead to wring his hands over declining membership in the Sierra Club, and the graying of hairs and reduction of outdoors activities in the Boy/Girl Scout organizations. The Sierra Club, especially the Loma Prieta Chapter here in Silicon Valley, is famous for fighting against Mountain Bike access to trails, so it's not a surprise that the later, more cycling-friendly generation of outdoors people no longer consider them a friend, but find other ways to express their environmentalism and love of the outdoors. And the less said about the Boy Scout organization's reputation, the better.

All in all, I'm very disappointed in the book. If you're an outdoorsy dad trying to convince your wife that all this hiking/camping/cycling/sailing is good for your kids, the evidence in this book is thin and unconvincing even to me, let alone your wife. If you're looking for help in advocating for more greenery in urban spaces, the book undermines its own credibility in enough places that I'd be leery of citing it if I were faced with determined opposition. I hope the outdoors advocacy literature has people who have more coherent arguments than Richard Louv. But in the end, maybe it doesn't matter: the last time Bowen took friends with him camping, they all became fans of camping, so he's not going to be the last child in the woods.
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