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Book Report #1

Executive Summary

This report reviews The Last Child in the Woods, a book by Richard Louv. In his book, Louv analyzes the widening gap between the natural world and the current young generation. This book analyzes the implications of this divide from the social, spiritual, environmental and psychological perspective. In aIDition, the book unveils emerging research projects that reveal the relationship between nature and healthy development in both children and adults. Nature offers every child an older, vast world separate from parents (Louv 6). Nowadays, children are becoming more and more aware of environmental hazards whilst losing physical contact and intimacy with nature. This report will focus on outlining this shift from nature and analyze its implications on different levels.

Nature Deficit Disorder

The term “nature deficit disorder” is spawned from an attention disorder-affecting children which is referred to as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Nature-deficit constitutes one of the various factors that may precipitate the development of ADHD in children (Louv 100). Several studies concerning ADHD have revealed that exposure to nature may prove to be therapeutic in children with ADHD. Furthermore, these studies suggest that nature may even replace medications or behavioral therapies in the treatment of ADHD. Following these studies, ADHD has increasingly been viewed as a nature-deficit disorder.

Nature-deficit disorder reiterates the costs incurred due to the increasing drift from nature, among them: attention difficulties, increased physical and emotional stress and decreased use of senses. Moreover, nature-deficit disorder is associated with high crime rates and depression in cities due to absence of parks and other open spaces. It is possible for nature-deficit disorder to be reversed on an individual and cultural level, in consistent with an increase in natural abundance.

In the United States alone, close to 8 million children suffer from mental conditions including ADHD which is one of the most prevalent ones. ADHD usually begins to develop around the age of seven but in most cases, it is diagnosed in children between 8-10 years (Louv 100). Children with ADHD present with attention difficulties such as: restlessness, difficulty in listening and paying attention, reduced focus and difficulty in following directions. Moreover, these children are usually aggressive, antisocial and often post poor grades. The American Psychiatric Association describes ADHD as being characterized by intermittent episodes of hyperactivity and inattention on a more extreme level than in the normal child. According to most people, the behavioral defects witnessed in children with ADHD result from poor parenting and other social factors. However, studies have revealed that ADHD is actually an organic disease characterized by pathologic changes in brain morphology (Louv 101).

Children with ADHD are often prescribed stimulant-medications including amphetamines (Dexedrine) and methylphenidate (Ritalin). Up to 10-40 percent of the time, these medications are usually overprescribed. Ritalin stimulates the central nervous system generating adverse effects consistent with methamphetamine, amphetamine and cocaine use. Over the years, there has been a dramatic increase in ADHD diagnoses and treatment. The fact, however, is that ADHD has been around all the time, referred to by other names or missed altogether. Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that a few decades ago, the current prescription drugs were rarely marketed by pharmaceutical companies hence were little known. Nevertheless, the prescription of these drugs together with the causes of ADHD still remain a bone of contention.

Disconnect from Nature

The disconnection from nature has slowly progressed over the years as a result of numerous changes in our society on multiple levels. Unstructured outdoor play has virtually been outlawed by numerous communities due to the threat of lawsuits and increased fascination with order. Currently, most parents and children view outdoor play as a verboten act even when it’s not. In recent years, there has been an upsurge of the number of planned communities and housing tracts which are regulated by strict pacts which ban or discourage outdoor play. Today, Americans exceeding 57 million live in homes governed by cooperatives and associations according to data unveiled by the Community Association’s Institute (Louv 28). Most of these associations impose strict rules on their tenants, most of which are aimed at restricting outdoor play.

Moreover, the public government has also played a significant role in the disconnection of children from nature. Children who try to relive their parents’ childhood often end up facing misdemeanor charges with their parents being sued in some cases. For instance, three young brothers in Pennsylvania spent up to eight months building a treehouse in their backyard using their own money (Louv 29). Later on, these boys were ordered to dismantle the treehouse by the district council since they lacked a building permit.

The increasing gap between children and nature has also been fueled by our inherent efforts to shield nature from human population pressures. In California’s Oceano Dunes region for example, kite-flying has been prohibited to avoid scaring off the snowy plover, a protected species of shorebird. Elsewhere, three-thousand acres of fishing and camping in Angeles National Forest were closed throughout the year in order to preserve the endangered Arroyo southwestern toad. The cumulative effects of environmental regulations, overdevelopment and fear of litigation discourages children from engaging in free-range play, instead resorting to organized sports on manicured fields. Eventually, this has led to an ever-increasing gap between children and nature.

Research Data

Bernard Berenson, an art critic, postulated that creativity is the substance of childhood genius and “spirit of place” (Louv 86). He recalls his moments of greatest joy as the times when he completely lost himself in perfect harmony, feeling at one with nature. Later on, Robin Moore, an expert in learning environments and play design, agreed with Berenson’s assertions. Moore stated that natural settings encourage the healthy development of children since they arouse all the senses and incorporate informal play within formal learning. Moore proceeds to explain that sustained intellectual development can be enhanced by nature through multisensory development. In other words, nature builds imagination within children by offering them the free space to think and visualize.

Early research in this field is attributed to Simon Nicholson, a Cambridge University architect. Nicholson postulated that the modern society depresses the innate creativity that lies in everyone. This “loose-parts” theory states that the degree of creativity in any environment is directly related to the quantity and type of variables in it. In the setting of natural play, the loose parts consist of trees, water, grass, flowers and ponds. As one delves deeper into nature, the parts become more potent, looser and more exciting to the imagination. Nature is capable of exciting all the senses hence is a source of abundant loose parts.

Studies done in Sweden reveal that asphalt playgrounds provide short and interrupted play segments while natural grounds provide prolonged and more fulfilling play. Further studies done in other countries such as Canada and Australia also reveal that children engage in more creative forms of play on green and natural landscapes rather than on artificial landscapes. Natural landscapes promote fantasy and wonder in play. Some of activities involved in a creative play include: role-playing on imaginary planets, impersonating action figures, intricate jump-rope routines and constructing objects or buildings.

Recently, a study was done in Denmark which compared two groups of children; one group was from a nature kindergarten while the other one was from a traditional kindergarten. These children remained outside throughout the day, for one academic year. Results revealed that children from the nature kindergarten were more adept at making games, more attentive and better at using their bodies (Louv 88). Moreover, research done by Andrea Taylor and Frances Kuo at the University of Illinois revealed that children had a greater propensity to concentrate in more natural environments. Children who wanted to engage in creative activities chose green landscapes.

Nature Experience

The development in technology has been associated with a diminished life of the senses. Every human being needs more direct and natural experiences in order to fully activate the senses and live a more fulfilled life. Today, at the height of technological advancement, we are immersed in numerous data but end up missing out on the most vital data of all. The natural experience is all about hearing, smelling, seeing, testing and feeling. On the other hand, the information age is actually a myth. Our life beyond our doors feels diminished, having lost the natural dimension. Today, everyone is so immersed in their gadgets ranging from cell phones to computers and other digital gizmos. As much as these devices have really simplified our way of life, we have been forced to sacrifice a lot in order to gain this comfort.

As the world of electronics envelops us, we yearn for nature. The computer and television provide a rather indirect and senseless interaction with our world. Most of the time when watching television, only two or at most three of our senses are being engaged, that is, vision and hearing. We imbue whatever knowledge we are fed by the social media without stopping to think and reflect for a while. Nature, on the other hand, offers a far grander experience whereby all of our senses are stimulated. We can smell the damp soil, listen to the birds, feel the cool air, see the beauty of the trees, and taste the ripe fruits. Nature also invokes within us an inherent ability to detect and solve problems. It makes us sharp, attentive and alert.

Healing Power of Nature

Many studies reveal that exposure to nature reduces the levels of stress and hyperactivity especially in children with ADHD. Michael Gurian, author of The Wonder Boys, states that the minds of human beings are wired for a nature-oriented and agrarian kind of existence that emerged over five millennia ago. Therefore, human beings have not quite adapted to the fast-paced world of today in neurological terms. Nevertheless, since the brain is flexible and strong, majority of children tend to adapt quite well. However, a small percentage of children fail to adapt, hence, exposing them to nature may prove therapeutic.

Recent research has been done in this field with positive results. During the early 1970s, Stephen and Rachel Kaplan from the University of Michigan conducted a research based on the works of the philosopher William James concerning the attention-restoration theory. The Kaplans initiated a nine-year study for the U.S Forest Service. They created a wilderness project whereby they sent subjects into the wild where they stayed for up to two weeks. During the course of these hikes or afterwards, the subjects reported feeling a sense of peace and an increased capacity to think clearly. Moreover, they reported that spending time engulfed in nature was more restorative than other physically strenuous activities like mountain climbing.

These findings far exceeded what the Kaplans had anticipated hence they came to refer to this effect as “the restorative environment” (Louv 103). The Kaplans concluded that too much directed attention resulted in a phenomenon which they referred to as “directed-attention fatigue”. This phenomenon, according to the Kaplans, is characterized by irritability, agitation, inability to concentrate, and impulsive behavior. This fatigue occurs due to the fact that neural inhibitory mechanisms become fatigued as a result of blocking competing stimuli. Therefore, an environment which provides an automatic attention results in the resting of the directed attention. This requires an environment that provides a strong sense of fascination. This fascination factor that is part of nature has proved to be highly restorative and therefore relieves people from directed-attention fatigue. Accordingly to the Kaplans, nature can prove to be the most efficient source of restorative relief.

The Kaplans also conducted another research where they surveyed around 1200 state and corporate workers. Those workers who had a window view of bushes, trees and large lawns presented with less frustration and more enthusiasm derived from their work. Those who lacked such a view experienced higher levels of frustration and less enthusiasm. This study, like many other studies on stress reduction, revealed that in order to experience the healing power of nature, one did not have to live in the wilderness.

Practical Projects

Over the years, several projects have undertaken in an effort to bring nature closer to children. John Dewey, in The School and Society, advocated for the merging of nature with education by immersing children in nature. Howard Gardner, working at Harvard University, developed the theory of multiple intelligence which proved to be very powerful. In his list of intelligences, Howard included naturalist intelligence which measured the ability of being nature smart. Fueled by Howard’s theory, several projects have been undertaken in schools in an effort to incorporate nature-learning within the curriculum. Such projects include using natural phenomena such as rivers as the location whereby learning can occur. Nature-learning has also been introduced in many schools aimed at teaching children about the importance of nature.

In aIDition, other projects have been undertaken to create urban parks within cities. Perhaps the most notable of these projects is the Central Park, located in the midst of New York City. Such urban parks provide a quick getaway from the hustle and bustle of city life. They provide city dwellers and workers with the chance to experience the healing power of nature. More importantly, these parks offer children with the chance to engage in natural play without limitations.

Other projects have also been undertaken to reform laws governing recreation and private land as pertains to children. The goal of these projects has been to reduce fear and anxiety among children as they engage in natural play. This will encourage more and more children to participate in natural play without the fear of litigation. Ultimately, more and more children will become united with nature.

Importance of Problem Solving

The disconnection from nature has presented major challenges especially to children. Therefore, this issue has to be solved as soon as possible in order to create a better future for the current generation of children. Nature has proven to be a restorative environment to children. It reduces the levels of hyperactivity and increases attention levels. Therefore, exposing children to nature will ensure a future generation of attentive adults. Due to the fact that nature engages each of our senses, it fosters creativity and critical thinking among children. As a result, the exposure of children to nature is important for the future since it will develop and maintain the art of creativity among individuals.

In aIDition, exposing children to nature also translates into less screen time and more physical activity in children. Consequently, children will spend more time experiencing nature rather than watching television. This will ultimately improve the health of children by reducing the rates of childhood obesity. The risk of other co-morbidities such as cardiovascular diseases and diabetes will also reduce.

Conclusion

The disconnection between children and nature is becoming wider, widely attributed to the drastic advances in technology. New gadgets ranging from mobile phones, computers and tablets are been launched at a breathtaking pace. Consequently, children end up spending most of their time hooked to their screens. They spend very little or no time at all experiencing nature. Several studies relating to stress reduction reveal that nature possesses a healing power, which reduces anxiety and improves attention especially in children. It is therefore important to expose children to nature in order to boost their attention levels and enhance creativity.

Works Cited

Louv, R. Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008.

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