A few years back one of my neighbors gave Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. I don’t think she was worried about me or my boarders; it’s more likely she was trying to rile me up. I can make quite a spectacle of myself when I get upset. Just ask my mother, she’ll be glad to regale you with tales of the tantrums of my younger days. But my thirties are behind me now and I seldom behave that way.
Louv advances the hypothesis that today’s children don’t spend enough unstructured time in nature. He feels that many of the behavioral troubles children have stem from our tendency as a society to placate them with electronic media and restrict them from freedom in nature.
It’s hard to argue with this. Children spend about 30 hours a week on TV alone according to a 2010 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation. They spend another 7 hours on computer and video games. The report cautions that one shouldn’t add these numbers together as often children are using more than one media source at a time. I’m thinking the authors don’t mean reading both a novel and a dictionary.
I had a chance a few weeks ago to take some young adult types out for a stroll in the woods as part of a laboratory exercise for the introductory biology class I teach at a local institution. This lab group consists of 13 women ranging from about 18 to 21 years. They come from China and Jamaica and even exotic locales like northern New Jersey and New York City. Despite copious exhortations to wear appropriate clothing, several chose not to wear hats.
The students marked one study area each in two different plots. Within these areas they had to determine the diameter of trees, identify tree species, count woody debris, and measure the amount of sunlight. The plots are dramatically different despite being separated by only about 50 yards. One is entirely young deciduous trees – probably all under a foot in diameter. The other is towering pines and hemlocks, but they’re rather sparse. Once we returned to the lab the students pooled their data, created graphs and had to come up with an explanation for the differences. I really hope some of the explanations involve aliens (if you’re reading this, extra credit for aliens).
The snow from the February storm had mostly melted by this point so there was only about 6 inches on the ground. We saw fisher, raccoon and deer tracks and found some nice fresh deer poop. The students were fantastic. One did mutter something about going back to the Caribbean and never leaving, but otherwise despite cold ears (no hats!), I heard no complaining. I don’t know how much they enjoyed themselves, but I can say I heard comments like “I didn’t know there were so many kinds of trees.” I know this isn’t a random sample of post-teens, but perhaps Mr. Louv’s warnings are overblown. It gives me hope to think that even in February a group of media-saturated, mostly urban young women can enjoy a walk in the woods.