Picture “Go and play outside.”

This statement, a way for parents to get their children out of the house, used to be a popular command. Some time in the last few decades, however, it became a relic of the past. In a world where we take escalators to the gym, play video games for leisure, and diagnose people with “internet addiction,” parents and children are not making time to explore the outdoors.

In Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, one fourth-grader describes his play preferences: “I like to play indoors better ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” Today, many children no longer experience the natural world and many suffer from “nature-deficit disorder,” a term coined by Louv to describe “the human costs of alienation from nature, among them diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.” Depression and higher crime rates can be linked to the absence or inaccessibility of parks and open spaces.

Computers, televisions, electronics, structured education systems, an increased “fear of others” or homogenization of neighborhoods, and a lack of access to natural areas make it difficult for children to spend time outdoors. Increasingly, government, planning, and neighborhood organizations place restraints on open space and park hours, making free play impossible. As a result, nature has become an icon, a thing to look at, or a place to visit — not an inherent part of our being.

Louv argues that the experience of the natural world, in the time and rhythm of the outdoors, is essential for human well-being, learning, and development, and that nature is a powerful remedy for many social, psychological, and health disorders. “Healing the broken bond between our young and nature is in our self-interest,” he declares, “not only because aesthetics or justice demand it, but also because our mental, physical, and spiritual health depend upon it.”

Louv notes that the antidote to nature deficit disorder is simple: Get children back into the wild. For planning organizations, this requires rethinking the structures and institutions that make up our neighborhoods, cities, and organizations beyond the family unit. Access to nature is a societal issue, not a private issue. “In the United States,” Louv writes, “a challenge remains to overcome the polar distinction between what is urban and what is natural. Perhaps because of the expansiveness of our ecological resources and land base, we have tended to see the most significant forms of nature as occurring somewhere else — often hundreds of miles away.”

Throughout Last Child in the Woods, Louv, an expert storyteller, weaves anecdotes together with factual information to create a powerful message that motivates environmentalists, designers, and parents alike. Yet despite his message, the methods for action he presents are less clear. At the end, the reader is left with nostalgia for the past, but without a clear idea of what must be done, today, in this world, to implement new strategies.

Note: This is a re-post from a book review I originally wrote for the American Planning Association in 2008. The messages and information from the book are continuously relevant, so I wanted to share the post with a wider audience.

Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder
Author: Richard Louv
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2005
(originally published in The New Planner — Winter 2008)