In the oft-quoted “Birches,” Robert Frost muses about a boy who lives too far from town to learn baseball so instead spends time in the woods swinging in the trees. “He always kept his poise / to the top branches, climbing carefully / with the same pains you use to fill a cup / up to the brim, and even above the brim,” Frost writes. “Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish, / kicking his way down through the air to the ground.” This sort of unstructured, imaginative play is increasingly lacking in an indoor, scheduled world—to children’s great detriment, argues Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, a book that explores research linking the absence of nature in children’s lives to rising rates of obesity, attention disorders, and depression. New evidence of the lack: a recent study that shows visits to national parks are down by as much as 25 percent since 1987. U.S. News spoke with Louv about the study and the emergence of “nature deficit disorder.” Excerpts:
The new study points to about a 1 to 1.3 percent yearly decline in national park visits in America. Why do you think this is happening?
I looked at the decline in national park usage in my book, and the most important reason for it is the growing break between the young and nature. Our constant use of television, video games, the Internet, iPods is part of what’s driving this. For example, a recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that kids between the ages of 8 and 18 spend an average of 6.5 hours a day with electronic media. But time and fear are also big factors. Many parents feel that if they don’t have their kids in every organized activity, they will fall behind in the race for Harvard. And we are scared to death as parents now of “stranger danger” and letting kids roam free.