Give us some open spaces

Published: Sunday 31 July 2005

-- Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder By Richard Louv Algongquin Books New York 2005

Much of human history has been a slow but determined movement away from wild areas. But it hasn't been until very recently that urban living has been the norm rather than the exception. Though urban numbers are much higher in many western countries, the mass exodus out of rural areas in roaring economies such as India and China is also well-documented. 80 per cent of the us population now lives in metropolitan areas. In comparison about 30 per cent of the Indian population lives in urban centres, but let's not forget that's a rising trend .

The un now predicts that by 2030, 60 per cent of the world's population will live in urban and suburban areas. The ramifications of such a paradigm shift are quite significant. Discussions on such a shift generally focus on issues such as food production, spiking population densities and waste-management infrastructure. This book under review points to a unique aspect of this shift: what do we know of how an existence deprived of natural spaces impacts kids?

In Last child in the woods, us -based child- expert Richard Louv points out that today's children are probably the first generation growing up with little to no direct experience with nature. "I like to play indoors because that's where all the outlets are," explains one of his hundreds of young interviewees. Louv proposes the term "nature-deficit disorder" to analyse the little studied phenomenon.

A loaded term Now, nature is a loaded and widely subjective term. Although Louv has much to say about pristine areas that many commonly associate this term with, his real emphasis comes down to an open-ended idea of general unstructuredness. The author would have done well to offer us a more cogent definition. Indeed, the idea of nature as unkempt and pristine is us- centric. It surely does not hold for the Third World.

However, Louv's emphasis on the recent disappearance of what he calls children's "exploratory freedom" is worth examining. He links this to current near-epidemics of childhood obesity, depression and attention-deficit disorder (add). "Studies have repeatedly shown that simply spending time in nature can even preclude the need for pharmacological or behavioural therapies," notes Louv. But this is a solution that leads to another question: why has this link between the lack of open spaces and ailments such as add remained unexplored in the first place?

Blame it on adults Louv suggests that both parents and legislators are part of the problem. As parents try to provide better lives for their children, the trend is for all members of the family to work longer hours -- parents try for larger incomes while simultaneously filling up their children's schedules with 'constructive' activities. At national policy levels, the thinking is similar: play is irrelevant when compared to productivity.

There is a critical corollary to such thinking. A huge emphasis of the environment movement, has, over the past several decades, been on legal and political processes -- on the adult world. Louv notes that the movement has targeted kids in only one way: opening the eyes of students to a few environmental problems. The author does not discount the important of such an approach. He, however, argues that the method is likely to prove futile if it's not accompanied with similar approaches to open children's eyes to the calm and beauty and magic of natural, unkempt land. "Teach a classroom to associate the environment only with problems and that's just what children will learn," says Louv.

But there is hope Louv devotes full -- even optimistic -- chapters to ongoing and potential responses to the current situation. The 'Green Cities' movement, emphasising stringent urban planning, has made its mark over much of western Europe and has had surprising gains in the us.

Further, a 2002 report funded by the us government produced "stunning" findings: "Environment-based education -- that had students out of the classroom -- improves student performance in a broad range of courses, including raising the much-hyped standardised test scores". "Attachment to nature is not only good for the child, but for the land as well,." Louv concludes. One only wishes he had not conflated nature with the "pristine, wild".

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