Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Last Child in the Woods

I finally finished the book. It is filled with interesting things, but was not an easy read for me. I think that part of that is the writing reminds me of a newspaper column, only it is way too long. The author, Richard Louv, was a columnist for 23 years.

The book is written mostly in a sappy remember the good old days style. It intersperses personal stories with statistics and research reports, swaying between being almost a scholarly book and a cute collection of personal experiences urging you to join the movement. Personal experiences have their place and are interesting to read. But they do not necessarily work logically as a way to build cases. So there are many flaws to the book. But it is an interesting read.

The author's world view seems to come from that of a middle to upper income father of schooled children and he writes mainly to other parents in a similar situation. As an unschooler, much of the experiences he writes about do not apply to me or my family since we have already left that system and already strongly believe in children having free time to explore their world.

The concept of the natural frontiers as they have progressed thru America's history were fascinating to me. The idea of opening and building the fourth frontier was a lovely story, though I don't see it as realistic. It simply doesn't account for those of varying income levels and lifestyles.

The first frontier was the actual frontier our pioneer ancestors went out and tamed. Think of mountain men, explorers like Lewis & Clark, and Davy Crockett. It was theorized to have closed in America in 1890 by Frederick Jackson Turner, with the first census where there wasn't a continuous line of frontier on the map of the USA. The second frontier was the "Disney" view of the first frontier, think the Davy Crockett movie. with family farms being something almost everyone had a connection to - either from living on one or having a relative on one. This frontier ended in 1990, with the fact that the farm survey was now irrevelent in the US Census now that less than 1.9% of households were on farms - down from 40% in 1900. The third frontier is where we now live today.

Louv characterizes the third frontier by five trends. The severing of the public and private mind from the origins of our food, the disappearing line between machines, humans and other animals, our relationship with animals becoming increasingly only intellectual, the invasion of cities by wild animals, and the rise of a new kind of suburbia. I think this book is worth reading just to read about this thesis on the third frontier. Another large part of this third frontier is the criminalization of natural play. Where tree house building is illegal and exploring nature is to be done only with our eyes, not with our hands.

At the end of the book, Louv comes back and presents his idea for the establishment of the fourth frontier where we live in small green village suburbs. Where kids can freely explore nature and interact with it. He uses a story as the framework and draws the ideas from things that are actually happening in America. Green neighborhoods are being built or tried out.

The middle of the book is a muddy meandering walk through interesting ideas such as how nature might be the cure to ADHD, depression, obesity and our national spirituality. They all tie into the main thesis of the frontier, but we get lost easily from that. He talks about the legal threats that scare us all from allowing kids to climb trees or play together. The lack of natural history and interaction with nature in the schools is discussed and then places where camp and nature reform are creeping into life are heralded. Europe is greener than the USA in terms of green spaces within the cities and this is explored. There are so many good ideas in the middle, but how it ties into the whole book is hard to remember at times. The exposure to new ideas and things people are doing to involve children more in nature is certainly worthwhile.

For me, I giggle when he discusses the uselessness of the pervasive standardized tests that are taking over and controlling what is taught in the schools and then turns around and uses statistics like those culled from tests to describe what they ought to be doing. We certainly live in a society that does not understand and as a result, revers statistics. I said earlier how his use of personal experiences and stories can take away from the scholarly evidence in the book - there is a place for personal experiences in scholarly research, it is all in how you use it and approach it. Heartstring pulling isn't quite what you want.

Behind the index of the book in my edition is a field guide to the book with one hundred ideas of how to get involved, get back to nature and change our community for the better. This resource list makes the book valuable as well.

So I recommend you read the book. Or browse it at least, perhaps treating the sections as essays. Free play, and interaction with nature is a good thing. Forcing it on kids is not. How much time are you spending outside?


Christa, Queen of the Blog said...

Great review! I agree, we all need to be outside more. It's hard for us with a child who hates anything to do with nature though. I guess I will just have to keep dragging him to parks to play ;-).

Allie said...

How much time are you spending outside?

Answer: Well in a couple weeks we are going camping in Glen Rose for Fossilmania!

Yah, that's right...I'm on a fossil-kick!

Roni said...

What a thorough review. Thanks for sharing.

I really find your perspective interesting -- as I come from the opposite background: grew up on a corn & soybean farm (including raising livestock) in rural Iowa, the closest "big" town (i.e., population 1,400) was 12 miles away; and surrounded by "real" dirt roads. :-)

It's interesting how differently we all can see the world. :-)


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