Book Review/Response: Last Child in the Woods

A valley in VirginiaGreetings hikers, today for something a little different: a book response! A large part of my veganism is political; I am trying to live responsibly and challenge the intersecting oppressions and destruction of the meat and dairy industries.

When I was a child, my parents frequently took myself and my siblings on car-camping trips. I was encouraged to play outside, to ride my bike in the neighborhood, and explore the patch of woods behind my house. The summers after seventh and eighth grade I was lucky enough to go to an outdoor adventure-style camp that included plenty of backpacking, hiking, and climbing. I personally credit these experiences with sparking my interest in outdoor activities, protecting the Earth, and hiking.

Since it’s original publication in 2005, Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv has become a classic of the movement to reconnect children with nature. Louv makes a powerful argument for the need of children to have regular, unstructured, outdoor play time in undeveloped “fringe” areas of nature. He connects childhood outdoor playtime with development, disease, and cognitive abilities, as well as a healthy appreciation for the outdoors. He writes of the declining amount of time that children spend in the outdoors, and the negative impacts on society. His argument is compelling and we should all listen.

Despite my general agreement with the arguments made in the book, I have one main critique: Louv does not acknowledge his privilege as a white, middle-class, male, nor does he make efforts to explore how his background has shaped his ideas. He discusses suburbs, parents’ play time with kids, access to parks, as if these are universal. His few discussions of non-white folks, especially in the urban environment, come off as dismissive and patronizing.

His only examples of diversity are in describing programs for troubled urban youth that he introduces as “boyz of the hood become boyz of the woods” (pg. 55). The boys in question are part of a California program called Urban Corps, but he calls their leaders “Anglo” instead of white, and transcribes quotes from the boys while preserving the slang and dropped syllables in their language, something he does not do in other stories. This diminishing of their lived experiences is part of the problem in the environmental movement. By describing them as “boyz” instead of just boys, and emphasizing their way of speech instead of their discoveries in the outdoors, Louv reinforces the dominant white history of environmentalism, that it is “new” and “foreign” to young people of color and must be taught by us. This is an unfortunate and problematic way to describe what sounds like a good program.

To build an accessible, universal appreciation of the living world around us, we should heed Louv’s call to emphasize childhood outdoor play. But we should also work actively to take down the barriers to the outdoors that keep so many from the experience. It’s time to talk about why outdoor recreation and adventures like thru-hikes are predominantly white activities. Until we recognize the issues of class and privilege that have shaped historical outdoor activities and the dominant environmental groups–and challenge them–we will never be able to reverse nature-deficit disorder.

What do you think? How can we address diversity and equity in the outdoor world?

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Book Review/Response: Last Child in the Woods

  1. Sam, you make good points. Since “Last Child,” though, I’ve written another book, “The Nature Principle,” that does talk more about class, a concept “natural cultural capacity,” urban neighborhoods, and the cultural and familial shaping of my own views. Also, the Children & Nature Network (www.childrenandnature.org), along with many of my blog posts over the past few years, also address these issues. We can, of course, always do more. Suggestions welcome. Thanks for the thoughtful review.

    • Samwise

      Richard, I’m humbled that you read my review and responded! I definitely want to emphasize that I believe Last Child in the Woods is an incredibly important book. I personally enjoyed it and recommend it. Thanks for being open to expanding the boundaries of this work… I haven’t yet read The Nature Principle, but it is now certainly on my list.

  2. Neil Rhodes

    It isn’t that outdoor events are something that only Caucasians do, it’s that people of color are disproportionately poor. Hiking and camping gear are expensive. Those activities require time off, which most of the working poor do not have. Even if they do, it requires making a trip out to trails, parks, and forest preserves which they are unable to do due to lack of transportation, limited funds, or ignorance of what is available.

    While making these activities more accessible to the poor is important, we first had to help them understand why it is important. To that end, The Sierra Club (who, in all honesty, take part in making outdoor activities financially inaccessible) do have a great urban outreach program for kids called Inner City Outings which involves hiking, camping, and other outdoor activities. The website can be found here:

    http://www.sierraclub.org/ico/

    Apart from that, working to help ensure everyone has access to a good education, a living wage, transportation, healthcare, etc. is the only way we are gong to get to including everyone in the outdoor experience.

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