Books · Simple life

Book review – Last Child in the Woods

I woke last Sunday morning with the itching need to Do Something, and get out of the house. We decided on a walk somewhere and I was trying to think of locations – drive to the mountains? Drive to the bayside? Then I remembered something I’d recently read in Last Child in the Woods – that it’s important to make sure to explore nearby, to have a connection with the environment around you. So close to home we stayed.

We went for a walk recently in the forest near our house, a place that is surprisingly quiet given its location among main roads. We moved at toddler speed, as he examined every rock, picking up a few, putting them down again, and examining them closely.

I’ve been reading bits of this book for the last month, and I feel like I need to take notes while I’m reading it. I grew up with easy access to nearly 100 acres of land, our own little kingdom, full of the types of places that Richard Louv describes in this book – undeveloped space, creeks, trees for climbing and building forts, places to have private spaces and alone time to let my brain settle. We also spent holidays in a place without electricity, and while I spent a lot of time reading, there was also time outside exploring. Since my children will have a much different childhood, growing up in suburbia in the city, I thought this book might have a few suggestions for me on how to build similar experiences without the benefit of 100 acres at hand. 

This book talks about how important it is to allow children to build a connection with the natural world around them, and suggests that it may help children with ADHD to learn how to calm themselves, although I think it might just be the lack of extra stimulation in the outdoors that helps this, along with wearing children out.

While this is a book written about life in the United States, there’s still some relevant points for life in Australia.

The part that I found most interesting was the idea that some nature needs to be sacrificed for children to play, experiment, build dams in creeks and tree forts and pull things apart in order to form a good bond to our natural world, and the inclination to protect it when they are older. This is what I am hoping to do with our garden – my little boy pulls off the tomatoes before they are ripe (often saying, “Nooo” to himself as he does it), pulls out seedlings if he can reach them, picks flowers every day and will often help me weed and pull out plants at random. I hope that by sacrificing a few plants now and allowing him to be a real part of the process, he will develop a connection and appreciation of our garden as he grows.

The discussion of how important “unstructured natural sites” are in children’s play did have me rethinking (yet again) my plans for the backyard – I would like it all neat, sections for everything, a lovely landscaped yard, but is that best? Should we leave the untidy parts – it’s still a backyard and not a natural site (in my mind, at least) but there will be more opportunities for imaginative play that way.

The book does suggest a balance between allowing children freedom and wanting to protect them – assess risks fairly, it suggests, ask them to carry a mobile phone when they’re out exploring, make sure they always take a friend or a dog (and a friend and a dog) if you’re worried about them going alone. Take them on walks and look for birds, explore local parks, look for insects, and allow them time to just be outside.

One opinion in the book is that children exposed to nature “is required to make decisions not often encountered in a more constricted, planned environment – ones that not only present danger, but opportunity… They’ve all had adrenaline-thumping whitewater experiences and spent moonless nights burrowed into their sleeping bags, imagining all manner of evils outside. Whatever neurons were firing then and whatever coping/adaptive responses they practised now put them at some advantage in the world.” (page 182)

There is a list at the end of the book of “100 actions we can take”, and here’s a few easily achievable ones:
– build a sandpit.
– introduce native flora and fauna into your life.
– be a cloud spotter.
– go camping in the backyard.
– plant a garden.

The things I will try to remember to apply from the book is the important of just being outside, allowing Little F to be involved in gardening, exploring places close to home instead of searching out more “exciting” ones, and slowing down to look properly at the world around us.

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