Blog 3: Louv – Last Child in the Woods

Reading through the assigned excerpt of Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods I was mostly struck by how much sense it made. His basic point is that being in nature is good for kids. I tend to be a critical person by default so this made me think back to my childhood to see if I could find any counter-evidence. Growing up I lived all over the place because my dad was in the army and most of the places we lived, probably intentionally – my mom is a big Richard Louv fan, were very “green;” by which I mean we lived near a small forest, creek, or pond. We often visited my grandma’s family in small town Iowa where for a week or two we were outside more than we were inside. I can remember when we lived in Kansas playing paintball in the forest separating Fort Leavenworth from the Missouri River and during the winter playing on the ice where the Missouri’s offshoots had frozen. In Virginia we would run around the forest that our neighborhood backed up to, playing and exploring and doing what kids do. The exception to this was when we lived in Seoul, South Korea – the second most populated metro area in the world and the eleventh most densely populated city with more than a million people. Before we moved to Korea I had been a pretty good student, getting mostly As and a few Bs but my two years in Seoul that shifted to getting mostly Bs and more Cs than As. It’s very possible that that was simply because I entered middle school and courses were harder or I didn’t take it seriously because my friends didn’t or any number of reasons but looking back after reading Louv’s argument I think it’s possible that it was because we lived in downtown Seoul with very few green areas.

Yongsan Garrison
A view of part of Yongsan Garrison, Seoul, South Korea.

I’ve long thought that ADHD was overdiagnosed and overmedicated. Growing up, my brother – who grew up in the same mostly green environments I did – was very fidgety in class and would get bored and stop paying attention. Some of his teachers suggested getting him diagnosed and on some sort of ADHD medication but most just chalked it up to being a boy. Had he been born ten years later I’m of the opinion that he would have been essentially forced into getting examined and that examination would have resulted in an ADHD diagnosis. A few years later, he grew out of being so fidgety and restless and it turns out that he just didn’t like school, preferring to work with his hands. I think it would’ve been a disservice to him to treat him with medication for that, even if he really does or did have mild ADHD.

As Louv says repeatedly, more research on the subject is needed because we really don’t understand ADHD all that well. After reading the excerpt from his book, he’s convinced me that having kids spend more time in nature and incorporating more nature into our everyday lives in general can help those with ADHD by allowing them to live more normal lives. Certainly there will still be people whose ADHD is so severe that it requires medication but all else being equal, I think the vast majority of people would agree that treating a kid with a daily 20 minute walk in the park is better than treating him with a daily dose of Ritalin. Louv notes, “[m]ore time in nature […] may go a long way toward reducing attention deficits in children, and, just as important, increasing their joy in life.” I wholeheartedly agree.

Fort Leavenworth
A picture taken on Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

After detailing the existing evidence in support of his position Louv says, “[e]ven the most extensive research is unlikely to capture the full benefits of direct, natural experience” which he accentuates with an Einstein quote. This strikes me as a cop-out. It’s a common tactic in a debate which could hinge on the outcome of the future event to hedge your position by laying out a justification in case that future event doesn’t go your way. Louv frames this hedge so that if future research supports his position he can say that the research is positive in spite of the research not capturing the full benefits and if future research refutes his position he can say that it would have been positive if it could fully capture the benefits of the nature. This is akin to what SEC football fans do every season: if the best SEC team goes undefeated then they’re the best team in the country which is proof that the SEC is the best and if no SEC team goes undefeated then that’s also proof that the SEC is the best because the SEC is such a tough conference that it’s expected that every team will lose at least a game. I think Louv’s argument is strong enough that he didn’t need this logical fallacy to make his case, in fact I think him using that weakens his argument.

“They also found, that the positive influence of near-home nature on concentration may be more pronounced for girls (ages six to nine) than for boys” was something that Louv covered that I found a little unclear. He had previously implied that ADHD disproportionately affected boys and seemed to be focusing his argument along that line then throws in research that showed that girls benefited more from near-home nature than boys. This result suggests another variable is at work and undermines his argument that nature is a good treatment for ADHD to some extent, although it bolsters his argument that nature is good for all kids – an argument not many would argue with. So based on this, I imagine that either I read too much into his assumptions or he was unclear at some point because it would be extremely unusual to present evidence that complicates your argument as supporting it.

Ultimately, reading Richard Louv’s excerpt corroborated things that I had read in other places and preexisting biases from my childhood that I have. For example, a few years ago the twitter account @GhettoHikes became extremely popular because it was funny but the underlying situation supports Louv’s argument: getting kids in an urban environment out in nature is good for them. In addition, one of the things that struck me most about Edmund Morris’s biographies of Teddy Roosevelt was how much credit both Morris and Roosevelt gave to being in nature in regards to Roosevelt’s successful life. I think that as research continues it will show that being in nature is an important health, economic, and societal benefit and will help incentivize making cities greener. If a business can get 10% more productivity out of employees by converting an auxiliary building to a garden then they will do it if it makes economic sense.

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