Book Review: Last Child in the Woods – Richard Louv

Last Child in the Woods - Richard Louv (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008)
Last Child in the Woods – Richard Louv (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008)

I knew before I began Last Child in the Woods that I was likely to find myself agreeing with Richard Louv. Children today play outside less than previous generations. Children today should play outside more. Playing outside – especially unstructured outdoor play – has a myriad of benefits for children and their families. This is the essential point of the book and one that is basically stated over and over again in slightly different ways.

Which isn’t to say Last Child is not a worthwhile read. Louv has one major point to make and so he really drives that point home. However, this is a zone where very little research has been done and so Louv begins on ground zero and attempts to lay a foundation. I may have agreed with him before I even started the book (after all, it’s one of the reasons our family has chosen to live where we do) but he’s also talking to parents and educators and city planners who may have more trepidations.

Louv goes into some of the reasons why children don’t play outdoors as much as they used to. The reasons here are interesting because there are actually a lot of them. Fear, politics, urban sprawl, among others. My generation (Louv specifically mentions those 30 and under) is one of the first to have spent more time indoors than out in our own childhoods and so this has repercussions as to how we raise our children now. Even if we want our kids to spend more time outside, we don’t always know how to go about making that happen. Or, even more likely, we don’t live in places where that’s easy to do. (Louv is an American and is specifically taking about life in the United States. Some, thought not all, of what he discusses is applicable to Canada. In countries beyond that, I can’t say and Louv doesn’t delve into it.)

Louv spends a lot of time detailing the ways that outdoor play benefits children, as well as their families, communities and the environment at large. I thought some of the most interesting research (and because there’s been very little “official” research in this area, most of what he shares is largely anecdotal and of his own gathering) focused on the difference between structured and unstructured play. Meaning, kids playing at the local playground is great but free play in the vacant lot down the street or in the woods behind their neighbourhood is actually far more advantageous for their creative development, self-esteem, and ability to learn about the world around them.

So while the book felt longer than it needed to be, it also has some great points and information to it. As a parent, it was encouraging to read something that coincides with the way I view raising kids. If you’re more on the fence about letting your kids play in that vacant lot, Louv offers some great reasons as to why to let them go. It will at least give you something to think about.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Last Child in the Woods – Richard Louv”

  1. Personally, I wouldn’t be willing to believe a book full of anecdotal evidence. If we are talking just anecdotal evidence, I would say as someone who was let loose every day in the middle of no where on a dirt road during the summer, and who was completely unsupervised, it’s very difficult to actually play and be creative without being destructive or cruel. Supervision helps kids learn the basics of parameters when considering how to treat others. 2-4 unsupervised kids become more like Lord of the Flies, in my experience.

    Now, if parents were there and we had sand and some junk from around the house that we could use in the sand (not necessarily “sand toys”) I could make a whole day of it. Creative, but starts with an idea. But that old cliche of “go outside, get some fresh air” makes my blood boil. The first thing we would do was stand outside, feeling the sweat running down our faces, and say, “Well, now WTF do we do?” And then we’d go harass the neighbor kid and light the woods on fire. No, that’s not hyperbole.

    1. Louv is very upfront about it being mostly anecdotal evidence and how that’s mainly because there is so little research into what he’s talking about. He has a definite bias and speaks to and interviews people who support that bias for sure.

      Your point about kids on their own is one Louv never touches on. In fact, he seems to be thinking a lot more about kids alone in the wilderness rather than kids with other kids. But yeah, kids without supervision can be really awful/destructive and Louv sort of creates an ideal, quiet, introspective kid who sits quietly and contemplates life and builds forts. Not necessarily realistic! He does talk about having more unstructured spaces in public play areas – like your sand idea. I grew up in the city so the most unsupervised playtime I had was in the back alley. Where, yeah, we could get pretty destructive too!

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