Craig Bennett Finds Children's Nature Deficit: Unfortunately Common


"Fall Sunset Dutch Mill Farm" Oil, by Susan Duby

by Craig Bennett *

I recall reading about “nature deficit,” a term coined by Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, to describe a condition that affects children who spend virtually all of their time indoors in front of one kind of screen or another. Time spent with television, computers, cell phones, and the tablet-sized devices that incorporate features of all three has largely replaced the time kids used to spend outside, playing ball in vacant lots, exploring patches of woods, hunting for tadpoles, frogs, or crayfish in nearby ponds and streams—the multitude of different things Louv and his friends used to do when they were kids.

In that landmark book, Louv laments the fact that far too many kids today are growing up without much exposure to the outdoors and the natural world. That leaves them bereft of not only the sort of knowledge that only personal experience can confer, but also the kind of appreciation that such experience engenders. Kids who grow up without an appreciation for the value of nature will grow up to be adults who will not hesitate to turn still another patch of woods into a housing development or retail complex, vote for zoning laws and land use policies that leave no open space for wooded parks or natural areas, or pump tons of industrial waste into the handiest river or stream. Having spent nearly their entire lives either indoors or in highly organized activities closely supervised by adults, Louv points out that they will have missed out on “the contribution of nature to the spiritual life of the child, and therefore to the adult.”

One of the books I never got around to reading was one that I nevertheless remember, largely because of my ability to relate to its strikingly original title: Where did you go? Out. What did you do? Nothing. It’s a memoir of the author’s childhood in Mount Vernon, New York, during the nineteen-twenties. Published in 1957, it became a popular bestseller and remained widely read for some years after. I can’t recall ever having precisely such a conversational exchange with my parents as the book’s title suggests, but it was one that certainly could have taken place. Almost any time there was an opportunity, a friend or two and I would seek each other out and spend mornings, afternoons, and long summer evenings just doing nothing in particular. One of our favorite activities, however, was simply walking and talking. The streets of my small home town were entirely safe for anyone, young or old; and country roads, the river bank, and the railroad right-of-way were all a short walk from my house and offered relatively traffic-free space in which to explore the local environs to our heart’s content. This was probably how and where I first learned to love the outdoors and the natural world that existed there—and that love still burns quietly but persistently somewhere deep inside of me, illuminating the memory of experiences that nourished my own soul.

I can’t help recalling something I learned while I was hiking out of Zel am Ziller in the Austrian Alps. I had taken a téléphérique to reach a location on the mountain on the outskirts of town where a few different hiking trails begin. What I recall is noticing a small group of four or five boys, who looked to be about seven or eight years old, sitting on the metal stairs leading to and from the téléphérique “station” just above. “Ah!” I thought to myself. “Here’s a picture!”

I readied my camera and, mustering my practically non-existent German, smiled at them, wielded my camera, and asked, “Photo, bitte? Ja?” They looked at each other solemnly, as if to say, “OK. Do we want to humor this guy or be left alone?” After a pause, one of them looked at me somewhat grudgingly and replied, “Ja, ja. Photo.” I couldn’t help noticing a comparable lack of enthusiasm among the rest. But I aimed, pressed the shutter release, and had my picture. “Danke schöen,” I said, bowing slightly just to let them know that I wasn’t one of those obnoxious American tourists who tend to treat Europeans like staff members at a theme park.

I learned subsequently that, in that part of Austria at least, Friday is hiking day at school. The kids show up in the morning, but the first thing they do is to board a bus and head for the nearest mountain for a day of hiking. It is, I would imagine, like a full day of phys-ed. They get out into the fresh air and sunshine to spend the day on their feet and moving. And they apparently love it. They learn to appreciate the natural beauty of their homeland and to enjoy what is a sort of unofficial national pastime when they are still very young. As a result, they will grow up to value their mountains, trails, skiable slopes, forests, streams, and other natural features that they will be able to enjoy for the rest of their lives.

Unfortunately, we here in the Mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. don’t have such mountains available, at least not close enough for a day’s excursion; and those we do have are all firmly in the bush leagues as far as mountains are concerned. The closest thing to the Swiss or Austrian Alps that we have in this country are far west of the Mississippi. But we do have woods, streams, state and national forests, and an extensive system of state parks laced with networks of hiking trails. And hiking trails in the region—even in this general area—are not confined to those parks and forests. From where I sit writing, the Horseshoe Trail, Appalachian Trail, Schuylkill Canal Trail, and several local trails are within easy reach.

How nice it would be if groups of kids—preferably elementary school kids—would be taken a couple of times a month to spend the day hiking up and down the hills, among the trees, and along the streams. Not only would that go a long way toward addressing what Richard Louv refers to as nature deficit, but it might also imbue them with a sense of how important the availability of such things are to the overall quality of life in any area where houses are being built, retail centers are springing up to serve them, and businesses are constructing facilities to employ the people who move into them.

In my own observation and experience, a significant portion of that nature deficit is also tied to what has been lost: the acres of woodland, the undeveloped meadows, and the small, clear-flowing streams that provided not only sizeable areas that my childhood friends and I could explore, but also habitat for a rich variety of wildlife that is simply no longer there. My old friends and I miss those places, although we probably wouldn’t spend a great deal of time there at this point in our lives even if they still existed. But I have to wonder how many kids growing up in this area today will even be aware as adults of how much is being, and will have been, lost during their own lifetime.

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

* Craig H. Bennett, author of Nights on the Mountain and More Things in Heaven and Earth, available at,, and the Firefly bookstore in Kutztown, PA

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