It's been four years since journalist and author Richard Louv published Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder ($14.95, Algonquin Books), and people still deluge him with letters, comments and speaking requests.
"It definitely struck a nerve," Louv said from his home in San Diego. "I've never claimed this book is saying something completely new, but it's pulled together a lot of disparate pieces of information and perspectives, and has been able to articulate what a lot of people have been thinking in the back of our minds."
And what they've been thinking is that today's children have very different childhoods from the ones they had, when they spent unchaperoned hours exploring woods and streams behind their houses, or rode bikes with friends until suppertime. The reasons are numerous and complicated, from the incessant electronic distractions that lure kids to a media-driven and exaggerated fear of unsupervised playtime that soaks into parents' heads.
It's all leading, as we know, to increases in childhood obesity, ADD and ADHD, a lack of creativity in our children, and a lack of appreciation for the natural world, which needs all the appreciation it can get.
The answer, Louv says, is not too far away, it's free and it's something that can ease stress for parents, too. Take a walk in the woods. Go for a hike. Look for crawdads in a creek. New research shows time in nature can combat learning problems and hyperactivity, and improve problem-solving and self-esteem.
Louv can speak at length on the fears of danger to children compared to the actual risks, but he is also sympathetic to fear that is, by its nature, irrational. He just asks that parents balance possible risks with the actual rewards of letting a child loose in nature.
"Yes, there is danger out there, but there are also huge dangers of raising generations of children under house arrest," he said.
He's also sympathetic to yet another book telling parents yet another thing they should be doing to better raise their children.
"If you look at this in a different way: Parents are stressed to the max, parents are overwhelmed by the stresses of their jobs," he said. "But an adult who takes a child into nature receives the same benefits as the child does. This isn't another burdensome chore."
Louv continues to spread the word; he is now chairman of Children Nature Network (www.cnaturenet.org) a non-profit trying to reconnect children and nature.
In the latest edition of Last Child, Louv lists 100 ways people can improve their interaction with nature, from filling a bird feeder to hiking in the woods.
After all, many more children live in urban and suburban settings than did when Louv was a child.
"We have to do these things in a new way," he said. "In order to give many kids some semblance of unorganized experience in nature, we're probably going to have to organize it, with a sense of humor and creativity. We just stand back and let the kids dig a hole, not hover in the woods with nature flashcards.
"This is really about to the best of our ability standing back and letting kids have those dirty-hands-and-wet-feet experiences they need for healthy development."
Louv is speaking Tuesday at the 10th annual Unity in Education Lecture series sponsored by Sayre School and the Lexington School.