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Last Child in the Woods, First Book in the Field

Originally appears in the Winter 2009-2010 issue

In 2005, a straightforward, tightly researched book with a powerful premise landed with a splash in environmental education’s pond — and that splash has been rippling through the profession ever since. The book has forged a bona fide movement, and its author has become the biggest star in the environmental education firmament.

The book is Last Child in the Woods, and its author is journalist Richard Louv. Since 2005, the book has sold some 325,000 copies in 21 printings, including an expanded and updated 2008 edition, and has been — or will be — translated into nine languages in 13 countries. Not many books related to environmental education crack the coveted bestseller list of The New York Times, and not since Steve Van Matre’s Acclimatization or Joseph Cornell’s Sharing Nature with Children, both children of the 70s, has a book burned this hot within environmental education circles. The core message of Last Child in the Woods is startlingly simple: in an unprecedented development, 21st century children are growing up disconnected from the natural world, a disconnection with numerous consequences. Weaving research from a wide array of disciplines — education, psychology, medicine, sociology — with interviews of professors and parents, children and child experts, the book immediately resonated with educators and naturalists, and has struck a nerve in popular culture.

Louv coined a new phrase, nature-deficit disorder, to characterize “the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.” That phrase has taken on a life of its own, with 440,000 Google hits and its own Wikipedia definition. And both Louv and that phrase have grabbed the attention of the content-hungry media: Orion magazine, Good Morning America, The Today Show, National Public Radio and The Washington Post — just to name a few — have featured Louv and his theories. An essay of his was published in The Times of London this summer, introducing the UK to Louvian thought. Many magazines have run pieces similar to one in Canadian Living that offered an interactive “Is Your Family Suffering from Nature Deficit Disorder?” online quiz. Even Opus, the penguin star of Berkeley Breathed’s long-running eponymous comic strip, was discovered OD’ing on video games, suffering from nature-deficit disorder.

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Mike Weilbacher is executive director of the Lower Merion Conservancy outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and travels the U.S performing environmental education theater. He blogs at <>.