Free the Xbox Kids!

What wil it take to break our wired children out of their virtual prisons?

Jun 1, 2005
Outside Magazine
books review

Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder
By Richard Louv
(Algonquin Books, $25)

By Michael D. Eisner
(Warner Books, $23)

Writings on Summer Camp
Edited by Eric Simonoff
(Riverhead, $14)

IF YOUR CHILDHOOD was like mine, it was marked by days spent tromping aimlessly in the mud, wading in creeks, and building forts in the forest. Of course, if you were born after 1980, it's possible you did none of those things. As parenting expert Richard Louv details in his startling new book, Last Child in the Woods, for the past 25 years children have been losing touch with the landscape. "Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment," he writes, "but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading." What's more, he explains, citing recently published studies and his own extensive interviews with parents and educators, kids who are alienated from the natural world are often short on confidence, creativity, and intelligence, and more likely to be depressed, distracted, and overweight. They suffer, in short, from a variety of emotional, physical, and spiritual problems, which Louv collectively terms "nature-deficit disorder." A journalist and author of the 1993 book Childhood's Future, Louv blames a host of factors, including our overscheduled, tech-obsessed culture and a litigious society. When vacant-lot owners chase kids away for fear of lawsuits, and gated communities ban pond fishing, is it any wonder kids spend their days mastering Grand Theft Auto? Safety-obsessed guardians don't help, either. "My parents are always worrying about me," one boy tells Louv. "So I'll just go, and usually not tell 'em where I'm going... I'll just sit behind a tree or something, or lay in the field with all the rabbits." Kids enjoy discovering life beyond the plasma-screen TV, Louv argues; indeed, it doesn't take a Ph.D. to realize that nature helps kids develop their senses and learn to take risks.

Louv wouldn't get any argument from Michael Eisner or Eric Simonoff, whose new books celebrate the grand American tradition of summer camp. "My family has been attending Camp Keewaydin in Salisbury, Vermont, for over eighty years," writes outgoing Disney CEO Eisner in Camp, a slim paean to this New England institution that's produced alums like writer John McPhee, publisher Roger Straus, and, yes, this Hollywood kingpin. Camp recounts Eisner's experience in the bland jolly-ho language of a corporate speech extolling the merits of fresh air and craft cabins. Which, actually, is how the book came about. A speech Eisner gave to a camping conference in early 2002 inspired him to write at length about his own experiences. "Camp taught me a lot of little things, and the experiences accumulated into some big 'stuff,' stuff that builds backbone and teaches lessons that keep popping up in adulthood," he writes. But given the presence of James B. Stewart's withering Eisner exposé DisneyWar on the bestseller lists, Camp comes off as strange and almost creepy—so full of apple-pie sentiments that it leaves the impression of an embattled executive straining to prove that a big heart beats beneath his slick suit.

Much more satisfying are the camp memories of David Sedaris, Kevin Canty, and 17 other contemporary writers collected in Eric Simonoff's Sleepaway. New York literary agent Simonoff kicks things off with a fond remembrance of his childhood Poconos camp, "where I knew I wouldn't be that weird, bookish kid who always had his hand up in class—where, instead, I would be the popular kid, the lifelong camper who knew all the counselors, all the camp songs." His book isn't all cheers and marshmallows, though. Novelist Margaret Atwood contributes a dark tale of a girl whose disappearance on a canoe trip haunts a campmate, and essayist Mark Oppenheimer survives leftist camps in Vermont and New York, where Quaker counselors square-dance in the buff. Guitarist (and Del Fuegos founder) Dan Zanes turns in the most surprising performance: "It wasn't until I went away to summer camp as a twelve-year-old in 1973 that I realized what it meant to actually make music with other people," he writes. He captures a theme that runs through Sleepaway, Camp, and Last Child in the Woods: When we're outside—whether at canoe camp or in an empty neighborhood lot—we figure out who we are and who we want to be.

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