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Advice for the overscheduled

Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder
By Richard Louv
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 336 pp., $24.95

Deconstructing Penguins: Parents, Kids, and the Bond of Reading
By Lawrence and Nancy GoldstoneBallantine, 224 pp., paperback, $13.95

Confessions of a Slacker Wife
By Muffy Mead-Ferro
Da Capo, 214 pp., paperback, $12.95

As a child, I had plenty of time for free-form play. I took music lessons once a week, and that was it for my extracurricular activities. Now, my upwardly mobile parents would be termed slackers. What, no prep classes or varsity sports? No French lessons or acting classes? Today's kids are probably on the fast track to the Ivy League, but they're missing out on a world we, as children, took for granted.

In his provocative new book, ''Last Child in the Woods," Richard Louv offers a pointed critique of this brave new world our children live in. Gone are the hours spent fishing and netting butterflies. All these activities are labeled dangerous to either the species or the environment. As for that backyard tree house? Don't even try to build one; it's a lawsuit waiting to happen. And good luck finding that empty lot for a game of capture the flag. What with suburban sprawl, there's barely enough space left for two trees to huddle together. Yet if, as Louv believes, ''a stronger adult emerges from a childhood in which the physical body is immersed in the challenge of nature," then aren't our children missing out? Louv argues yes, and gives abundant examples of how nature is a curative, including studies that show children with attention deficit disorder making real strides after immersion in the natural world.

And then there are the intellectual challenges. ''A natural environment is far more complex than any playing field," Louv argues. Building a tree house would be well nigh impossible without taking into account some basic laws of physics. As for spiritual sustenance, it's hard to find anything more majestic and humbling than the view from a sleeping bag set out under a canopy of stars. This book is an absolute must-read for parents.

In ''Deconstructing Penguins," Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone propose a different approach to enriching our children's lives. The Goldstones have been leading a parent-child book group for six years, one that focuses on elementary and early middle-school readers. Their task was to engage younger readers and make them think deeply about literature. In this age of dwindling readership, it sounds a Sisyphean task at best, yet apparently the Goldstones more than succeeded. The authors show a novice how to dig into texts as varied and challenging as Jack London's ''The Call of the Wild" and Lois Lowry's ''The Giver." If you follow the Goldstones' lead, you'll have no trouble getting your own group up and running, hopefully jump-starting a new generation of eager readers.

Of course, forming a book group or building a tree house requires time, something that most of us find sorely lacking. In ''Confessions of a Slacker Wife," Muffy Mead-Ferro suggests that's because the modern American wife has been duped. ''Being a wife itself is now subject to standards of perfection and levels of performance that are unrealistic and unnecessary." Instead of ticking off the entries on your to-do list, she advises, let the clothes pile up and dispense with that haunting anxiety, one that she blames on the advertising industry. Once, long ago, there was no ring around the collar, and life was still worth living. Mead-Ferro's indictment is humorous and encouraging. She believes that marriage and parenting work better when you learn to slack off. So take a stroll through the woods, read a great book together, or spend an afternoon in frivolous play. Why? Because time spent with those you love most really is priceless.

Naomi Rand's third Emma Price mystery, ''It's Raining Men," will be published in August.

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