Nature Deficit Disorder

Recently doing some consulting work in Alberta, I stepped out of a meeting and strolled into an adjoining parking lot for a quick stretch. I looked up, gasped, and stopped dead in my tracks.

Directly ahead and looking almost surreal in the glistening afternoon sunlight, lay a stunning, majestic view of the Rocky Mountains that rivaled anything I’ve seen on a postcard.

Having been immersed in an intense morning of thinking and strategizing, I felt compelled to soak in the moment and gradually felt myself being overtaken by a feeling of calm.  In addition to the sense of calm, the view also served to put everything into much greater perspective. Those mountains, in all their glory, served as a reminder that my little world of issues and challenges was a tiny little piece of the much greater and more important puzzle of life.

Like the many generations that came before me, I’ve always had the benefit of reminders from nature.  As did many other boomers, my siblings and I spent hours roaming nearby fields, forests, and ponds. However, things today are different and there are growing concerns that a significant number of children have little or no interaction with nature.

Many of these concerns are documented in a book by Robert Louv entitled “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder”.

Louv traveled across the country to interview 3,000 parents and kids about the changing landscape of family life. 

One of the themes that emerged from those interviews was the sense that something profound was changing in the relationship between children and nature.

One little boy told him he preferred playing indoors because “that’s where all the electrical outlets are”.  And, while Louv is able to cite some evidence, there isn’t a lot to formally prove there is a growing divide between children and nature.

We do know that kids spend 44 hours a week plugged into electronic media, more time in the car, and more time in organized and structured recreation and sports. 
We also know the radius kids tend to go away from their house has shrunk to one-ninth of what it was 30 years ago.
While I may have to plead guilty to waxing poetic about my own childhood in the woods, it isn’t simply about nostalgia. When you think about it, until fairly recently, generations of children have spent a great deal of their childhood playing or working in natural settings. Now they don’t. The implications for children’s physical and mental health, as well as for the future of environmentalism are enormous.

Louv suggests that a lack of connection to nature may be at least partially to blame for this generation’s struggles with obesity, depression, and learning and behavior disorders. He also suggests that increasing kids’ exposure to nature-based experiences and education may provide at least a partial remedy for these ills.

So why aren’t kids more in tune with nature?

Obviously technology is a part of it – there’s no doubt that television and video games are fun and distracting. 

However, the number one reason parents give for not encouraging their kids to play outdoors is that they’re afraid of their children being abducted. The irony is that when the statistics are examined almost all abductions are by family members, and the number have decreased over the last decade. One study shows that kids are safer outside the home than at any time since the 1970s.

But the really interesting research, and there isn’t much of it, is that which links nature to healthy child development.

We know that those who have a view of a natural landscape heal faster. Now researchers are observing kids playing on natural playgrounds, as opposed to concrete playgrounds. On a natural playground, children think more creatively and are much more likely to invent their own games and play more cooperatively.

There’s also research on attention-deficit disorder that shows even a little bit of exposure to nature decreases ADD symptoms (Attention Deficit Disorder) even in kids as young as five. The researchers suggest we add nature therapy to the other two traditional therapies for ADD - behavioral modification and drug therapy - because many parents are noticing significant changes in their hyperactive child’s behavior when their child participated in informal, nature-oriented outings.

There are a number of parents who intuitively have known it was important to get their kids outdoors even if it’s just letting them play in “nearby nature” such as the ravine behind their house or the little wooded area down the block. Those kinds of spaces are hugely important to children and need to be protected. 

What else can parents, caregivers and others who interact with kids do?  Encourage children to play outdoors, study or play in rooms with a view of nature, and advocate for recess in green schoolyards. This may be especially helpful for renewing children’s concentration. Also, the planting and caring of trees and vegetation in your yard and in your community will be important.

All of this, in combination with more time in nature, less television and more stimulating play and educational settings may go a long way toward healthier child development, reduced attention deficits, and, perhaps more importantly, increased joy in life.

Ultimately, it’s pretty simple. Take you and your kids outside.

Posted on 10-28-07

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