No kidding, Nature Deficit Disorder is real

In Other Words


I recently heard a term in passing that immediately piqued my interest. At first I thought it was a made-up psychological disorder or simply a catchy term to describe a growing problem. But after doing a little research, I found that Nature Deficit Disorder is, in fact, a very real condition that can affect our children’s health and future.

The term was coined in the 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv and encompasses the growing disconnection the current generation of children’s experience with their natural surroundings and nature.

Two weeks ago I wrote my column about the benefits technology can have on children. While I still think that this is true, keeping those screen time limits may now be more important than ever. By stressing the importance of technology on our children’s future, are we subtly implying that other things, such as nature, are not important too?

Louv makes it a point in discussing Nature Deficit Disorder that increased screen time is definitely one of the main problems in the growing disconnection with nature, but the real problem lies with parents. Overprotective and over-scheduled parents ignite in children a real fear of the outdoors. By constantly demanding that children stay within sight of us, we may be imparting to them that nature is scary and unsafe, thereby instilling in them a disinclination to really explore and interact with nature.

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When children do get into nature, parents and teachers often tell children to “look but don’t touch.” This mantra was introduced when our increasingly overpopulated planet began to infringe upon fragile natural places and protecting the environment became a mainstream idea. But Louv argues that we keep our children separated from nature at a cost. Children are very physical beings and thrive best when using all their senses. Literally putting their hand in a pile of mud or running their fingers alongside the bumpy underbelly of a fern will do much more to develop a relationship with nature than simply looking at it could ever do.

When we do succeed in tearing our children away from the screens, we tend to shepherd them toward structured outdoor play like soccer or baseball. And while these are important activities for developing motor skills and getting good exercise, we should not depend on them as the only outside play a child needs in any given week. A recent study by the University of Michigan studied children aged 3 to 12 over a 16-year period and determined that their free time declined by 7.5 hours a week and that outdoor free play was down 50 percent.

Current trends forecast for the first time in human history that this generation of children will have shorter lifespans than their parents. Much of this is due to the prevalence of obesity among our adults and children. Recent numbers put 36 percent of American adults as obese, along with 9 million children.

But quality of life will also be different. Children who experience Nature Deficit Disorder are more prone to attention and mood disorders, depression and even have lower grades in school. A recent study at the University of Illinois proved that interaction with nature reduced symptoms of ADD in school aged children. Conversely, other studies in California at schools that use outdoor education showed significant gains in social studies, science, language arts and math.

There is an organization pushing now to develop the No Child Left Inside Act, increasing environmental education in schools and in children’s lives across the country. Their hope is that by providing education about and in the outdoors, it will naturally lead children to wish to explore it outside of school hours as well.

Although psychologists still don’t quite understand it, there is widespread acknowledgement that we as humans still need, on a biological level, direct interaction with nature. Some remnant from our hunter-gatherer existence, no doubt, but perhaps a good reminder that we were once very closely tied to our natural environment.

Now, the first stirrings of spring outside my window remind me that it is the season of renewal. I can’t think of a better time to reconnect to that natural world.


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