Nature Deficit Disorder

Kids suffer when they have no contact with the natural world.

Nature Deficit Disorder

Photo: Kathy Labranche


A quick question. How many hours does your child sit in front of a luminescent screen (meaning a TV, computer, game boy, X-box, etc.) per day?

One hour? Two hours? Three hours? For the average North American child, the answer is an astonishing four and half hours. In other words, kids are spending more time watching TV and hunched over computers or gaming systems than they are engaged in any other pastime with the exception of sleeping and going to school. That means children are spending most of their time indoors and little time outdoors in the natural environment.

In his inspiring book,  Last Child in the Woods, author Richard Louv describes what can happen if a child has little or no contact with the natural world. He cites soaring levels of obesity in children, a marked increase in ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), feelings of stress, and social awkwardness as some of the unintended consequences of a childhood spent indoors.

Ask yourself this. Does your child know the characters of a cartoon better than the names of the trees and plants in his schoolyard? Can he navigate his way through a computer game more confidently than he can through the nearby woods? How familiar is he with the living natural community around him – the sounds of backyard birds, the surrounding grove of trees or the wetland by the edge of the road? Are we becoming, as environmental philosopher Neil Evernden suggests, “natural aliens” in our own backyard?

When I grew up (and perhaps this sounds familiar to you), I was allowed to play without supervision. I, along with a gang of friends, climbed trees, built forts and rambled in nearby woods. Luckily, I lived in a subdivision skirting the edge of a conservation area. From wading through cattail marshes to playing hide and seek among towering white pines, I felt a deep and abiding connection to my environment. I felt as though I belonged to a place, that the green space in and around my house was every bit a part of my home as the building I slept in. I credit these experiences for my love of teaching children about the outdoors and, indeed, my present career.

Research bears out the connection. In 1980, educational researcher T. Tanner interviewed close to 200 environmentalists from around the world. He asked them about the childhood experiences that had inspired them to want to protect the environment. All of them described having rich encounters with the natural world while they were growing up. They tramped through marshes, they visited cottages and outdoor centres, they hiked, they canoed and they discovered. In short, they engaged with their natural surroundings and felt that they were an integral part of it.

Where will tomorrow’s environmentalists come from when these formative experiences no longer take place during childhood? Who will advocate for shrinking habitat and the containment of urban sprawl? Who will speak for threatened and endangered species and for our own green spaces?

Richard Louv has a chilling term for those children who grow up in a world without nature. He coined the phrase “Nature Deficit Disorder” to describe some of the characteristics associated with a childhood spent indoors. He does not use the term in a medical sense. Rather, he wants us to consider what the long-term impacts might be to a child who grows up having little or no contact with the natural world. Here are just some of his findings:

Rates of childhood obesity in Canada have almost tripled over the past 20 years. That’s largely because children are spending such long periods of time indoors (and therefore not participating in regular exercise). Recently, a study from the Institut de la Statistique du Québec revealed that 25 per cent of nine-year-olds and 50 per cent of 16-year-olds are at risk of acquiring heart disease later in life because of the lack of physical activity and high rates of obesity.

A technologically saturated childhood does not allow today’s children to make full use of their senses. By being continually bombarded with loud sounds, flashing images and large chunks of information, children are losing the ability to fully engage with the world around them. They need their world to be mediated through technology. Without contact with the natural world, Louv worries that today’s child is becoming a “stimuli junkie.” He argues that children need to be taught to see, to hear, to touch and to “be” in nature. And like a muscle, sensory awareness needs to be exercised on a regular basis.

Playing in nature promotes healthy development. Swedish scientists have found that children who explore and play in natural environments tend to be less competitive, more co-operative and demonstrate fewer incidents of “interrupted play” (requiring adult intervention to prevent arguments and fights) than those who play in areas dominated by asphalt and play structures. Louv points out that being in natural areas enhances creative thought, stimulates imaginative play and improves a child’s ability to concentrate during school.

So, Louv asks, what is preventing kids from going outside? He outlines a number of thought-provoking theories. Here are just a few:

The natural world is perceived as dangerous. Louv calls this the “Bogeyman Syndrome.” Studies have shown that the incidence of stranger abduction (stranger danger) is no more acute than it was 30 years ago. He believes that the sheer amount of violence described in news and dramatized on TV and movies amplifies the fears of parents. It just seems like a scarier world out there. Louv suggests that the real danger we ought to be worried about has nothing to do with kids exploring and playing in the natural world. Indeed, any real danger of being attacked by a wild animal pales in comparison with the actual risk of automobile accidents, over processed and hormone-laced foods and the increasing levels of toxic chemicals in our environment.

There are liability concerns. School boards, city parks, daycares and other institutions are under pressure to make sure children in their care stay “safe.” Ironically, keeping children inside when the weather becomes cold, cutting down bushes near a school, or getting rid of an untidy section of parkland, may do just the opposite. They prevent real opportunities for children to participate in natural play. Louv wants us to consider the opposite point of view. He believes it is unsafe not to take children outside – to provide them with rich immersion time in the living world that surrounds them. Not to do so effectively cuts them off from the knowledge and understanding of what it means to be a living being sharing a world with other living beings. Children have a right to experience the joy of discovering the richness, complexity and diversity of life. They have a right to play in nature.

Unsupervised play is no longer socially acceptable. As a parent who lets my children romp and explore in our nearby park, I worry about what my neighbours think. There is real social pressure to know where your children are for every moment of the day. Kids are “super” supervised. Louv tells us that children learn important life skills by negotiating, problem solving and sharing during periods of unstructured play.

What can you do, as a parent, to help your child overcome Nature Deficit Disorder? The answer is surprisingly simple, and it’s right in your own backyard! Remember, kids are born “biophyllic” – they have a built-in appreciation for the natural world. You just need to provide opportunities for children to be in nature and give them permission to play there!

Connecting to the natural world is about establishing a relationship and building intimacy. Try to find areas near your own home that are predominantly natural. It could be a city park, an abandoned field or a culvert near a road. And visit these places frequently with your child!

Kids connect to stories and to faces. Let’s think about this when we take children outside. What is the story of your natural area? How did that oak get that large hole in it? Why did the beavers build this dam here? A teacher I know told me a story about a “mystery bird” that built a nest in the parking lot of his school. After doing a bit of research, the kids in his class found out the bird was called a killdeer. They watched as she did her broken wing trick (to lead predators away from the nest). Over the days, they watched her scoop out a nest and sit upon it. They cordoned off an area with yellow emergency tape to protect her from cars and they watched spellbound as she raised her young. This was their killdeer. The students became involved in an unfolding story and the killdeer suddenly had a face. In a way she revealed herself to them.

If we think about tending to and nurturing relationships when we talk about connecting children to the natural world, then we’ll remember to take kids to the same green spaces over and over again. We’ll help them find their magic places, stories of that place and more importantly, their place within a complex and interdependent web of life. As John Muir, a famous American naturalist, once wrote, “tug at a single thing in nature and you’ll find it attached to the rest of the world.”

There is only one cure for Nature Deficit Disorder – and that is a good dose of nature, applied on a regular basis!

Author: Jacob Rodenburg

Jacob Rodenburg is the executive director of Camp Kawartha and the Kawartha Outdoor Education Centre. He also teaches part time at Trent University.

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