Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Nature Deficit Disorder

I’m reading the most fascinating book. Although nothing that is being brought to light by the studies cited surprises me. In fact, as I read I find myself muttering, “duh” on a regular basis. The book is called Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. The author, Richard Louv, expounds on the growing body of evidence linking the lack of nature in children’s lives and the rise of obesity, attention disorders, and depression.

It makes sense. How much time does the average child spend outdoors? My childhood home was in the woods. I could walk out my back door and have access to miles of woodlands. I remember building dams with my brothers, catching crayfish, and stomping on skunk cabbage. Once we even dug an underground doghouse for a stray dog we planned to keep a secret from our parents. My best friend lived across the street and we used to “cook” strawberry soup” from the wild strawberries that grew in her yard and chew on green clover cringing to keep from spitting out the sour leaves. Can you imagine what a parent would do if their child picked up a clover leaf and popped it in her mouth today? Most moms would fish it out, me included since so many lawns and playgrounds are treated with chemical weed killers and fertilizers.

Our children know all about the world. They know about global warming and the deforestation of the rainforest. They have a hyper-intellectualized perception of animals thanks to Pixar. They are pros on recycling to save our resources. But can they tell an oak tree from a maple? Have they ever picked up a Gardner snake or discovered a bluebird’s nest? Do they know what moss feels like or have they seen a bat hunting mosquitoes at dusk? They know all about the world in their minds, but they may not have discovered it with their hearts. Kids are open to learning all kinds of things, but as Louv points out we are in danger of raising a generation of kids indoors. I can’t begin to imagine the implications of that.

Being in nature is good for everyone. A recent study at the University of Glasgow concluded that access to green spaces helps people live longer, healthier lives. Getting your kids outside can present a challenge for some of us. The computer and TV beckon. Sometimes its fear that keeps our children inside and I’m not talking about a child’s fear. The media has hyped up our worry over the dangers to be found for unsupervised children outside. I hear myself saying, “It’s not like when I was a kid. You can’t just let them run wild.” But maybe we need to. And that might just mean getting yourself outside. Children will follow. I know this for a fact.

When things get a little to hairy in my house and I find myself doing and saying things I never want to do or say as a parent, I head outside. I’ll walk up to the barn and brush a horse or watch the chickens fuss at each other or I’ll go study our fruit trees to see if any awful bug is assailing them. Sometimes I’ll go for a walk in the woods. I do these things to calm down and get away from my kids, but not five minutes after I’ve made my escape I will hear footsteps behind me. My daughter is sure to become my shadow. And next I’ll hear the kitchen door slam as my oldest heads for his fort in the woods or the swing set. The last one out will be the youngest who will trudge to the sandbox to stir up a new adventure (from which it will be nearly impossible to remove him from an hour later). And peace will reign again. Nature can do that.

Getting your kids outside is good for them for a multitude of reasons. The latest research is just confirming what I already know. That open space, fresh air, dirt, plants, and animals are healing.

Research cited by Louv says that kids who spend more time outside are more creative. They engage in imaginative, open-ended play. Nature can help relieve stress. A Cornell study found that “life’s stressful events appear not to cause as much psychological distress in children who live in high-nature conditions compared with children who live in low-nature conditions.”

In 2001, Terry A. Hartig at Uppsala University in Gavle Sweden, demonstrated that nature can help people recover from “normal psychological wear and tear” – but nature also improves the capacity to pay attention, increases positive emotions, and reduces anger. I don’t know about you, but I could use children who pay more attention, are happier ,and yell at me less. I was reading Louv’s book yesterday while listening to my children argue about who had already used up their computer time and who hadn’t. When the dispute was resolved and the offending party was retreating for the swing set, I announced that tomorrow will be a “computer free day”. The computer is what keeps my kids inside. What keeps yours inside? I’m already working out my plan of attack for the summer. We’re going outside. All of us.

So what do you do if you don’t live on a farm or in a rural community? You seek out nature. It can be found anywhere. My dad can find birds in any setting just by listening quietly. Salamanders and really cool spiders hide under rocks even if there are a lot of tall buildings around. Find nature. It’s still here underneath it all. And if you are blessed to live near it – get out of the house. You only have 18 years (at least that’s the plan) to grow these little people and their brains – take advantage of the cheapest medication around for attention issues, depression, anger, and whatever else ails you. Get them outdoors. Get yourself outdoors.

Here’s a few more ideas:

1. Check your newspaper. There are always naturalist programs available through the national, state, and local parks. They are almost always inexpensive and sometimes free.

2. Find out where the parks are in your area. Make it your mission to visit all of them this summer.

3. Go fishing. At least in Pennsylvania, kids don’t need a license (dad’s do).

4. Take a walk and pick up the trash on your street. You’re doing a good thing for your community and it is an excuse to get closer to nature. I promise you’ll encounter some kind of wildlife (I’m not saying it won’t have eight legs of more).

5. Send your kids to camp. Find a camp that will get your kids outdoors for the day. Some kids need the encouragement of other kids and a structured environment to encounter nature on their terms.

6. Go geocaching or letter boxing. (Don’t know what that is? Look it up online. We love to geocache so I’ll post about it soon)

7. Have a picnic.

8. Go camping.

9. Plan a vacation to a state park. Many state parks have “camping cabins” that are relatively inexpensive. Sometimes they have lodges that are still cheaper than a resort.

10. Take the dog for a walk. A dog is great excuse to get outside every day. If you haven’t got one, check with your local shelter, many will let you walk theirs!


  1. Love it, Cara! We all need this reminder again and again! Makes me look forward to summer!!

  2. Great reminder! makes me glad we took the dog for a walk tonight...

  3. I think this has never been a mystery in Asia (although we westerners pretend it is). Hotels have zen-gardens and you find bonsai trees in the rest-rooms at busy factories. Nature can be brought anywhere, and appreciated by everyone to increase the peace in an overcrowded hectic world.

    And... maybe our kids have to live a little as hunter-gatherers to be well grounded. I know I lived that way every summer until I was 13.