In 2005, Richard Louv coined the phrase “nature deficit disorder,” because he was worried about the direction our “civilized” species was headed. I’m worried, too. Nature deficit disorder is a condition that’s caused by spending little time outdoors, which has been linked to the rapid increase in health problems such as ADHD, anxiety, depression, and obesity. The sad fact is that we’re getting further away from our roots, and it’s hurting us. Those who have been affected the most are children ages 6-12.
Although I believe it should be, nature deficit disorder is not a formal diagnosis that can be found in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) or the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10). Instead, it’s simply a way to understand the mind-body-spirit costs of human separation from nature.
“Biophilia” is the idea that there’s an instinctive bond between humans and nature. Sadly, we have been slowly breaking that bond, and we’re suffering the consequences. Louv states that the increased prevalence of nature deficit disorder is largely caused by “parental fears [of the outdoors], restricted access to natural areas, and the lure of the screen.”
We can reclaim our health by reclaiming our bond with nature.
There are numerous research studies showing the negative consequences of limiting your time in nature, as well as the benefits of connecting with nature. Children who don’t get enough time in nature are more likely to develop ADHD, anxiety, depression, and childhood obesity.
When schools utilize outdoor classroom activities, students perform significantly better in social studies, science, language arts, and math. Being surrounded by nature reduces depression and anxiety, as well as improves concentration. Research even shows that greener neighborhoods lessen the prevalence of childhood obesity within those neighborhoods.
Other parts of the world understand the importance of connecting with nature, as demonstrated by the therapeutic hobbies called “forest bathing” and “moss viewing” that are widely practiced in Japan. We need to follow their lead.
Importance of Unstructured Play
Given that children are affected the most from nature deficit disorder, we need to radically change the way we treat children. Research shows that parents are now less likely to take their children outdoors, largely because they feel it is unsafe. Many parents would argue that their children are outside enough because of organized sports, but this structured play doesn’t produce the same health benefits as unstructured play in natural settings.
It may be difficult to watch your children fall and get hurt outside, but each fall teaches them more about life than any classroom assignment or educational TV show. Children’s brains naturally grow at a rapid rate, but limiting their outdoor, unstructured playtime limits their opportunities to be creative and reach their full potential.
So, let them outside. Let them fall. Let them run wild. Let them get hurt. Let them explore. Let them experiment. Let them remind you how to live vibrantly. Let them be kids.
What to Do
To fight nature deficit disorder, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing outside, as long as you’re around nature and allow your children to explore on their own terms. The National Wildlife Federation recommends that parents allow their children to have at least one “green hour” a day, which is simply an hour of unstructured interaction with the natural world.
When hiking or just walking through a park, let your children guide the way. If they want to run off the main trail and forge their own path, that’s wonderful! Teach them about nature, but let them guide you. You can use Nature Find to locate nearby parks to explore.
Consider starting a backyard garden if you have the space, and let your kids help plant seeds, weed, and help out in any other way they can. They’ll love it! Not to mention, your whole family will become more mentally and physically healthy from eating nutrient-rich, homegrown food.
Consider getting a hammock and just post up in the woods somewhere, breathing in the fresh air the trees are creating for you. Get a birdfeeder and watch the incredibly beautiful birds with your children. There are so many wonderful ways to get more connected with nature.
If we aren’t letting our kids explore the only planet we have, how are we going to progress as a species? Just keep in mind, nature deficit disorder doesn’t only apply to children. We all need unstructured playtime in nature to be mentally and physically well.
There are several organizations popping up with the goal of riding ourselves of nature deficit disorder. The Children and Nature Network (C&NN) is one, whose mission is to reconnect children and entire families with nature. Schools in Wisconsin are also reconnecting children with nature by developing forest schools.
The No Child Left Inside Act, which was meant to implement more environmental education for children, was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2008, but was never voted on in the Senate. Clearly, people are realizing the human need to reconnect with nature, but there are still obstacles in the way.
Let’s do our part to cure ourselves of nature deficit disorder by reconnecting with Mother Nature.
Louv, R. (2008). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder.
Louv, R. (2012). The nature principle: Human restoration and the end of nature-deficit disorder.