What is nature deficit disorder? And how do we prevent it in kids (and ourselves)?
We spoke with Richard Louv to understand this scenario our attachment to screens and tendency to helicopter parent has created – and how we can remedy it.
Remember when kids played outside with minimal supervision or intervention from a parent? Back when the directive, “go play!” meant for you and your siblings or friends to go outside and play?
Of course, there were TV programs and video games to entertain indoors, but the selection was nothing compared to what today’s kids can choose from. Add in the fact that they don’t have to see their friends in person to play games or chat with them, and you’ve got a recipe for perfectly content indoor living.
Parents are busier than ever. And indoor parenting has some benefits – like knowing where your kids are all the time and potentially keeping them safe from strangers (if you don’t count online dangers).
But much research shows humans do better physically and emotionally when they are in green spaces, benefiting from the stress reduction, positive emotions, and attention restoration the natural world encourages.
A significant Danish study of nearly one million people across three decades found that “children who grew up with the lowest levels of green space had up to 55% higher risk of developing a psychiatric disorder independent from effects of other known risk factors.”
What is Nature Deficit Disorder?
This shift towards indoor child-rearing led one expert to coin a new term to describe its effects. Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD) is not a medical condition, rather a term journalist Robert Louv to describe society’s lack of relationship to the environment.
In Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods, he shares how we have entered a new era of suburban sprawl that restricts outdoor play and encourages a plugged-in culture that lures children indoors.
Some children adapt to the increased screen-viewing time and the overstimulation, but those who don’t often develop NDD symptoms such as attention disorders, obesity, anxiety, behavior issues, and depression.
Is Nature Deficit Disorder really an issue?
According to the National Environmental Education Foundation, today’s children may be the first generation at risk of having a shorter lifespan than their parents. That startling fact in itself should be enough to convince parents that our current way of raising our children is flawed.
Additionally, approximately 16% of U.S. children aged 6-19 are overweight or obese. The volume of chronic conditions like asthma, attention-deficit disorder, and obesity affecting children has grown dramatically and often lead to poor health in adulthood.
Research also shows nature deficit disorder contributes to a diminished use of the senses and imagination, and it weakens ecological literacy and stewardship of the natural world. In other words, if we want kids who grow up to protect the earth, they have to get outside and fall in love with it first.
Along with less than ideal health, a lack of routine contact with nature may result in stunted academic and even developmental growth.
How to prevent Nature Deficit Disorder
Here’s how parents, educators, and caregivers can encourage and facilitate more time in nature for kids.
Be a role model.
Kids pay more attention to what we do than to what we say. When parents spend more time outdoors, kids naturally follow. It doesn’t have to be a big vacation to the desert or beach (although those are amazing ways to show kids what you love). Something as minor as seeing you stop to smell a magnolia blossom can create a big positive association with flowers or trees in a child’s mind.
Make a conscious effort to decrease screen-time.
When people ask what is the primary cause of nature deficit disorder, it’s safe to answer: screens.
Follow the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations for no more than 1-2 hours of quality programming (television, video games) a day. Replace the time that would have been spent in front of a computer screen or television with an outdoor activity. Here’s how to set effective screen time limits and follow them.
And here are 60+ screen free activities (for both inside and outside) for kids.
Reevaluate your child’s schedule.
Many kids are booked solid with structured activities, leaving no time to play outdoors. If you must actually schedule outdoor time on the family calendar, then do so. When time is limited, keep in mind your own backyard will suffice for some quality nature interaction.
Need help knowing how and why to cut back on activities? Here’s how to simplify your child’s world.
Make a conscious effort to decrease screen-time.
If a child’s earliest relationship with nature is based in fear – fear of insects, snakes, imaginary tigers, natural disasters, fear of the ecological future — the child will likely grow up associating nature with fear and destruction. Fear can contribute to nature deficit disorder.
Instead, notice the sunset, a beautiful lake, or a big hawk. Lie down in the grass and look for shapes in the clouds. Point out funny bugs and animals you see and talk about them. Ask questions. Let your child make up their own answers, or save these topics for the next round of screen time. That way you still reinforce an interest in wildlife and ecology instead of letting them be passively entertained.
Help them appreciate all the facets of nature.
Teach them about our limited natural resources and start a recycling program in your home. Plant a garden and explain the benefits of your home-grown, organic fruits and veggies.
If it’s raining, kids can still play outside (here’s how). Teach them that less than ideal conditions are part of what makes nature interesting and ever-changing.
Simply walking with your children is a great way to be outside; you can go on a scavenger hunt with older children, or just walk and talk about what you see with younger children. It is a great way to connect with your child, take in nature and get some exercise.
Embrace natural resilience.
Falling down is part of a well-balanced childhood. (And, for that matter, adulthood.) Children love exploring the dangers of nature – especially if there’s a positive adult who helps them feel secure enough to take healthy risks, and if they fall, to learn to stand up again.
Encourage frequent outdoor play to learn resilience skills.
To develop skill in running, climbing, creating, assessing risks, and playing cooperatively with others, encourage children to play frequently, alone and in groups. This gives children time to find their own unique set of skills for engaging in safer play.
“Dedicated, regular players develop intuitive skills that kick in very fast without conscious thought when facing possible injury,” says Frost. “Observe experienced basketball players and climbers when they are falling or flopping. They intuitively turn onto the large flat portion of their backs, raise their heads to avoid contact, and avoid falling directly on fragile hands and arms.”
Teach kids the fitness basics of outdoor play.
Tree-climbing instructor Tim Kovar urges climbers to follow a few simple rules.
- Make sure your tree of choice is living and strong.
- Don’t climb on branches smaller around than your wrist.
- Always have at least three points of contact with the tree, meaning two feet and one hand, or two hands and one foot.
- Don’t overreach for a branch – you can lose your balance.
And, as mentioned earlier, to increase your child’s safety, make sure they are continually building physical strength.
Temper your fear of “stranger danger.”
Constantly worrying that your child will be abducted will not only suck-up your energy, but locking your kids indoors will harm their imagination and health. Controlling risk is the key. Go outdoors with your kids while letting them explore unaccompanied.
“Teach your child to watch for behaviors more than just for strangers,” advises family psychologist John Rosemond. Telling a child to stay away from strangers is relatively ineffective. “Stranger” is not a concept young children understand easily. “Instead, children ought to be taught to be on the lookout for specific threatening behaviors and situations,” he says. The National Crime Prevention Council website offers more information on helping kids determine who’s a safe adult.
Think in terms of comparative risk.
Yes, there are risks outdoors (though not nearly as many as the news media would have us believe). But there are huge psychological, physical, and spiritual risks in raising future generations under protective house arrest. Child obesity is just one of them.
Rather than eliminating all perceived risks, identify risks the child can manage – and provide nature experiences accordingly.
Make sure kids have a variety of play environments.
Play and play environments should include spaces and opportunities for a wide range of play types — make-believe, group games, construction, rough and tumble, and interaction with the natural world of plant and animal life. This variety in exposure can help prevent nature deficit disorder.
Find a nature-centered camp.
Many summer camps aim to entertain children outdoors for the majority of the day and will give your kids a chance to do things they wouldn’t normally get to do—like canoe, hike and camp. If your child is interested in computer or chess camp, try to find a camp that also offers unstructured outdoor play time.
Develop a nature buddy system.
Encourage kids to do nature activities together. With agreed upon times and routes, sometimes accompanied by parents, kids can meet up and walk together or bike together. Some young people are creating their own kids’ nature clubs. The more good people out there, the safer the outdoor areas will be.
Set geographic boundaries that expand through the years.
Setting physical neighborhood boundaries is a concept worth reviving. Parents should, of course use their best judgment, based on the realities of their neighborhood and what they believe is age appropriate for their child.
Children need boundaries that gradually open to the rest of the world to build judgment, trust, resilience and to learn to independently recognize serious risk when they see it. It’s the parent’s job to set and enforce the boundaries; it’s the growing child’s job to stay within those boundaries or to ask the parents’ permission to go beyond them, and to build trust.
If you have embraced indoor or helicopter parenting, the thought of letting your child build their courage and resilience in nature can stoke those parental fears. Most of the steps listed here should help you ease into spending time in nature, but be sure to take your time.
Richard Louv’s organization The Children and Nature Network is doing great work to prevent nature deficit disorder. Find out more here.