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Is Your Kid Missing Out on This Crucial Experience?

Parents, even though I don’t know you, I would be willing to guess that your children spend less time playing outside than you did when you were a kid. This is a safe guess, because it’s true for almost every parent. But this isn’t just a fun piece of trivia. Think about it: if this is true for most kids, then what, if anything, is this doing to our society?

The term “nature deficit disorder” was coined by writer Richard Louv in his 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods.” Louv says that children spending less time outdoors (and more time watching screens) is the cause of a whole range of behavior problems from aggression to anxiety to getting sick more often.

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As a kid who grew up spending countless hours playing outside, this resonates with me. I remember the peace that I felt while laying on my back watching maple tree seed “helicopters” spiral down all around me. I remember the pride and thrill of climbing a tree that was just a little taller than felt safe. And I still have the scar on my knee from falling out of one of those tall trees and hitting a branch on the way down. Believe it or not, falling out of that tree is a happy memory. I love telling my scar story.

But I want to think about nature deficit disorder in a way that separates my personal nostalgia from the very scientific accusations that are being made about what the lack of time outside is doing to our kids. Should we really be worried about nature deficit disorder or is this just a trendy diagnosis, fabricated to sell books and stress out parents?

I learned as much as I could about nature deficit disorder recently, hoping to be able to conclude that the theory was baseless so that I could have one less disorder to worry about when it comes to trying to do right by my daughter. But the more I read the research, the more I felt like there is at least some truth to the theory.

Every parent wants to raise a strong, healthy, happy child. But maybe our overprotective natures take those good intentions and make them backfire. Maybe our fear turns us into parents that prevent our kids from having the very experiences that would protect them and make them stronger in the long run. I’m sure you’ve seen the studies showing that playing in the dirt (specifically, exposure to bacteria in the dirt) builds a stronger immunity and can boost mood. Nature deficit disorder is a lot like that example, only on a broader scale that is both physical and emotional.

Are we are trying to raise children with no scars, even if that means raising kids with no scar stories? Are we raising kids so clean and “civilized” that they are uncomfortable spending time in nature, even though it’s their source of life?

RELATED: Why I Gave My Kid More Screentime

I’m not a scientist so I will leave it up to you to dig deeper into the nature deficit disorder hypothesis and decide for yourself if you think it holds merit. Either way, it can’t hurt to foster an appreciation for nature in your children and encourage them to be good stewards of the planet. It can be as easy as taking a few minutes every day to do something such as watching ants march on the sidewalk or pick dandelions.

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Image via Brigitte Dale

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