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.
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
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?
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.