What is Nature Deficit disorder? How does it affect behaviour?
As young people spend less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow, physiologically and psychologically.
Added to that, the over-organised childhood and the devaluing of unstructured play has huge implications for children’s ability to self-regulate. This reduces the richness of human experience and contributes to a condition I call “nature-deficit disorder.” I created that term to serve as a catchphrase to describe the human costs of alienation from nature. Obviously it’s not a medical diagnosis, though one might think of it as a condition of society. People know it when they see it, which may account for how quickly it entered the language.
The research has greatly expanded over the last few years and we continue to learn more as time goes on:
- We do know that time in nature can help kids learn to have confidence in themselves; hyperactive children can become calmer, better able to focus.
- Studies of creativity show that kids who play in natural or naturalized play areas are far more likely to invent their own games, far more likely to play cooperatively. Children who have nature-play experience also test much higher in science.
- We have learned that children who evolve as leaders in flat, hard-surfaced play areas tend to be the strongest, while the leaders who evolve from play in natural areas tend to be the smartest.
It just doesn’t make sense to suppress a child’s in-born urge to play. Through that play they develop diverse mental and physical skills. Nature play is obviously not a cure-all, but it can be an enormous help, especially for kids who are stressed by circumstances beyond their control. The great worth of outdoor programs is their focus on the elements that have always united humankind: driving rain, hard wind, warm sun, forests deep and dark, stone — and the awe and amazement that our Earth inspires, especially during a child’s formative years. Contact with nature allows children to see they are part of a larger world that includes them. The Children & Nature Network website has compiled a large body of studies, reports and publications that are available for viewing or downloading. (http://www.childrenandnature.org/documents/C118/)
You often talk about the lure of the screen, can you explain what you mean by that?
Technology isn’t the demon, in my view, but it can be a supremely seductive form of entertainment and engagement. Human beings have been urbanising, then moving indoors, since the invention of agriculture and, later, the Industrial Revolution. Social and technological changes in the past three decades have accelerated that change.
It can be hard to move children away from the television and computer. It’s hard for adults as well. It’s hard for me. There may even be symptoms of withdrawal from media. The antidote to that is not to back to nature, but to go forward to nature. Doing that is not anti-urban and not anti-technology. Let the children know this is multitasking, to live simultaneously in both the digital and the physical world, using computers to maximize our powers to process intellectual data, and natural environments to ignite all of our senses and accelerate our ability to learn and to feel.
I was fortunate that I could often take my sons fishing, and there were places with natural spaces nearby for them to play. In my experience, children may not be happy at first to be encouraged to go outside to play, but it doesn’t take long for nature to work its magic. Currently, children in the US spend about 70 to 80 per cent of their time in child care being sedentary, not counting the time they are napping or eating. Just 2 or 3 per cent of their day is spent in vigorous activities. Only 17 per cent of 15-year-olds were found to get even an hour a day of vigorous activity. It is no coincidence we have increasingly common incidences of myopia, asthma, obesity, vitamin D deficiency, anxiety and depression.
Do computers and the internet have something to do with this?
Absolutely. As do television and unsafe cities and parents who have too little free time. Given what we know now about the advantages of meaningful time in nature, and the joy that can be found in that connection, we owe it to young people to encourage them to experience this for themselves. Whether we live in Australia or the United States, the more high-tech our lives become, the more all of us need nature.
In Australia, we have some of the world’s oldest and most spectacular reefs, deserts, forests and lakes. But many of the newer generations would rather holiday in overseas destinations than see our own backyard. Why do you think that is?
We often overlook the nature where we live, work and play. Part of the problem, in the US and, from what I’ve learned, in Australia, is that natural history has been devalued in media and in education, with the exception of some emphasis on the charismatic species, at both the national and local level.
Another issue is urbanisation – or at least the spread of denatured urbanisation. In 2008, for the first time in history, more people on Earth were living in urban, rather than rural areas. That means if we are going to have meaningful experiences with nature, we are going to have to rethink nature within cities. To connect to that nature, we can walk in our neighborhoods, get to know these pockets of nature, find out how to protect them and then learn new ways to bring more nature to the urban areas. At least one study has shown that urban parks with the highest levels of biodiversity happen to be the parks with the greatest psychological benefits for human beings. Cities can, in fact, become engines of biodiversity.
Groups that help people really see where they live, that foster a sense of place, are growing in size and number. As the poet and farmer Wendell Berry says, “You can’t know who you are until you know where you are.”
Are you seeing a similar pattern of disintrest in nature in the States?
It’s a widespread issue. The sedentary, indoor child is commonplace in rural areas as well; despite the fact that nature is right outside the door. Even in densely urban settings, nature can be nearby. The first thing is for over-scheduled families to learn about the benefits of nature time to health and well being and the ability to learn, then to make outdoor time a priority, and also to enrich our yards, homes, neighborhoods, workplaces and cities with more natural areas.
Why is it so important that we stay connected to nature throughout our lives? Is there a specific age that it is more important to foster such a relationship with the great outdoors?
It’s important to encourage our children to feel a part of nature in their earliest experiences – beginning in the back yard, just digging a hole, building a fort, watching the leaves move in the trees.
Some folks grew up hunting, others of us grew up fishing, and these experiences were elemental to our sense of connection to parents, grandparents, and generations that came before us. Biologically, we are all still hunters and gatherers.
As I’ve written in “Last Child in the Woods,” Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis suggests that human beings are innately attracted to nature, and that we need experiences in nature for our psychological, physical, and spiritual heath. Gordon Orians, professor emeritus of zoology at the University of Washington, argues that modern humans need to understand the importance of what he calls “ghosts”, the evolutionary remnants of past experience hard-wired into a species’ nervous system. Roger Ulrich, a Texas A&M researcher, has shown that people who watch images of natural landscape after a stressful experience calm markedly in only five minutes: their muscle tension, pulse and skin-conductance readings plummet. There is also significant research that shows the healing and preventive benefits of nature experiences – gardening, for example – to healthy aging.
Our need for nature never goes away, and can sometimes grow in intensity in our later years. These are just a few examples of the research that strongly suggests that our attraction to and need for natural landscapes and involvement with species other than our own is fundamental to our health, our survival and our spirit. This connection is part of our humanity.
With less and less children worldwide connecting with nature, what can parents do? How can we weave these values in?
As parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles, we can spend more time with children in nature. This is quite a challenge, one that emphasises the importance of exploring nearby opportunities. We need to realise that even in densely urban settings, nature can often be found nearby, somewhere in the neighborhood. Getting kids outside needs to be a conscious act on the part of parents or caregivers. We need to schedule nature time. This proactive approach is simply part of today’s reality.
How important is the climate change debate in this discussion of a human connection with nature? How are unusual natural phenomena impacting this relationship?
I do believe that climate change and the change of climate in the human heart are related, and in each case, we have about the same window of opportunity to act positively.
A few years ago, Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the term solastalgia, which he defines as “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault” by subdivisions or strip mining or a changing climate. In fact, a journalist friend of mine is currently in Australia doing research for a series on the mental health impact of climate change, related to what Albrecht has been saying.
For many, the natural environment has been intellectualised or removed. Young people certainly need to know about threats to the environment, they also need direct experience in nature just for the joy of it. Unless we achieve that balance, many children will associate nature with fear and destruction for the rest of their lives.
In my country, students learn about climate change in windowless schools. While including environmental education in the curriculum, many school districts in the US have banished live animals from classrooms, dropped outdoor playtime and field trips, and overloaded classrooms with computers. These trends aren’t evident everywhere, of course. Many of us are admirers of forest schools and other types of place-based, and in the US, we’re now seeing a surge of interest in nature-based schools and natural play spaces in schools and neighborhoods. Connecting ourselves and our children directly to nature is a way to both deal with the impact of loss of nature but also as a way to plant the seeds, sometimes literally, of a nature-rich future.
What are some of your top tips for reconnecting with the outdoors? How long should we be spending with nature on a weekly basis?
If children are given the opportunity to experience nature, even in simple ways, interaction and engagement follow quite naturally. I’ve included a Field Guide of 100 Actions We Can Take in a new special section at the end of the paperback edition of “Last Child in the Woods.” (http://richardlouv.com/books/last-child/)
It can be as simple as planning regular walks around a local park, or taking picnics, or learning how to garden in containers on the back stoop.
You can encourage wildlife rehabilitation, or go bushwalking, bird watching, or camping. You can join or start a family nature club.
The Children & Nature Network now offers a terrific took kit to get you started with this. To learn more about family nature clubs, and to read advice from those who have done it: http://www.childrenandnature.org/natureclubs/
Richard Louv is touring Australia from Sat 22 Feb – Wed 26 Feb, speaking in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide.