Don’t let the kids in your life fall victim to nature deficit disorder

(Originally published Feb. 16, 2011)

In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv interviews a fourth-grader who says, “I like to play indoors better, because that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” In this age of video games and computer screens, Louv cautions that we are raising a generation suffering from what he calls “nature deficit disorder.”

I was an urban kid – I grew up two blocks from the Anheuser-Busch brewery in St. Louis – but even so, I spent time outside in our yard, in city parks, biking around our neighborhood, and exploring the bluffs along the Mississippi River with my friends. (My mom would have had a heart attack seeing me climb along the bluffs.) I also spent summers with my aunt and grandfather in Arkansas, walking the dusty back roads and encountering snakes, dragonflies and even horses on neighbors’ farms.

Am I better for it? Louv certainly thinks so. Our kids’ lack of contact with nature is making them overweight, depressed and distracted, he says. They’re also missing opportunities to explore and to experience the wonder inspired by nature.

We’ve taught children to fear the outdoors, and in part our caution is justified. It’s a scarier world out there, and we want to protect our kids from strangers wanting to do them harm. But we’re creating a generation that prefers being inside all the time. Louv points to a UCLA report showing that American kids now spend virtually no time in their own yards.

Research shows that interaction with the natural environment plays an important role in children’s development, including building problem-solving and critical thinking skills, as well as fostering creativity. As one example, Louv points to research on attention-deficit disorder at the University of Illinois, in which exposure to nature was shown to decrease ADD symptoms.

If you have kids in your life, I’d encourage you to think about getting them outside more. The Children & Nature Network has some good thoughts about how to get started – safely, enjoyably and educationally.

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