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How to Protect Your Kids From Nature-Deficit Disorder

How much time have you and your kids spent outside, in a wild space, this week?

Chances are, not too much. Between work, school, home, and extracurricular activities, it seems as if there aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything we want to do. All too often, unstructured time outdoors falls by the wayside in favor of other, more “productive” activities. Today’s children are increasingly feeling disconnected from nature, a situation that some researchers call “nature-deficit disorder.”

The physical, emotional, and financial repercussions of nature-deficit disorder can be profound. Research has linked lack of outdoor play to obesity in children, increased rates of attention-deficit disorder (ADD) and aggression, increased rates of depression, Vitamin D deficiency, reduced ability to cope with stress, poor attention spans, poor academic performance, and much more. All of this adds up to increased costs and stress, as well as a poor sense of well-being, for both parents and children.

On the flip side, spending time in nature provides countless benefits for both children and adults, some of which include an increased ability to focus, better academic performance, and better overall health. Here’s a look at what nature-deficit disorder means and how you can find time to get your whole family outdoors on a daily basis.

What Is Nature-Deficit Disorder?

Nature-deficit disorder is not a medically recognized condition or diagnosis. Rather, it’s a useful metaphor coined by Richard Louv, co-founder of the Children & Nature Network and author of the best-selling book “Last Child In the Woods.”

Put simply, nature-deficit disorder describes our increasing alienation from the natural world. Children especially spend less time outdoors than their parents and grandparents did at their age. And this development isn’t a uniquely American problem.

Nature-deficit disorder, and the related physical inactivity and its negative health effects, are a global concern. A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that data from 39 countries shows that only 23% of 11-year-olds and only 19% of 13-year-olds get the recommended 60 minutes per day of physical exercise. Researchers also found that globally, children play outdoors less frequently than their parents did and spend more time on structured, indoor play.

According to a 2016 U.K. government-sponsored study, one in every nine children in England hadn’t set foot in a park, forest, beach, or other natural environment in over a year. Another study, funded by detergent brand Persil and sourced by The Guardian, found that 75% of children in the U.K. spend less time per day outdoors than prison inmates.

A study of Australian children published in BMC Public Health found that preschool children were sedentary for over 300 minutes per day and spent over 100 of those minutes in front of a screen. Some preschoolers in the study spent as much as 12 hours per day doing sedentary activities.


Financial Implications of Nature-Deficit Disorder

Our increasing alienation from nature doesn’t only have emotional, physical, and social consequences. There are also financial consequences to consider.

A child’s lack of exercise, plus the sedentary nature of many indoor activities, can lead to obesity and ill health now and in their later years. A 2015 study published in the journal Pharmacoeconomics states that the rising rates of childhood obesity will be an enormous burden on an individual level, as well as on the entire health care system, in the decades to come.

The financial costs of childhood obesity are enormous. A 2014 study published in Pediatrics estimates that lifetime medical costs for an obese child are $19,000 more than those for a child who maintains a healthy weight throughout adulthood.

Getting your child outdoors in nature is a healthy and low-cost remedy to these problems.

The rising prevalence of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) represents another financial burden. A 2007 study published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology states that between 2% and 9% of U.S. children are diagnosed with ADHD. This condition can lead to limitations in multiple areas of their lives, including poor relationships with family, teachers, and peers and poor performance at school. The study puts the cost of this diagnosis between $12,005 and $17,458 per child.

Spending more time in nature can help alleviate symptoms of ADHD and help kids perform better in school and improve their relationships – in turn, setting them up for more success in their future careers. A 2004 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that spending time in green, outdoor settings greatly helped reduce ADHD symptoms in children regardless of gender, age, income group, and geographic settings.


Why Are Kids So Alienated From Nature?

Toddler Screen Time Tablet Phone Dark

There are a number of reasons why today’s children spend so little time outdoors.

1. Parents Don’t Spend Much Time Outdoors

Many adults today don’t prioritize spending time outdoors. Children model the behavior of their parents. If the adults in their world don’t venture outdoors to play and explore on a daily basis, children have little incentive to follow suit.

Of course, a lack of prioritization is just one factor. Today, it’s common for both parents to work outside the home to make ends meet. This leads to increased stress and lack of time for family time, much less for daily or weekly excursions into the wild.

2. Increased Screen Time

We can also blame electronics and screen media, which, for many kids, have replaced all of the time that used to be spent on outdoor play. According to a study conducted by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, today, children ages 8 to 18 spend over 50 hours per week in front of some type of screen.

3. Overscheduling

Many children today have little, if any, free time – that is, time that’s free of homework and other scheduled activities, in which they can wander, dream, and play. Increasingly, children are overscheduled and simply don’t have the opportunity to get outdoors and play.

4. Lack of Access to Wild Spaces

Our communities and neighborhoods have fewer wild spaces than they did decades ago. Many empty fields and meadows that were used for aimless exploration by baby boomers have now been bulldozed for housing developments with manicured lawns devoid of wildlife and native plants. Yes, many of these subdivisions have playgrounds and walking paths, but these structured areas offer little room for creative and spontaneous activities such as building forts, digging holes, getting muddy, and investigating local bugs and wildlife.

Many urban areas are designed for maximum capacity, and little, if any, thought is given to residents’ access to nature. While some neighborhoods and communities are well-thought-out and designed to give people access to wild spaces, they’re the exception rather than the rule.

5. Fear of Risk

Parents are also more fearful today than in generations past. It’s uncommon to see children walking or playing alone, and parents who do let their children spend time alone outdoors might face legal repercussions if a neighbor or stranger calls the police. USA Today profiled a recent example of a Maryland couple who let their children, ages 10 and 6, play in a park alone two blocks from home. Someone called the police because the children were unattended, and the children were turned over to Child Protective Services.

6. Inaccessibility

Children with disabilities often have several challenges to overcome when it comes to spending time outdoors. A study published in Social and Cultural Geography found that children with disabilities have a drastically different experience outdoors than their peers.

Families that have children with disabilities often associate outdoor time with feelings of dread, hard work, heartache, a sense of failure, resignation, and inadequacy. Reasons for this include a lack of accommodation (including toilet facilities) for children with special needs, barriers that prohibit access to some areas, bullying behavior from other children, the attitudes of other visitors, and supervisors or staff with little or no experience working with children with disabilities.


The Many Benefits of Outdoor Play

Little Girl Outside Planting Learning Garden

Spending more time outdoors, particularly in wild spaces, provides children and adults with a number of important benefits.

1. Children Learn to Think for Themselves

In an interview with UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine, Louv states that outdoor play helps build and strengthen executive functioning. Executive functioning is a thought process that reflects our ability to exercise self-control and direct our own emotions and behavior.

When children play outdoors, particularly in wild spaces, they engage in imaginative play and make-believe, both of which are essential for building executive functioning – and according to Louv, executive functioning is thought to be a better predictor of success in school than a child’s IQ.

2. Children Take More Responsibility

Many parents cite injury as a reason why they don’t want their children playing outdoors, especially unsupervised. However, Dr. Scott Duncan, an Auckland University of Technology sport and recreation researcher interviewed by Radio New Zealand, says otherwise.

According to Duncan’s research, children who are allowed to play outdoors unsupervised actually have fewer physical injuries, largely because, when left to their own devices, they take responsibility for their own safety and well-being. In a group setting, instances of bullying also decline because children are empowered to make up their own rules for play and work out differences on their own.

3. It Improves Health for Children & Adults

A study published in the journal Environmental Research analyzed data from 143 other studies, all of which researched the effects of green space on participants. Researchers found that, overall, people with access to green space had lower blood pressure, less of the stress hormone cortisol in their system, and a lower heart rate. They also found significantly fewer cases of diabetes and lower rates of mortality from heart disease.

A study published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing came to the same conclusion. Researchers analyzed data from 12 other studies that focused on how children benefit from spending time in green spaces. According to this meta-analysis, access to green space was found to:

  • Promote attention restoration (which helps with concentration)
  • Improve memory
  • Build supportive social groups
  • Promote self-discipline
  • Moderate stress
  • Improve the behaviors and symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Improve standardized test scores

4. It Strengthens Family Ties

Another major benefit of spending time outdoors as a family is that it helps strengthen the bonds you have with your kids. These shared experiences in nature allow you to connect on a deeper level, and this connection will become increasingly important as your children get older. When your relationship is built on a solid foundation, your kids will feel comfortable coming to you with difficult issues they’re facing.

5. It Encourages Future Environmental Stewards

The more time your children spend outdoors, the more personal a connection they will build with nature. This personal connection is essential for the next generation of environmental stewards.

As Louv states in his book, the average fifth-grader can have an intelligent conversation with an adult about deforestation in the Amazon or climate change. However, they likely won’t be able to talk about the last time they wandered through a field near their home, played in a creek, or explored a patch of woods with their friends.

Today’s children know about nature and its compounding problems on an intellectual level. However, they have little or no emotional or spiritual connection to these topics because they spend the majority of their time indoors.

This trend spells trouble for the future of environmental stewardship. Kids who experience and love the outdoors will grow into adults who do the same, and these are the adults who will be the caretakers of the earth when many of us are old and gray.


How to Overcome Nature-Deficit Disorder

Young Family Parents Kids Pet Dog Walking Hiking Mountain Meadow Hill

It doesn’t matter if your children are 3 or 13, and it doesn’t matter if you’ve never set foot in the woods or a vacant field. Even small connections with nature will provide you and your kids with important benefits, and it’s never too late to build a relationship with the outdoors.

Here are some budget-friendly ways you can do just that.

1. Seek Out Wild Spaces

Beautifully manicured, fenced-in yards and supersafe playground structures offer children little in the way of risk-taking and natural exploration because these things don’t spark the imagination. However, native weeds, sticks, pine cones, acorns, and other natural elements can become anything in a child’s imagination. Given the opportunity, children will almost always choose to play with found objects because they’re far more interesting.

A study published in the International Journal of Early Years Education found that when items with no defined purpose, such as boxes and car tires, were left on a school playground, children’s activity levels increased significantly. Interviews with teachers also found that children were more creative, social, and resilient over the 11-week trial.

One way to get your children into nature is to ditch the designer playground and the neighborhood walk in favor of wandering a vacant field or hiking through a local nature park. Let your children set the pace, and when they want to stop and explore a mud puddle or pick up an interestingly shaped stick, let them.

2. Ditch the Manicured Lawn

You can go a step further by transforming your yard into a place where your kids have the freedom and opportunity to explore and be creative. Plant native grasses and wildflowers and let them grow naturally. These wild spaces encourage wildlife and bugs to move in. Consider building a small water feature, such as a natural pond, that will accommodate frogs and migrating birds.

You can learn more about how to build a wild yard through BBC’s Discover Wildlife.

3. Make It Fun

It can be hard for some parents to let go and allow their kids to really get dirty. However, experiencing nature with all their senses comes naturally to children, and it’s the best way to immerse themselves in what they’re experiencing. So pack an extra change of clothes and give them the freedom to experience that mud up close and personal.

While you’re all out wandering, let your kids use an old digital or disposable camera to take pictures of whatever they find interesting. Taking pictures allows your kids to look at natural elements in a new way, and you might be surprised at what they choose to focus on.

You could also bring along a few supplies to do rubbings. Nature rubbings are impressions you make of bark, leaves, or stones using crayons or chalk and paper, and kids love doing this kind of project. You can find full instructions on how to do a nature rubbing at Woodland Trust’s Nature Detectives.

While you’re out in the woods, you and your kids can also learn how to identify trees and wildflowers. Bring along a guide or brush up on your identification skills before you head out. Check out ThoughtCo’s Beginner’s Guide to Tree Identification to get started.

For more ideas on how to make nature fun and educational for your children, download this comprehensive toolkit from Nature Explore and the World Forum Foundation.

4. Rethink Your Vacations

Family vacations are a wonderful opportunity to spend more time in nature. While you might not be ready to spend a week out in the woods camping with your kids, you could work in some unstructured nature walks wherever you’re visiting.

Use Google Maps to locate parks and green spaces near your destination, and schedule an afternoon or even a day to let your family wander around and explore.

5. Start a Nature Club

Nature clubs are popping up all over the country in the suburbs, inner cities, and rural areas. Families are slowly beginning to realize that their children need a greater connection to nature, and instead of going it alone, they’re banding together to achieve it.

A nature club isn’t quite as formal as it sounds. It’s merely a gathering of families and individuals who meet outdoors on a regular basis to spend time together. It could be a homeschool group, an extended family, a group of neighbors, single parents wanting to connect with other families in their area, a group of parents from school, or a group of strangers you connect with on Meetup.

There are a number of benefits of starting a nature club. First, there’s strength in numbers. Meeting with a group can help break down some of the barriers that keep people from experiencing the outdoors, such as a fear of strangers or the fear that they don’t know enough about nature to get started.

A nature club will also help keep you motivated to head outside on a regular basis. For instance, if you know a group of friends is waiting for you and your kids at the local park every Saturday, you’re more likely to show up.

Your nature club doesn’t have to be an elaborate undertaking, and it doesn’t have to cost a thing. Most nature clubs go on one- to two-hour hikes at a local park or nature preserve. These groups are relaxed and easygoing. The kids splash in puddles, climb downed trees, explore new bugs and flowers, and even go on walks at night with flashlights and snacks.

The Children & Nature Network created a comprehensive guide and tool kit for starting your own nature club for families.


Our Own Search For Nature

Boy Running With Kite Flying Field Outdoors

At our old home, our boys’ outdoor time was limited to the yard. Strict neighborhood regulations made it impossible for us to create much “wild space” on our property. There was a patch of woods near our house, but it was off-limits because it was someone else’s property, and that someone, fearing possible litigation, wouldn’t allow anyone on his land. A walk down the street saw nothing but house after house showcasing golf course-worthy lawns and impeccably tidy flower beds. This probably sounds familiar to many of you.

We soon began to realize that we didn’t want our children to grow up so safe and insulated from the wild. We knew we had to make a major change. So we sold our home and moved to the mountains of Western North Carolina. We now live on a secluded mountain that’s deserted much of the year. Our boys, ages 3 and 4, roam like wild goats on our property. They play in the creek, climb trees, scavenge for firewood, and play in the mud.

When they’re outside, they’re truly happy. There’s no fighting and much more cooperation. They work together to build forts, dig gravel pits, or construct an elaborate train engine from scrap wood. They don’t depend on any toys for their play but instead use whatever they find and mold it to fit their purpose. On days when they can’t get outside, I definitely notice that their mood and behavior take a nosedive.

While the wild is now right outside our door, we still want more, so we’re about to go searching again. We’re in the process of selling our home to travel full-time in an RV, which will put us up close and personal with as much nature as we want. Also, close-quarters will make it almost a necessity for everyone to spend more time outdoors, which is exactly what we want.

Spending time in the wild is a priority for us, and we’ve tried to create a life that allows us to do that. We keep expenses low so that we can afford to work less and spend more time with our kids. We don’t buy a lot of “stuff,” and we practice a more minimalist lifestyle. Our goal is to have fewer things and more experiences. We hope that all of this will help us raise two boys who grow up knowing and experiencing the wonders of the wild on an intimate level.


Final Word

You might be reading this in the middle of suburbia, in an airy downtown city loft, or in a cramped apartment that’s light-years from where you want to be. But no matter where you are, you can find a way to help your children experience more nature, more wildness, and more wonder, whether it’s in a vacant city lot or a nearby park.

How do you get your kids outdoors and into the wild on a regular basis? What challenges do you face?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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