Adding ‘nature deficit disorder’ to our lexicon

We started spending less time outdoors and our exposure to nature started to diminish more than a hundred years ago, as the number of people required to produce our food fell off sharply. Somewhere along the way, the notion of kids exploring the woods or the creek near their homes gave way to the idea that it’s dangerous out there without close parental supervision. And then the trend toward indoor liLast childves really accelerated in the last generation or so, with the explosion of hand-held digital entertainment, to the point that few kids today will ever build a fort in the vacant lot or a tree house out back.

A definitive straight-line cause-and-effect relationship between all of this and soaring incidence of childhood obesity, diabetes, asthma, depression and attention challenges may be tough to nail down. But research that just about shouts out, “Hey, you 21st century Americans enjoying the greatest material wealth the world has ever known, you’re putting yourself at risk with all that sedentary, passive and indoor behavior,” is piling up.

Richard Louv captures so much of this in his 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,” where he writes, “a growing body of research links our mental, physical and spiritual health directly to our association with nature – in a positive way. Several of these studies suggest that thoughtful exposure to nature can even be a powerful form of therapy for attention-deficit disorders and other maladies.”

Perhaps word would get out to everyone in a perfect world and we would all adjust our ways. In an imperfect world, however, we would wish that our schools and other institutions organized for the good of our children would be out front in advocating for contact with nature. In the mean time, the Vegetable Project will seek to make the case that getting students outdoors more, that moving some teaching and learning outside and that contact with nature can help the academic cause – maybe even more than instruction-focused approaches.

Consider, for example, a 2002 study by University of Illinois researchers that makes a case that girls who live in public housing surrounded by greenery have better concentration, impulse control and ability to delay gratification that girls who live in identical housing without such landscaping. Those would seem like important building blocks for success in school.

The term “nature deficit disorder” doesn’t appear (yet?) in the Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Louv coined the phrase and incorporated it into the title of his 2005 book  “Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.” But it’s a great name for a serious issue.

–Bill Stoneman

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