Nature Deficit Disorder
Nature deficit disorder is a term coined by author and journalist, Richard Louv, to describe the negative consequences of society becoming disconnected from the natural world. While it is not a medically recognised disorder, it has sparked many discussions about the potential impact of not being regularly exposed to nature. It suggests that spending less time in nature and more time indoors, engaged in sedentary activities and technology, can have detrimental effects on our health.
Why are fewer children playing outdoors?
Today children are spending less time outside for a number of reasons. With the rise of indoor activities such as video gaming, social media and streaming services, children now have endless indoor entertainment options and the allure of passive screen time often overshadows the motivation to go outside and play.
Also, in recent years there has been an increased emphasis on child safety, meaning parents are more concerned about potential risks which leads them to restrict their children’s freedom to explore and play outside.
Children’s lives today are often filled with organised activities such as sports practice, music lessons, tutoring etc. While these activities are valuable in their own right, they can leave limited time for children to play outside in an unstructured way.
In addition, growing urbanisation means that many children now live in areas with limited green spaces, making it more challenging for them to engage in outdoor play.
Unfortunately, the lifestyle of many children today can have potentially negative consequences for them. Humans have an innate need for nature and neglecting this need can have wide-ranging impacts on physical, mental and emotional well-being.
Lack of outdoor play and physical activity can increase the risk of obesity, cardiovascular problems and other chronic health conditions. The freedom and space outdoors encourage large movements leading to good physical exercise and helping to strengthen muscles and bones.
Research shows that spending time outdoors has numerous mental health benefits, such as reducing stress, anxiety and depression. Nature is a therapeutic environment that can positively impact children who may be more vulnerable to these issues.
By spending time outside in nature, children gain an appreciation and understanding of the natural world. If children don’t have regular contact with nature, they will be less aware of environmental issues and be less likely to develop a sense of responsibility for their environment and the planet as a whole.
Limited time in nature can also have an impact on children’s cognitive development. Spending time outdoors, exploring the natural environment, and engaging in unstructured play can enhance problem-solving skills, critical thinking, and imaginative thinking; things that children will miss out on if they spend a lot of time inside doing more sedentary activities.
To counteract the effect of nature deficit disorder, parents and caregivers can try the following to encourage children outside and develop a strong and meaningful relationship with nature;
Prioritise time outdoors and bring nature indoors
Make outdoor time a regular part of your child’s daily routine. Set time aside for outdoor play, exploration and nature-based activities. Whether it’s an insect hunt in the garden, a welly walk in the park, or a ramble in the countryside, consistently prioritising time outside will ensure children have regular exposure to nature.
Encourage children to interact with natural materials, even when indoors. They could make nature-themed artwork using materials such as leaves, petals, sand etc, or paint pinecones, shells, pebbles etc. Providing opportunities for hands-on experiences such as gardening, caring for houseplants or putting food out for the birds can all help children to appreciate and feel connected to nature, even during times when outdoor exploration may be limited.
Plan nature-based family outings
Organise family outings or holidays to places where children can be in nature for prolonged periods of time. Visiting a forest, national park or beach gives children the opportunity to experience nature on a large scale and will promote a sense of wonder and curiosity, encouraging them to explore and go on adventures! Camping holidays are a great way to be really immersed in nature. Listening to birdsong in the morning, going on scavenger hunts, picnic-ing at lunchtime, and stargazing before bedtime are all lovely experiences for children which will also help to counteract nature deficit disorder.
Embrace nature-related hobbies and interests
Support children’s interest in nature by providing books, guides and documentaries about wildlife, plants etc. Encourage activities such as bird watching, nature photography, gardening, and nature journaling.
Organisations such as Guides, Brownies, Scouts, and Cubs can really help to reconnect children with the natural world through their outdoor-focused activities. Scouting and Guiding programs often incorporate environmental education into their curriculum, teaching children about sustainability, conservation and the importance of protecting natural resources.
Embrace technology as a tool
Technology can help to support children’s experiences and learning in nature. Geocaching (treasure hunts and hide & seek games using GPS) is popular and a good way to entice children into nature who aren’t usually keen to do so.
When using devices to support children’s learning, be sure to strike a balance between screen time and real-world outdoor experiences, ensuring that technology complements, rather than replaces, the hands-on engagement with nature.
Lead by example
Children learn by observing and imitating their parents and caregivers. Be a positive role model by showing enthusiasm and respect for nature, whether that’s looking after plants at home or litter picking in the park.
When spending time outdoors with your child, point out and show curiosity about interesting features in the environment, and encourage them to ask questions. When children are old enough, involve them in recycling, conserving water and energy, composting, and even growing their own fruit and vegetables. Children will then learn the importance of these actions for preserving the environment and well-being of future generations.
By consistently showing love and appreciation for nature, parents can inspire their children to develop a deep and life-long connection with the natural world.
Nature deficit disorder is a growing concern in today’s society, but we can reduce its effects by prioritising children’s connection with the natural world. This will enhance their emotional, physical and cognitive development, while also helping them to lead happier, healthier and more connected lives.