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The effect of ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ on children

I used to love playing outdoors as a child, just like my mum before me. There was freedom in it, whether you were in the garden (with your mum watching from the kitchen window) or out in the wilderness of the woods.

By the end of the day you’d have chilly cheeks, mud on your nose, and scratches up your legs from waist-high weeds.

Why are fewer children playing outdoors

This largely comes down to concerns about safety – over a third of adults feel that it isn’t safe for children to play alone outdoors, fearing traffic and ‘stranger danger’. Instead, children spend playtime within their own garden or home, or visit the playground with an adult keeping watch.

This anxiety, along with the increase of screen time, can put children at risk of Nature Deficit Disorder. But we need to change the way children grow up and see the world – because locking them indoors in front of a screen is not helping matters. ‘Stranger danger’, for example, can happen whether your child is online or outdoors. And by cutting children off from nature, we could be doing more harm than good.

Nature Deficit Disorder

The term ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’  is not a recognised scientific or medical disorder but comes from writer Richard Louv, who believes that increasing numbers of children are spending less time outdoors and this is causing a range of health, behavioural and educational issues.

“Nature Deficit Disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.” 

Last Child in the Woods (quoted in Natural Childhood Report)

The Benefits of Playing Outdoors

Physical activity is a must for children, especially when child obesity is at a high. Regular exercise not only burns calories but can also promote good mental health, helping prevent depression.

Children also need ‘risky’ play and the outdoors provides this. Health and Safety Executives believe that risk-taking in children’s lives is beneficial, but many children are prevented from playing conkers in the playground and climbing trees.  A lot of learning happens by making mistakes, so exposure to ‘risky’ play can support children’s learning and show them what they are capable of.

“Climbing a tree – working out how to start, testing for strength, feeling how the breeze in your face also sways the branches underfoot, glimpsing the changing vista through the leaves, dreaming about being king or queen of the jungle, shouting to your friends below once you’ve got as high as you dare – is an immersive, 360-degree experience that virtual or indoor settings simply cannot compare with.” Tim Gill (quoted in Natural Childhood Report)

Ten Tips to Fight Nature Deficit DIsorder

Ready to make outdoor play a bigger part of your family’s playtime? Here are some ideas to get you started.

1. Be a role model

If you demonstrate your interest and respect for nature, through sitting in the garden, gardening, visiting garden centres, reading gardening magazines, or recycling, your child is more like to copy this behaviour and enjoy nature themselves.


2. Have an outdoor adventure

Take a trip to a park, go for a walk, go to the local river and play pooh sticks – at least once a week, come rain or shine.  This will not only get your child excited about the outdoors and nature but it’s great for family quality time too. Remember to dress appropriately for the weather, welly boots may be needed!


3. Limit TV and screen time

I don’t like to be prescriptive with this, but the Balanced Play Approach can be a great way to make sure your child is getting a good mix of play activities while limiting screen time. This will encourage them to go out in the garden and be imaginative.


4. Go for a family walk after dinner

Take your family on a nice stroll around the neighbourhood or the park and discuss what you see whilst walking.  This will ensure that children get some fresh air and allow them to let out any excess energy before they go to bed. A regular walk is good for family quality time too.


5. Go camping

Get some friends together, grab a sleeping bag, and go camping. If you can’t go to a campsite you can always camp in the back garden, which is still as much fun (and if there’s a storm at least you can run back inside!).


6. Grow your own vegetable/herb garden

Start a vegetable/herb garden and let your child be in charge of looking after it. This will give them responsibility and will also start a discussion about natural resources and the benefits of home-grown food. Be prepared to get your hands dirty!


7. Sign up to a local or national environmental organisation

See how you can get involved and do your bit to save our environment. Get your child involved by reading the magazines together, asking them questions to get them thinking, and encouraging them to ask you questions too. Some organisations to get your started include Butterfly ConservationEnglish HeritageThe Woodland TrustsForestry Commission, and the Soil Association.


8. Buy nature books

Pick up some nature books for your child to read – this can help develop curiosity, as they will start to ask questions. Nature guides will teach children about foods, plants, animals and the environment in general. Children can also take a guide outside and use it to identify plants, trees, flowers, insects, and birds.


9. Go on a trip to a farm or zoo 

Treat your child to a trip to the zoo to see animals up close and discuss the importance of the conservation.


10. Try not to worry too much about ‘stranger danger’

Try not to be in constant fear that your child’s welfare is in danger and let them explore. If you feel happier monitoring your child then watch them in the garden, but let them explore and investigate by themselves.