The term “nature-deficit disorder” was coined by author and journalist Richard Louv in his 2005 New York Times bestseller Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder to describe the detrimental effects on humans as we spend less time outdoors. Nature-deficit disorder is not a medical diagnosis, but what was at first a tongue-in-cheek phrase has given parents, caregivers and researchers a way to talk about the growing disconnection between kids and nature over the last several decades.
Louv is the author of 10 books and has helped launch an international movement to connect children, their families and communities to nature. He co-founded the Children & Nature Network, which supports and mobilizes leaders, educators, activists, parents and others working to turn the trend of an indoor childhood back to the outdoors and to increase safe, equitable access to the natural world for all.
As Louv was initially researching the benefits of nature to human development and health (and deficiencies without it) in preparation for Last Child in the Woods, he found only about 60 academic studies on the issue. Since the book’s release, the research has become a growth industry.
“There are now well over 1,000 studies that point in the same direction — nature is fundamental to our humanity and to the development of children and adults over time,” said Louv.
This growing body of scientific research indicates that time spent in nature positively impacts psychological health, physical health and the ability to learn.
“One series of studies showed that Attention-Deficit Disorder symptoms go down significantly in kids as young as 5, just through a walk through trees in an urban park,” said Louv. “Cognitive functioning improves; the immune system is strengthened.”
Conversely, Louv says some studies on the deficits have been disturbing, showing that in neighborhoods where nature isn’t accessible to kids, the death of infants because of low birth weight is much higher, even when factoring out other causes.
“Literally this is a life and death situation,” said Louv.
In his newest book, Our Wild Calling: How Connecting with Animals Can Transform Our Lives — and Save Theirs, Louv explores the theory that society is currently plagued by a double pandemic. In addition to COVID, a second pandemic of human loneliness is on the rise. Recent science has associated human isolation with many of the same diseases caused by smoking and obesity. One of the biggest deterrents to children spending time in nature is fear, particularly fear of strangers.
“As a species, we are desperate not to feel alone in the universe,” said Louv. “The more science finds out about how animals and trees and other forms of life communicate within their own species and across species, the more we recognize that there is a great conversation going on around us all the time. When we participate in that conversation, we feel less lonely. This has certainly been true during the pandemic.”
Louv has found even when families are compelled to spend more time in nature, they often don’t know how to start. He walks us through some common questions and provides encouragement:
What’s the right dose of vitamin N (or nature)?
Louv says some researchers have found that when humans spend 20 minutes outdoors in a natural setting, regularly, they start to see changes in psychological health.
“But I’m suspicious of trying to find that answer, “said Louv. “There are so many variables in nature.”
Louv’s answer: Some is better than none. More is better than some. And adults need nature, too.
“One of the most important things to realize is that nature time isn’t just another list of things to do that causes you stress,” said Louv. “This isn’t the SAT test. We’re not talking about taking kids in the woods and hovering over them with nature flash cards. This is great for you — as a parent. This is a stress reducer not a stress maker.”
How can busy parents make it happen? Schedule it.
“If we can put soccer on the calendar, we can put nature on the calendar,” said Louv. “We can’t take for granted that it’s going to happen.”
Louv also advises that parents approach time in nature with the same wonder and awe as their children, without the pressure of knowing the names of each plant species and without a specific agenda in mind. Delighted discovery is the goal.
How do you get started? Louv wrote a book about that!
Vitamin N: 500 Ways to Enrich the Health & Happiness of Your Family and Community shares hundreds of ideas, many from parents, that families, schools, places of worship and even whole cities can engage in together. Louv shared three of his top tips for families to prioritize time in nature this summer:
Join a Family Nature Club or start your own. In these clubs, several families make regular plans to get together at a park or outdoor location to go on a nature adventure together. The best part, says Louv, is that you don’t have to wait for a foundation or government grant or city approval; you can get started right away and tailor the activities to your group’s needs and desires. By enjoying nature with other families, parents and kids can reduce their sense of isolation, build social capital and improve mental wellness. Head to childrenandnature.org to download a free toolkit to get started.
Remember the power of simplicity. Spending time in nature doesn’t have to require big plans or extended time. Louv’s favorite example is to place a board or rock at the edge of your back yard or a green space near you at the beginning of summer. Come back toward the end of summer and turn it over to see what’s come to live there. Louv says it’s a remarkable experience for kids (and their grown ups!) to discover an entirely new civilization.
Bracket screen time and nature time. Screens are a way of life for many kids, and Louv cautions parents to be careful not to demonize technology. Instead, he suggests “bookending” nature experiences and technology: allow kids their devices before a hike, then ask them to leave them in the car during the hike and, when the hike is over, they can get back to their devices. At that point, parents can even encourage them to look up various plants or animals on their devices, ones they’ve seen or ones they hope to see.