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How to Cure Nature Deficit Disorder

If you spend much time on Facebook, you’ve probably seen the posters complaining about how children today are raised, proclaiming that, among other things, we used to play outside. The number of “likes” and comments on these nostalgic posts, reminiscing about the good old days and suggesting how much healthier the “old school” ways of raising children are indicates that these ideas really strike a chord with parents and grandparents around the country.

This jives with the concerns raised by several recent scholarly works, including the book Last Child in the Woods, in which the term Nature Deficit Disorder was coined, and Peter Gray’s Aeon article “The Play Deficit.” Just what are the concerns and how worried should we, as parents and as members of society, be?

First of all, don’t panic or despair: these new phrases use the highly charged words “deficit” and “disorder” but they have not caught on in the clinical mental health world so far. These are not real disorders and no one is saying that if your children don’t play outside, they are mentally ill. But what these authors are saying does have some merit. Let’s take a closer look.

Hunters and Gatherers and Video Gamers

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, states that children need to be outdoors, in nature, partly due to a biological reason: he says that human beings still have deep in our DNA and in our psyche, a need to interact with nature. This need, he claims, comes from our hunter-gatherer past, and despite how radically our lives and our world have changed, that biological need remains. Not all researchers and experts on child development agree with Louv regarding the “why,” but many parents, teachers, child advocates, researchers and doctors have expressed concerns about how, where, and how much kids play.

There is a tradition in the United States of looking at nature or wilderness as somehow important to our psyche or even spiritually healing. Writers for centuries have been extolling the virtues of “getting into nature” to reconnect with some crucial aspect of who we are. Some cultures have specific traditions or rituals such as vision quests in which young people commune deeply with nature as an important rite of passage into adulthood.

In recent years, however, trends worldwide show that children are spending less time outdoors, less time playing, and less time engaged in unstructured activities. How are kids spending their time? The answer to that question changes with a number of variables—in some countries much more time is spent studying than pretty much any other activity. In other areas, video games, Internet and other “screen time” activities are receiving the lion’s share of kids’ time. Other places, traditions of play—outdoor or indoor, unstructured and not mediated by a screen—do still exist, but these are no longer the dominant norms.

The Risks of Not Playing Outside

Let’s assume for the sake of the argument here that Nature Deficit Disorder does exist. What are the symptoms? Louv states that many of our mental illnesses: anxiety, depression and attention deficit disorder, for starters, stem from this alienation from nature. But that’s not all. Other researchers suggest that obesity, vision problems and vitamin D deficiency—all on the rise in the United States—are also linked to the reduction in unstructured outdoor playtime for kids. Still other researchers suggest that creativity and certain types of intelligence require unstructured playtime to develop.

What Are the Implications for Parents?

What’s a parent to do? The research indicates that it’s healthy for children to play outdoors, in an unstructured natural environment, with a high degree of freedom and a low level of supervision. Yes, you read that correctly—helicopter less, and let them figure out what to do by themselves.

This is not an easy pill for parents to swallow: fears of unstructured, unsupervised play are not unwarranted. While many parents will cite fears of stranger abduction as a reason they limit outdoor “neighborhood” play, other fears such as bullies, drugs and environmental dangers such as Lyme disease or other tick-borne illnesses cause legitimate fear in parents. Add in the desire by many kids to be indoors (that is where the electrical outlets are) because video games, movies, the Internet or television are compelling “down time” activities, and what parent is ready to fight that fight?

Here’s a radical solution: Don’t fight with your kids. Lead by example. Do more things outdoors yourself, with friends or with your family and discover activities that you enjoy. Let enjoyment lead you and your kids into doing more outside, rather than fear of “nature deficit” and all the associated problems chase you out into nature.

There is still hope.

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