How important is a walk in the woods to a child's development? It's one of the most burning education questions of the day, and, according to experts, a lack of routine contact with nature may result in stunted academic and developmental growth. This unwanted side-effect of the electronic age is called Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD).
The term was coined by author Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods in order to explain how our societal disconnect with nature is affecting today's children. Louv says we have entered a new era of suburban sprawl that restricts outdoor play, in conjunction with a plugged-in culture that draws kids indoors. But, as Louv presents in his book, the agrarian, nature-oriented existence hard-wired into human brains isn't quite ready for the overstimulating environment we've carved out for ourselves. Some children adapt. Those who don't develop the symptoms of NDD, which include attention problems, obesity, anxiety, and depression.
Louv says while nature shouldn't be seen as the magic bullet to cure all ailments, parents should see the woods, streams, fields and canyons around their home as a type of therapy to keep kids focused, confident, healthy, and balanced. “Kids learn better when they get outside. It's a way to truly help our kids learn in all areas of education,” he says. Studies also show links between nature and behavior: kids with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) thrive when put in routine contact with nature in documented test cases. Louv says this is especially relevant when taking into account the number of kids treated for ADHD with drugs such as Ritalin. “We have to begin to question how many pharmaceuticals we are putting into our kids,” Louv says. “We have to start looking at nature therapy.”
While Nature Deficit Disorder isn't a clinical term, the concept has struck a chord with parents and educators. The child-nature reunion has emerged as a movement, and Louv says this is because the concept rings true for a generation of parents and grandparents who are reminded of their own joyous experiences in nature as children; whether it be summer camp, building a tree house, or, in Louv's case, helping turtles across the road during migration season. “People are so much on the treadmill. They need to be reminded that once upon a time childhood was different. People have prized and cherished memories of their time in nature, and it's disdainful for people to think that this has passed,” he says.
Since 2005, when Last Child in the Woods hit the shelves, several studies have been published backing up the importance of the child-nature reunion. The American Institutes for Research conducted a study of the impact of a weeklong residential outdoor education program on at risk youth. Students involved in the program experienced a 27 percent increase in their mastery of science concepts, better problem solving skills, enhanced self esteem, and improved behavior in comparison with the control group stuck in the classroom.
This new research is prompting action. Several states have launched programs to get children outdoors, and national policy-makers are also starting to take notice. Last year Representative John Sarbanes of Maryland introduced a bill called “No Child Left Inside” which would provide funding for integrating environmental education into K-12 curriculum.
Louv says schools shouldn't just teach about nature in the classroom, they should be sending kids out to nature—even if it's just to the patch of woods behind the school. He says these types of field trips and excursions should not be viewed as “a little break from school,” but as an integral part of the learning experience.
While researchers, policy-makers and school officials wrangle with the issue, what can parents do to help replenish their child's connection with nature? The updated and expanded edition of Last Child in the Woods, out in April 2008, includes a field guide for parents. Here is a sampling from Louv's list of nature activities and community actions:
- Invite native flora and fauna into your life. Maintain a birdbath. Replace part of your lawn with native plants. Build a bat house. For backyard suggestions, plus links to information about attracting wildlife to apartments and townhouses, see the National Audubon Society's Invitation to a Healthy Yard. Make your yard a National Wildlife Federation (NWF) Certified Wildlife Habitat.
- Help your child discover a hidden universe. Find a scrap board and place it on bare dirt. Come back in a day or two, lift the board, and see how many species have found shelter there. Identify these creatures with the help of a field guide. Return to this universe once a month, lift the board and discover who's new.
- Revive old traditions. Collect lightning bugs at dusk, release them at dawn. Make a leaf collection. Keep a terrarium or aquarium. Go crawdadding-tie a piece of liver or bacon to a string, drop it into a creek or pond, wait until a crawdad tugs.
- Encourage your kids to go camping in the backyard. Buy them a tent or help them make a canvas tepee, and leave it up all summer. Join the NWF's Great American Backyard Campout.
- Be a cloudspotter; build a backyard weather station. No special shoes or drive to the soccer field is required for "clouding." A young person just needs a view of the sky (even if it's from a bedroom window) and a guidebook. Cirrostratus, cumulonimbus, or lenticularis, shaped like flying saucers, "come to remind us that the clouds are Nature's poetry, spoken in a whisper in the rarefied air between crest and crag," writes Gavin Pretor-Pinney in his wonderful book The Cloudspotter's Guide. To build a backyard weather station, read The Kid's Book of Weather Forecasting, by Mark Breen, Kathleen Friestad, and Michael Kline.
- Make the "green hour" a new family tradition. NWF recommends that parents give their kids a daily green hour, a time for unstructured play and interaction with the natural world. Even fifteen minutes is a good start. "Imagine a map with your home in the center. Draw ever-widening circles around it, each representing a successively older child's realm of experience," NWF suggests. "Whenever possible, encourage some independent exploration as your child develops new skills and greater confidence."
- Take a hike. With younger children, choose easier, shorter routes and prepare to stop often. Or be a stroller explorer. "If you have an infant or toddler, consider organizing a neighborhood stroller group that meets for weekly nature walks," suggests the National Audubon Society. The American Hiking Society offers good tips on how to hike with teenagers. Involve your teen in planning hikes; prepare yourselves physically for hikes, and stay within your limits (start with short day hikes); keep pack weight down. For more information, consult the American Hiking Society or a good hiking guide, such as John McKinney's Joy of Hiking.
- Invent your own nature game. One mother's suggestion: "We help our kids pay attention during longer hikes by playing 'find ten critters'—mammals, birds, insects, reptiles, snails, other creatures. Finding a critter can also mean discovering footprints, mole holes, and other signs that an animal has passed by or lives there."
- Encourage your kids to build a tree house, fort, or hut. You can provide the raw materials, including sticks, boards, blankets, boxes, ropes, and nails, but it's best if kids are the architects and builders. The older the kids, the more complex the construction can be. For understanding and inspiration, read Children's Special Places, by David Sobel. Treehouses and Playhouses You Can Build, by David and Jeanie Stiles describes how to erect sturdy structures, from simple platforms to multistory or multitree houses connected by rope bridges.
- Plant a garden. If your children are little, choose seeds large enough for them to handle and that mature quickly, including vegetables. Whether teenagers or toddlers, young gardeners can help feed the family, and if your community has a farmers' market, encourage them to sell their extra produce. Alternatively, share it with the neighbors or donate it to a food bank. If you live in an urban neighborhood, create a high-rise garden. A landing, deck, terrace, or flat roof typically can accommodate several large pots, and even trees can thrive in containers if given proper care.
Louv says parents should see the reconnection with nature not as a chore, like the laundry, or an extracurricular, like soccer, but as an antidote to the stress in their family's life. This type of therapy is widely accessible, free of side effects, nonstigmatizing, and inexpensive. So, in the end, even if it doesn't raise your child's test scores or increase her attention span, all that's lost is an afternoon in the woods with your family. Not bad at all.