Reconnecting Children to Nature

By — Nature Deficit Disorder Special Edition Contributor
Updated on Mar 18, 2013

Reconnecting Children and Nature

Most kids today have limited direct experience with the outdoors. If they are outdoors, it is likely to be in organized sports and on playground equipment, often on asphalt play grounds. The defining experience of many of today’s youth and children is indoors, at home or in school, or in a car. Shuttled from school to church to soccer to dance class to day camp, most of our children are being given a virtual, vicarious, electronic, and cocooned experience of childhood. Alternatively, some are left home alone, under what author Richard Louv calls “virtual house arrest”—by themselves for hours at a time, hooked in to an electronic umbilical cord of today’s contemporary lifestyle. In 2006, I joined Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, and others to co-found the Children & Nature Network, a non-profit organization with the mission of building a movement to reconnect children and nature.

Fearful Parents Keep Children Indoors

A host of lifestyle changes in the past few decades has contributed to a sedentary generation of U.S. youth. According to a study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation (2005, 2006), kids are spending as much as 60 hours a week involved in electronic media. One of the major contributing factors is that adults fear for their children’s safety. A study in 2004 found that 82 percent of mothers with children between the ages of 3 and 12 cited crime and safety concerns as one of the primary reasons they do not allow their children to play outdoors (Clements, 2004). Often children are also committed to hectic schedules that leave them with little unstructured time for natural play in the outdoors.

How Nature Relieves Stress

Research indicates that one of the best antidotes to a stressful lifestyle is to spend time in natural settings outdoors. Children who spend time outdoors are likely to be:

  •     happier
  •     healthier
  •     smarter
  •     more cooperative
  •     better problem solvers
  •     more creative

Children need leisurely, unscripted, and exploratory hours to find the wonders in their own backyards and neighborhoods, from discovering the beauty of the stars in the night sky to watching lizards on a warm summer’s day.

Detrimental Outcomes of NDD

There is evidence to suggest that outcomes associated with children’s disconnect from nature include

  •     diminished health
  •     obesity
  •     reduced cognitive, creative, and problem-solving capacities
  •     lower school achievement
  •     lower self esteem
  •     less self discipline
  •     attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Nature Can Improve Mental Health and Cognition

Children’s cognitive flexibility and creativity are enhanced if they learn to problem-solve in natural settings rather than in highly controlled, human-dominated settings like concrete playgrounds and manicured playing fields with little ecological diversity. There are also mental health benefits to being outside. There is now a substantial body of work that indicates the simple act of going outdoors reduces stress, anxiety, depression, and attention-deficit disorders. The results are dramatic for people of all ages.

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