“Nature Deficit Disorder.” Oh no, no please, not another disorder. We seem to be slapping acronyms and prefixes of dysfunction on our children as quickly as we can think them up. We’ve got AD, ADD, ADHD, ADD-RT, AC/DC; our kids are dyslexic, dysgraphic, dysphasic, dyspeptic, disaffected, disgruntled. I’m not dismissing these afflictions – I think they are real enough, even if over-diagnosed and over-medicated – but do we really need yet one more?
The term NDD was coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, to describe the whole panoply of problems that arise when kids don’t receive enough exposure to the natural world.
“It’s a problem” he writes, “because kids who don’t get nature-time seem more prone to anxiety, depression and attention-deficit problems.” A University of Illinois study bears this out by proving the converse: “Our findings indicate that exposure to ordinary natural settings in the course of common after-school and weekend activities may be widely effective in reducing attention deficit symptoms in children.”
The media-immersed lifestyles of today’s young people (American children aged 8-18 spend on average 7 hours and 38 minutes using entertainment media per day), and the resulting lack of contact with the world outside their windows, have contributed to many of the chronic concerns we see today, including childhood obesity, diabetes, asthma, depression, anxiety, and poor academic performance.
Academic performance? Yes, getting children to engage in the natural world has also been shown to improve their studies. “Take the development of cognitive functioning,” Louv says. “Factoring out other variables, studies of students in California and nationwide show that schools that use outdoor classrooms and other forms of experiential education produce significant student gains in social studies, science, language arts, and math.” Nature, it would seem, is good for your brain.
It’s also good for lots of other things. “Kids who do play outside are less likely to get sick, to be stressed or become aggressive, and are more adaptable to life’s unpredictable turns,” says Louv. Not only is the exercise involved in outdoor play good for you, but exposure to good old-fashioned dirt helps boost your immune system and lessens the chances of developing allergies. “Children raised in an ultraclean environment,” writes Dr. Joel V. Weinstock, the director of gastroenterology and hepatology at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, “are not being exposed to organisms that help them develop appropriate immune regulatory circuits.”
Immunologist and microbiologist Dr. Mary Ruebush, author of Why Dirt is Good, goes on to say that “if your child isn’t coming in dirty every day, they’re not doing their job. They’re not building their immunological army.” She also, along with a growing number of health care professionals, recommends the absolute avoidance of that most ubiquitous of cleansers, antibacterial soap. Plain soap and water are just fine, and don’t contribute to the development of new strains of antibiotic-resistant microbes.
As if that’s not reason enough to get your kids unplugged and outside, interaction with nature promotes the production and release of serotonin and dopamine, biochemicals that provide a sense of relaxation, safety, and general well-being.
This lengthy preamble serves as in introduction to what we did this weekend. A couple of weeks ago I wrote on the Facebook page of my kids’ school that I wanted to start a hiking club, in part to get our children outside, and in part to get to know new parents. This Saturday, about thirty of us took a nature walk along a small stream outside of Budapest. The kids were put into pairs or small groups, given paper bags and a list of natural items, and sent off on a scavenger hunt. The reactions of both parents and children were interesting.
The kids, of course, raced off immediately to find objects on the list. Some of the parents anxiously watched as their kids disappeared around a bend in the trail, then went chasing after them. Some tried to keep their little ones clean. Not muddy their shoes. Not get their feet wet. Not perch perilously on trees limbs.
But in time the parents visibly relaxed. It was clear in their facial expressions, their body language. They stopped hovering over the kids. They stopped worrying about clean shoes. Some stopped worrying about shoes altogether, and let their kids go barefoot. By the time we reached the meadow where we were planning to picnic, the kids were climbing trees, splashing in the brook, teetering their way over narrow natural bridges. It was a glorious Indian summer day, and the parents reclined on blankets, chatting, while the children did cartwheels and chucked rocks and ottered down slippery slopes and did all the things kids do when let loose outside.
There was a lot of dopamine and serotonin flowing, a lot of exploration, and not just a little dirt-eating. It was good fun, and the question that I kept getting asked was, “When are we doing this again?”
If you’re interested in reading more by Richard Louv, here’s an excellent article, “Leave No Child Inside,” that appeared in Orion Magazine.