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Put an end to Nature-Deficit Disorder

Michele Borboa, MS is a freelance writer and editor specializing in health, fitness, food, lifestyle, and pets. Michele is a health and wellness expert, personal chef, cookbook author, and pet-lover based in Bozeman, Montana. She is also...

Children, nature and their health

Exposure to nature is essential for a child's healthy physical and emotional development. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving our children from Nature Deficit Disorder, has brought together cutting-edge studies linking the lack of nature in children's lives to the rise in childhood obesity, attention disorders, learning difficulties and depression. Do your kids suffer from Nature Deficit Disorder? If so, here are some things you can do today to improve your child's health and well-being.

Girl and Boy Running in Meadow
Nature Deficit Disorder is not a medical diagnosis – yet – but it does describe the potentially perilous disconnection of children from the great outdoors. A disconnection that has implications not just for the health of children today but also for the health of future generations as well as the health of the environment.

Lack of nature is hurting your children

According to Thomas Baumeister, education bureau chief of Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Helena, Montana, 80 percent of American children's free time is spent plugged in to some form of technology. The result is two in 10 children are clinically obese (and this is not counting the children who are overweight), the incidence of childhood diabetes and other weight-related problems is growing, more and more children are diagnosed with ADHD and other behavior or learning problems, and the incidence of childhood depression and anxiety is on the rise.

In addition, Baumeister says that the disconnection from outdoor experiences is resulting in a generation of young people who lack creativity, independent thinking and problem solving skills. "Free play outside is the most challenging of play because it allows a child to make the rules. Unstructured exploration further fosters curiosity and imagination and gives them a sense of self-confidence with all the wonderful things they can discover," he explains.

He recommends reflecting back on your childhood and recalling the connection you had in your youth. Shelly B., mother of two, says "We always played outside as kids. We lived in a neighborhood that had a dozen or more children and we'd play tag or kickball or we'd sit on the grass and just look up at the sky and name the clouds according to their shapes." She adds, "We even had a weeping willow tree in our backyard that we'd climb, making up stories as to why we needed to climb it. Being outside let us nurture our imagination and simply appreciate our own backyard."

Technology is taking over

There is no question that being outdoors is essential for human health. Simply being around green plants and breathing fresh air can reduce your stress levels – a luxury that many children choose or are forced to do without.

Melanie L., mother of two, knows all too well that today's youth spends a great amount of time disconnected from the simple things in nature. She says "I have 2 boys, 3.5 and almost 7 – the 7 year old would play electronics for as long as I would let him - there is something quite addictive about [techonology]." She adds, "We have strict restriction on how much and how often [my sons] can play – and it's the first privilege removed when there are consequences to hand out. It's a struggle to get them away from these things."

This "plugged in" lifestyle has great implications on children and their health as adults. The World Future Society forecasts that in the next 25 years, Nature Deficit Disorder will grow as a health threat. Children are spending less time in direct contact with nature than previous generations and the lack of physical activity is going to increasingly result in more physical and mental health problems. Your children may grow up to be unhealthy adults and your grandchildren may consequently grow up to be unhealthy adults.

The great outdoors is at risk

Even worse, Baumeister warns that children who grow up without a connection to the Earth are not going to care about its preservation when they are adults. In addition to the potential eco-damage that can result, the natural wonders of our country are at risk.

"Generations before us stepped forward to protect natural spaces because they experienced the beauty and specialness of them. Kids today won't have the same passion or concern for the conservation of nature," cautions Baumeister. This means less funding and initiatives to maintain National Parks, recreation areas and other open spaces.

Take Action

If the health of your children and the preservation of the environment is important to you, here are five actions, suggested by Louv, you can take to keep Nature Deficit Disorder from becoming a national and natural epidemic.

1. Experience nature right at home

Nature is easily accessible and can be as simple as walking out your front door. Melanie says, "There is something quite magical about nature, when each of my kids were babies and at those trying times when nothing - really nothing seemed to help calm them down – I'd walk outside – and it was magic – they were calm and soothed almost immediately – there is something about nature that connects us all and grounds us." Other ideas are to hang up a birdfeeder, grow a garden, and make up nature games (go outside and challenge your kids to name 10 critters or find five different colored rocks).

2. Bring nature to schools

Suggest an outdoor curriculum for your children's schools. Field trips to local parks and oceans as well as outdoor lessons on flora and fauna can help bridge a connection between your child and nature. Visits to farm stands or farms can be invaluable in teaching children an appreciation of the earth – they get to see first-hand where their food comes from. The Edible Schoolyard, is an excellent example of connecting school children to the Earth and the roots of their food.

3. Support nature in your neighborhood

Louv suggests getting to know your neighbors. Invest in the safety of your neighborhood by creating a play-watch group and ask fellow parents to take turns sitting on their porches or in their front yards to watch the neighborhood children while they are outside. The group can also gather up the kids and take them on local field trips to parks, lakes or other spaces rich with nature.

4. Become a community outdoor advocate

Recruit families in your area to volunteer on the annual National Public Land Day to help build trails, plant trees, and clean up outdoor areas. Help green your city by getting involved in community planning. Lobby for more public transportation, better upkeep of outdoor recreational areas, and including more natural spaces in new developments.

5. Get involved in the national campaign to "leave no child inside"

All over the country, more and more states are getting involved in connecting children to nature. Check with your state government to take part in the campaigns to leave no child inside. Visit Children and Nature Network for more information on making nature a norm in the lives of your children, rather than an exception.

The health of your children, your grandchildren and the Earth are at risk if your children continue to spend most of their free time connected to the computer instead of the great outdoors. If your child is struggling with weight problems, poor health, high stress and mental health disorders, perhaps getting them outside is the first step in helping them take charge of their health and well-being. And, in addition, it can be the first step for you, too, to reconnect with nature and all of its health benefits.

For more ideas to get your kids into nature, visit these links:

Six kid-centric vacations that are fun for adults

Discovering nature indoors

Book: Last Child in the Woods: Saving our children from Nature-Deficit Disorder

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