Childhood in the West isn’t what it used to be. According to the American Psychiatric Association, nearly 8 million children in the United States suffer from mental disorders, with the most prevalent being Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Prescriptions for Ritalin to treat school-aged kids for ADHD increased 60% between 1990 and 1995. Physical health is also on the decline. According to a report from the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, fully two-thirds of American children can’t pass a basic physical and 40% show early signs of heart circulation problems.
These developments are all part of a broader phenomenon, according to author Richard Louv: They are the real human costs of less time in nature, and less nature in general. In his most recent book, Last Child in the Woods, Louv claims that alienation from the natural world has given rise to a lamentable ailment that he has termed “nature deficit disorder.”
Louv is careful not to suggest that nature deficit disorder is a verifiable medical condition. Rather, it is the name he gives to a disturbing trend that does indeed have health implications, particularly for children, such as diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illness. In his book, Louv lays out his case for recognizing nature deficit as an important social problem and for acknowledging nature as an essential ingredient to a healthy childhood.
“Nature is often overlooked as a healing balm for the emotional hardships in a child’s life,” Louv states. “You’ll never see a slick commercial for nature therapy, as you do for the latest antidepressant pharmaceuticals. But parents, educators, and health workers need to know what a useful antidote to emotional and physical stress nature can be.”
Louv points to several studies that document the restorative power of nature and the importance it can play in mental development. For example, in one study, immersion in a natural environment was shown to improve concentration, mood, and perceptions of health in children. Another study found that outdoor space fosters more creative mental activity, improves child/adult interaction, and can relieve the symptoms of attention-deficit disorders. Unstructured time in a natural environment (and away from television) may offer a new course of treatment for children suffering from attention deficit, to he administered either in addition to medications like Ritalin or on its own.
Access to nature may also contribute to a safer environment for children to play in. City neighborhoods that are surrounded by green space statistically incur less crime, in part because people in such neighborhoods are more inclined to spend time outdoors where they can offer supervision both of children and of property. Also, according to researchers, greenery helps people to relax, thus reducing aggression.
Some of the benefits of nature on health and mental development may be even more subtle. Louv provides anecdotal evidence of the effects of nature on what he calls “adaptive intelligence,” meaning the ability to adapt to changing environments.
“Modern life narrows our senses until our focus is mostly visual, appropriate to about the dimension of a computer monitor or TV screen,” Louv states. “By contrast, nature accentuates all of the senses, and the senses are a child’s primal line of self-defense. Children with generous exposure to nature, those who learn to see the world directly, may be more likely to develop the psychological survival skills that will help them detect real danger, and they are therefore less likely to seek out phony danger later in life. Play in nature may instill instinctual confidence.”
Louv’s research highlights the importance of helping kids to actively engage nature. Time spent camping, hiking, and away from the television are all good remedies for nature deficit. The book lends further credence to the argument that consumer-driven society has wrongly devalued the natural world. We continue to do so at the expense of our health and mental well-being and that of future generations.
Source: Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorderby Richard Louv. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 2005. 320 pages. $24.95.
Originally published in THE FUTURIST, May-June 2006.