For Parents and Teachers
The issue of Nature Deficit Disorder has come to the forefront among child advocates from many disciplines. With skyrocketing rates of childhood obesity have come serious health problems among our children. Type II diabetes diagnoses among children are rising. Pediatricians are treating overweight children for typically adult-onset health problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other cardiovascular problems. Diagnoses of attention deficit disorders among children are increasing nationwide with a subsequent increase in prescriptions for medication to treat these conditions. Children are more frequently being diagnosed with and treated for depression. Clearly, something is wrong, and a growing body of evidence indicates it is related to a disconnection of our children with the natural world.
No longer do children spend much of their free time outside playing with friends, exploring, or just messing around. Instead, many children are over-scheduled with structured activities leaving little free time for them to be outside. And while structured outdoor activities such as sports are beneficial, research shows that children benefit more from unstructured outdoor time just to explore and observe. Electronic media is another area of concern. According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study, American children aged 8–18 years spend an average of 44.5 hours per week viewing electronic media including television, video games and computers. The only thing they do more of is sleep.
Parental concern over safety also plays an important role in their children's lack of outside time. Media hype aside, statistics show that crimes against children have declined since the 1960's while other well-known studies show that children are more likely to be the victims of family members rather than strangers. This does not mean that parents should ignore their concerns. Instead, they need to investigate possible areas for outdoor play to identify places that they feel comfortable allowing their children to explore and play to get the benefits of time outside.
Parents also play an important role in helping make neighborhoods receptive to children's needs for outdoor play. Restrictive municipal codes can make even simple things — like having a basketball goal in a driveway; or using sidewalk chalk; or building a fort or tree house — against “the rules.” Such regulations do nothing to encourage children to be outside.
So, what is a parent to do? Perhaps one of the best things you can do is limit the time your child spends with electronic media. Turn off the television and send your children outside in the backyard to play. Set a good example yourself, by doing things other than watch television or surf the internet. Allow your children to walk or ride their bikes to school if a safe route is available. Start spending time outside as a family. Instead of driving places, see where you can walk or bicycle together. Check out neighborhood parks and make them a destination. Encourage your children to explore your own backyard by involving them in gardening and other yard projects. Leave part of your yard a little on the “wild” side to provide a mini-habitat for your children to explore and observe. Put up a bird feeder and leave a bird book on the counter so family members can identify birds at the feeder. Have a backyard campout in the summer and let your children invite some friends. Visit nearby nature centers, wildlife refuges, zoos, or parks.
Read to your children about outdoor topics such as wildlife, the stars, animal tracks and habitats. Give them a subscription to an outdoor-related magazine such as Your Big Backyard, Ranger Rick or National Geographic Kids. Let your children get dirty and wet with the occasional bug-bite. Give them some basic tools to explore with, such as a pail, trowel, magnifying glass, notebook, pencils, ruler, crayons, and jars or small plastic containers for collections. But most of all open the door and let them be outside. They will be healthier and happier for it and so will you.
Here are two good references for parents and teachers that discuss nature deficit disorder and the importance of outdoor places to childhood development. Both contain substantial references:
Louv, Richard, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, 2004.
Trimble, Stephen and Gary Paul Nabhan, The Geography of Childhood, 1994.