What is Nature-Deficit Disorder?

I grew up in a rural village in Germany. For my whole childhood, I ran around our huge backyard which backed onto fields, forests and kills. I had a big dog, a collie, who was my companion, and together we’d go on adventures with the kids from my neighborhood. We were always looking for stuff in nature, building dams, making up games, or trying to find the end of the forest. 

My kids couldn’t be more different, they’re growing up in Manhattan in an environment made by humans. I sometimes worry that they don’t get enough exposure to nature. Nature has so much diversity and variation. Think of a square meter in the forest or even the park, about how much stuff there is - different trees, bugs, grass, seed, little stones. As opposed to a square meter in an apartment in which they have maybe 10 toys. It’s just not the same stuff that stimulates their smell, vision, perception, everything. So we really try to get out with them. Our nanny takes them out to Central Park every day. And recently we bought a car so now we do Saturday adventures. We go out to the beach or take little hikes because I know that’s really important for their development. 

I’m sure if asked, many of you would describe the same difference between your own and your children’s experiences of nature at a young age. It’s also similar to descriptions Richard Louv gives in his book - Last Child In the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder - of his own and other adult's contrasting experiences of nature to that of their modern children. In the book, he coined the term “Nature-Deficit Disorder”, to describe our children’s increasing alienation from nature.

We played outside using nature as the leap pad for our imaginations. We were curious and used our time outside to answer the questions we had. Our children are growing up in environments that have increasingly less nature accessible to them. In addition, they have the distraction of ever-increasing attention grabbers that light up, make noise, and/or have a screen. As that divide between our kids and nature increases, they’re losing the thing that provided us with so much stimulation. It’s not just kids in cities but kids in suburbs too.

Nature is important for all the reasons that Louv details in his book. Additionally, natural light plays a huge role in synchronizing our circadian rhythm. The presence of natural daylight makes us more alert during the day and its absence helps us sleep better at night. You can read my blog on how a weekend of camping can reset your family’s circadian rhythm here. Regular and meaningful time outdoors connects us with nature which has proven health and stress-reducing benefits.

Here are a few ways to decrease the effects of nature-deficit disorder in your children and yourself: 

  • Take dinner outside - Choose an easy-to-prepare meal that you can make ahead of time and take it outside to a park, forest or your backyard to eat with your family, better yet BBQ something with them
  • Go camping
  • Go on a hike 
  • Get a book on native trees or birds and walk with your kids through areas where you could identify some
  • Lie on your backs and ask them what they see in the clouds
  • Teach your kid to fish - If you don’t know how find a friend who does and get them to teach you both
  • Encourage your child to see nature as a playground - Can they make a game out of racing from one tree to the next, build villages out of sticks, create a scavenger hunt list from things found in nature