Once upon a time, kids of any age returning from school were told, “go outside and play.” “Outside” may have been a back yard, a park, or a nearby patch of woods. Today’s kids are more likely to have a scheduled play date, join an organized sport on a manicured field, or disappear into their room alone to enjoy a computer game or TV.

But by disconnecting from nature, today’s kids may be losing far more than they — or their parents — know.

Nature-Deficit Disorder

In 2005, author Richard Louv coined the term “nature-deficit disorder.” It’s not a medical term, but it aptly describes the increasing separation between today’s kids and nature. After 10 years of research and interviewing kids, teachers, and parents, Louv learned that kids now spend fewer hours …

  • Playing overall
  • Outside in nature, and
  • In unstructured play (like climbing a tree, building a fort, or playing tag in the yard — the kind of unstructured play that fuels imagination, creativity, and a sense of peace)

“Nature-deficit disorder” is the unintended consequence of several trends. Parents want to safeguard their kids from snake bites, bees stings, and other hazards found in the natural world. Vast tracts of natural areas have been developed, so that the outdoors has shrunk to postage stamp-size yards or concrete playgrounds. The competing attractions of myriad electronic devices and the internet may make “going outside” seem boring or “uncool” to kids.

monroe busy with the ipod touch
Easy access to electronic devices and the internet may make “going outside” seem boring to kids. Image courtesy of Sarah Gilbert.

How It Affects Your Kids

Unfortunately, the less time kids spend outdoors, the more they experience rising rates of:

It turns out, that simple directive to “go outside and play” has huge benefits that weren’t fully recognized.

In addition, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, “research has shown that regardless of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, early childhood experiences in nature significantly influence the development of lifelong environmental attitudes and values.”

That’s government-speak for the idea that if kids aren’t exposed to nature, they understandably develop less appreciation for it. In the need to restore some balance between human and natural resources, that understanding and appreciation are essential.

child outside
Children need to spend time in nature to appreciate its value and develop a sense of responsibility for its preservation. Image courtesy of Janice Cullivan.

The Cure Is Out Your Front Door

The good news is, you can start fixing “nature-deficit disorder” today.

  • Summer vacations can be the perfect time to reconnect. When school’s out and family vacations are around the corner, virtually every type of outdoor adventure is available.
  • Summer eco-camps are starting soon. With the growing understanding of the importance of nature to kids, green camps are popping up nationwide. Your kids can garden, care for animals, hike and bike through astonishing natural places, and make friends while they’re at it.
  • Go to findyourpark.com. The National Park Service offers a wonderful website to help you find parks near your home. You can even specify features like a park with historical significance or a park with water for paddling.
  • Rediscover your own back yard. The “nature” seen on TV is often dramatic — roaring volcanoes, rushing floods, etc. But kids can learn about nature right outside your door. Birds singing, bees buzzing, crocuses blooming, trees leafing out — these are quieter miracles that can mesmerize kids if you help them stop and notice.
Kids playing outside
Give your children opportunities to stop and notice nature. Image courtesy of Travis Swan.

Go Outside and Play

Experiencing nature directly is essential for kids’ physical health, mental health, and their appreciation of the natural world. It allows them to use all five senses: the sight of the vast ocean, the sound of the wind in the trees, the smell of sweet flowers, the feel of rough bark or smooth river stones, the taste of wild berries. No electronic device can replace that.

So whenever you can, tell your kids to “go outside and play.” Even better — go with them! A natural setting can spark different kinds of family conversations, and offers you the chance to share your own love of the outdoors with the next generation.

Feature image courtesy of Jeremy Hiebert

Editor’s note: Originally published on May 27, 2015, this article was updated in May 2019.

By Alison Lueders

Alison Lueders is the Founder and Principal of Great Green Content - a green business certified by both Green America and the Green Business Bureau. She offers copywriting and content marketing services to businesses that are “going green.” Convinced that business can play a powerful and positive role in building a greener, more sustainable economy, she launched Great Green Content in 2011.