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.
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.
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.
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.
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.