The term “Attention-Deficit Disorder” (ADD, ADHD) has only been around since 1980 when it was introduced in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Of course, people have had the symptoms for a whole lot longer. A condition that appears to be similar to ADHD was described by Hippocrates around 400 BC.
But the term Nature-Deficit Disorder is not only newer than ADHD but a lot less familiar to people. As with ADHD in its early years, some people will question if it’s a “real” disorder. I was teaching middle school in the 1980s and students diagnosed as being ADHD became the topic on many days and discussions among teachers, counselors, parents and doctors often got pretty heated.
Nature deficit disorder refers to a hypothesis by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. His argument is that because people, especially children, are spending less time outdoors, it is resulting in a wide range of behavioral problems.
As a disorder, it is not recognized in any of the medical manuals for mental disorders, such as the ICD or the DSM. Louv is not a doctor. He is a writer and child advocate. But I agree with his general premise that people, and especially the younger generations, are more out of touch with the natural world than earlier generations. Of course, that may have been true for every generation since the industrial age began, but it seems to have accelerated as we entered the information age.
Louv claims that one cause for this phenomenon is parental fears about letting kids explore the natural world (especially on their own, as I certainly did as a kid) which has given them restricted access to natural areas. Unsupervised play has decreased over the years and parentally-sanctioned and supervised play is more the norm.
Add to this the lure of the screens – TV, film, and video on phones, tablets, computers and the less-viewed big screen of the family room.
In Last Child in the Woods, he expresses his fears that our children are increasingly disconnected from the natural world.
I agree, though I don’t go as far as the author who then links children’s disconnect from nature directly to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, stress, depression and anxiety disorders and childhood obesity. Still, I can see with my own sons that exposing kids to nature can be a kind of therapy for a busy world.
We tried as parents to get our kids hiking, swimming, camping and wandering both local woods and national and state parks. I encouraged unstructured creative play. The boys were a bit out of it because we severely limited their exposure to video games and discouraged mindless television viewing from one channel to another.
Both of us were public school teachers then and we chose not to work summers so that we could have 10 weeks with the kids. No summer teen tours or sleepaway camps. We did the town pool and summer sports and Cub and Boy Scouts and a 4-H equestrian club which were all more structured, but there were lots of days spent playing at the parks and in the woods and building things in the backyard and basement.
We lived in suburbia, but I tried to connect the boys to nature by teaching them animal tracking and catch-and-release fishing, planting flowers and vegetables, learning about the stars and constellations, the Moon and planets, and knowing the names of plants and trees. They learned about other cultures and nature, like American Indian beliefs and Buddhism.
I spent a good part of my childhood playing Huck Finn as best I could in a suburban town, but I can’t say that the generations that came of age in the 50s or 60s were steeped in the natural world. Kids of the 1950s were more in touch than kids of 2000, as kids of the 1900s were more in touch than those of the 1950s and so on.
Most of my sons’ friends were not doing these things with their families. They went away to camp, visited Disneyworld and took vacations to far off places. There came a time when my boys realized it wasn’t adding anything to their cool quotient to talk about our summer activities.
The book is already a decade old and Louv cites a study that reported that eight-year-olds could identify Pokémon characters far more easily than they could name “otter, beetle, and oak tree.” I’m sure if you update the references, the results would be the same today.
Did it work for my sons? One of my sons was diagnosed as being ADD and, though he compensated well on his own, it stressed him out. While one of them today (in their late twenties) is into camping, fishing, hiking, boating and hunting, the other is a city person who prefers a nice beach resort. I wouldn’t say that the exposure to the natural world is any guarantee of an unstressed, focused, healthy child, teen and adult. Still, nature can teach kids science in a fun way and those activities nurture their creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving skills. I also was very much in favor of my kids seeing themselves as future stewards of the environment.
I know that there are some good reasons for the lack of unstructured outdoor play that some of us grew up doing not being the norm these days. There are plenty of fears (both founded & unfounded) of predators in nature and even more so of the human kind.
We have more limited access to public lands (because of development or fear of lawsuits, insurance costs and to prevent vandalism) than when I was growing up.
As a parent, I didn’t have to deal with smartphones and broadband. My boys grew up with an Apple IIe computer with no hard drive and big floppy disks and a 1200 baud telephone line modem. The number of attractive indoor activities has increased many times.
It saddens me to go to the local park that I visited with my sons and see that there are no longer things like the monkey bars in the designer playground. It is safer but less interesting. Even the dirt is gone, replaced by a rubberized something. There’s a wooded area and small creek just at the edge of the park, but even if kids are drawn to it, most parents pull them back.
Last Child in the Woods is worth a read for parents and teachers if you are looking for an action plan for personal change. The book’s subtitle is “Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder” but I think a good number of my fellow adults need saving too. Most of don’t need to be given a listing of the problems in the world, but it would be good to take from the book some ways to, if not cure, then ameliorate them.