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Do today's kids have "nature-deficit disorder"?

A new book argues that children desperately need to be able to play in the woods -- and that our culture's sterile rejection of nature is harming them in body and soul.

In the not-so-distant past, kids ruled the country’s woods and valleys — running in packs, building secret forts and treehouses, hunting frogs and fish, playing hide-and-seek behind tall grasses. But in the last 30 years, says journalist Richard Louv, children of the digital age have become increasingly alienated from the natural world, with disastrous implications, not only for their physical fitness, but also for their long-term mental and spiritual heath.

In his new book, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder,” Louv argues that sensationalist media coverage and paranoid parents have literally “scared children straight out of the woods and fields,” while promoting a litigious culture of fear that favors “safe” regimented sports over imaginative play. Well-meaning elementary school curricula may teach students everything there is to know about the Amazon rain forest’s endangered species, but do little to encourage kids’ personal relationship with the world outside their own doors. And advances in technology, while opening up a wealth of “virtual” experiences to the young, have made it easier and easier for children to spend less time outside.

Louv spent 10 years traveling around the country reporting and speaking to parents and children, in both rural and urban areas, about their experiences in nature. In “Last Child in the Woods,” he pairs their anecdotes with a growing body of scientific research that suggests children who are given early and ongoing positive exposure to nature thrive in intellectual, spiritual and physical ways that their “shut-in” peers do not. By reducing stress, sharpening concentration, and promoting creative problem solving, “nature-play” is also emerging as a promising therapy for attention-deficit disorder and other childhood maladies. Indeed Louv, in both the book’s title and content, suggests that while increased exposure to nature may prove a salve for many of the childhood disorders that now run rampant, the very ubiquity of those disorders is evidence that two generations of alienation from nature may have already resulted in considerable harm to our kids.

Louv recently visited Salon’s New York office to discuss the correlation between the decline in kids’ contact with nature and the rising obesity epidemic; the criminalization of old-fashioned play; and the simple pleasure of having dirty hands and wet feet.

What is nature-deficit disorder?

It’s the cumulative effect of withdrawing nature from children’s experiences, but not just individual children. Families too can show the symptoms — increased feelings of stress, trouble paying attention, feelings of not being rooted in the world. So can communities, so can whole cities. Really, what I’m talking about is a disorder of society — and children are victimized by it.

Why, in the age of ADHD, did you choose such a loaded name?

Because I do think it is a disorder, just one of society. I am very careful in the book not to give the suggestion that this is some kind of clinical diagnosis. Maybe someday it will be, but until the scientists come up with a better name, that’s the one I’m using.

Is this just an urban problem, or does it affect children in suburban and rural areas as well?

For my research, I tried to cross every barrier I could think of — for instance, I did interviews in more rural areas and suburban areas, like the one I grew up in outside Kansas City, which still has a lot of nature. I went in there thinking, Well, certainly if you have woods next to you, kids will be out in them. But that simply wasn’t true. The parents and the kids there were saying the same things as kids in more urban areas. In fact, the amount of nature you have in New York City is actually better than some of the newer suburbs; imagine, today, a city building a Central Park.

A major study came out a few months ago that said that the rate of obesity in children is growing faster in rural areas than it is in cities and suburbs. Again, it seems counterintuitive. But it’s not so counterintuitive when you think about the fact that the family farm is fairly nonexistent now. Kids in rural areas are playing the same video games, watching the same television, and they’re on longer car rides.

Certainly the explosion of technology over the last 25 years — from cable TV, to video games, home computers and the Internet — has curtailed the amount of time kids spend playing outside each day. But during that same time, hasn’t society as a whole become much more aware of environmental issues?

I say early in the book that it’s more like the polarity has reversed. When I was a kid I had an intimate knowledge of woods and fields, to the extent that I pulled up hundreds of survey stakes to protect them from bulldozers. I really had a sense of ownership — I had no clue that my woods were connected to other woods ecologically. It’s the reverse now. Kids today can tell you lots of things about the Amazon rain forest; they can’t usually tell you the last time they lay out in the woods and watched the leaves move. It’s not that learning about the Amazon is bad — it’s great, and I’m glad it’s happening — the problem is, it becomes an intellectualized relationship with nature. And I don’t think there’s much that can replace wet feet and dirty hands. It’s one thing to read about a frog, it’s another to hold it in your hand and feel its life.

By now, we’ve all heard the reports that two out of 10 American children are clinically obese — four times the number reported in the late 1960s. And you note that this obesity epidemic has coincided with the greatest increase in organized sports for children in history. So, what can unstructured outdoor play offer kids that soccer and little league can’t?

First, I’m not against soccer, and it’s not a 1-to-1 ratio in terms of cause and effect. In the book, I’m cautious when talking about obesity — it’s complex. But I think it is a striking fact that the two [statistics] have grown alongside one another. One factor is just frequency of movement — it’s one thing to go to soccer practice once a week, or even three times a week — compared to the way kids used to come home from school and just head out. Sometimes I played free-form pick-up baseball, but most of the time, I was just gone, in the woods, and I was moving, I was racing my collie. That was constant. And I was so skinny I had to run around in the shower to get wet.

But there’s something going on here that’s more mysterious, and frankly the lack of study on it means any answer to your question will be incomplete. There is the “biophilia” hypothesis, which in some quarters is controversial, but that suggests we are still hunters and gatherers and biologically we have not changed. That hypothesis says there is something in us that needs natural forms, that needs association with nature in ways that we don’t fully understand. I think we instinctively understand that there is something about being in nature that you cannot get on a soccer field.

At one point you quote research that says children playing in parks are naturally drawn, not to the landscaped fields, but to the rocky borders where there are natural plants and ravines. But parents seem to spend a lot more time these days looking for spaces that are “child-friendly.” By building super-structured suburban communities dominated by gates and playing fields, are we actually making kids’ imaginative worlds smaller?

What we usually design is really more “lawyer-friendly” than “child-friendly.” This is a litigious society, and a lot of the places you are talking about have been designed by attorneys, not park designers. But there is interplay between the fear of lawsuits and [parents’] fear of a “bogeyman” that is going to hurt their children — indeed, they almost have become one and the same.

In the book I write about natural tort reform, and the idea that we will have to confront this problem sooner or later. For instance, I bring up the idea of the “criminalization” of natural play, where if you take all the state regulations, the well-intended and often needed environmental restrictions, and add those to the covenants and restrictions that now cover almost any new development that has been built in the last 20 years — things that control everything to whether you can plant rosebushes in the front to what color your curtains — well, the idea of a freewheeling, tree-house-building, nature-loving kid doesn’t fit that. So if all of [these restrictions] were to be enforced, playing outdoors by kids would be essentially illegal. It’s not all enforced, but the message still gets through — kids get a sense that there’s something unsavory about playing outdoors. And it’s too easy to blame this on lazy parents who let the TV do the baby sitting, when the truth is there is a matrix of forces that have come together to create this problem, and those forces are hard to stand up against as an individual and as a people.

You say that parents’ anxious attitude about the world — what you call “stranger danger” — a nebulous paranoia about violent criminals and sexual predators, kidnappers, traffic accidents, lawsuits and freak disease – is one of many factors, including increased technology, that has alienated kids from nature.

It’s not good for human beings to live with fear all the time. In this society we are increasingly living in fear, whether it’s of terrorism or “stranger danger” — and statistically, most of that fear is not warranted. Child abductions by strangers are, in fact, rare, and criminologists and others report that the number of them may have decreased in recent years. A 1988 report by the National Incidence Study on Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Throwaway Children in America, stated that there were between 200 and 300 children abducted by strangers in 1988. The most recent such National Incidence Study, found 115 children kidnapped by strangers in 1999. A relatively few child abductions are amplified into the appearance of an epidemic through nonstop coverage by the media. All of this is not to say that child abductions are a small matter, but fear of them must be weighed against the effects of that fear on our daily lives — including children’s ability to find joy in nature. However, if you live next door to somebody whose child was kidnapped, it doesn’t matter what the statistics are, and I understand that fear and I’ve felt it myself as a parent.

According to the 2005 Duke University Child Well Being Index, American kids are safer now than they have been at any time since 1975. Specifically, violent victimization of children has dropped more than 38 percent. So why do we feel that so much has changed?

Now, to play devil’s advocate to my own theory, if kids are safer now it may well be because we’re holding them inside. But what we don’t measure is the danger of what happens to their imaginations and inner lives because of it — those other repercussions aren’t measured at all.

In terms of where it all comes from — well, there’s a story I mention in my book about a little girl who was stolen from her bedroom and killed, one of these cases that was ‘round the clock on CNN for a long time. That happened right over the hill from where I live in California. It’s an important story, I don’t mean to dismiss it — but weeks of it, around the clock? We’re being conditioned to be fearful all the time. So a lot of it is the media.

That said, the name you chose for your book — “Nature-Deficit Disorder” — probably plays directly into the fears of many parents.

I knew that would come up and made a conscious decision to accept the criticism, because I am confident this issue is important enough to deserve attention.

That said, I don’t want to dwell on the negative; I’m hopeful that as this change becomes more visible to everyone, and the detriments of this shift begin to be discussed, that we also start to discuss the good news — the wonderful things that nature play can do for kids, like reducing the symptoms of ADHD, stress reduction, increased creativity, cognitive skills, and full use of the senses. “Last Child in the Woods” may be the first place all this research has come together outside of academia, but there have already been some very brave researchers working on these ideas. I call them brave because most of them are not winning big grants — since as one of them explained to me, “Who’s going to pay for a toy you can’t sell?” For instance, at the University of Illinois, there is remarkable study happening that suggests that nature play might be a therapy for kids with ADHD. Well, I would also flip that around and ask if there is something missing in kids’ lives that is actually contributing to or aggravating their symptoms? I’m skeptical about a lot of the diagnoses of ADHD, really.

You repeatedly refer to a 1991 study that found that the radius children are allowed to roam outside their homes has shrunk to a ninth of what it was 20 years ago. I remember being a young teenager and sneaking off into the woods to tell stories and smoke cigarettes with my girlfriends. This didn’t necessarily promote good health, but it did give me a feeling of independence and the knowledge that I had a life — a kid’s world — that existed separate from my parents. Maybe what is hurting kids is not just that they have been given less freedom to interact with nature, but that they have been allowed less freedom and independence in general?

Well, there have been a lot of cigarettes smoked in tree houses. (Laughs) Seriously, it’s true that not only nature can give the feeling of autonomy. But then when you think about where could kids be getting that instinctual self-confidence and independence — where could they go — it’s hard to think of a lot of positive places. Nature often provides an atmosphere you can’t get anywhere else, a sensation of being solitary. And again, I think there are mysterious things that happen, a lot of which have to do with the full use of our senses. I can’t think of many places, other than maybe the New York subways, in which we have our senses going full cylinder. And I make the case in the book — though I am very careful to say that I am speculating about this — that letting your kids have some independence in nature, where they can use all their senses, in the long run makes them safer.

Usually hyper-vigilance — behavior manifested by always being on guard and ready to fight or flee — is associated with trauma in childhood. But the hyper-awareness gained from early experience in nature may be the flip side of hyper-vigilance — a positive way to pay attention, and, when it’s appropriate, to be on guard. We’re familiar with the term “street smart.” Perhaps another, wider, adaptive intelligence is available to the young? Call it “nature smart.” One father I spoke to said he believes that a child in nature is required to make decisions not often encountered in a more constricted, planned environment — ones that not only present danger, but opportunity. Organized sports, with its finite set of rules, is said to build character. If that is true, and of course it can be, nature experience must do the same, in ways we do not fully understand. A natural environment is far more complex than any playing field. Nature does offer rules and risk, and subtly informs all the senses.

And certainly, the other aspects you mention — that give a child self-confidence, independence and the sense that they can exist in the world and are somewhere bigger than their parents and their problems — are all a part of the healing possibilities of nature that I hope people will explore.

Another refrain that surfaces in your book is kids who say, “I don’t really have time to play,” because they are always being carted off to some kind of lesson or “enrichment” activity. In this context you speak of both the “criminalization” and “commercialization” of play — that unless play takes the form of a competitive, structured activity, parents and kids think of it as just “wasted time” — a lazy afternoon of daydreaming. When do you think this shift began?

The shift has been happening for several decades with increasing rapidity. But the essential thing to realize is that we can do something about it. If you think about the phrase “nature-deficit disorder” — all you really have to do to deal with the disorder is get your kid out in nature now and then — it’s not brain surgery. It’s actually fun, and it’s fun for parents.

The key is that as long as nature experiences are considered an extracurricular activity, nothing will change. There are folks out there who are hungry for it, who want an alternative to what is going on in terms of organized sports and over-structured lives. The minute it begins to be seen as a health issue, truly a mental health issue — that wonderful things can happen for your child if you give them direct experiences with nature — then it’s no longer an extracurricular activity and really, it’s no longer even leisure. When that kind of conceptual shift happens, I think a lot of parents will be relieved — they’ll have a logical reason to do what their instincts tell them to do anyhow.

This article originally appeared in in June, 2005.

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