Friday, March 6, 2009

Nature Deficit Disorder in Children aka Nature is SCARY

Remember "A Christmas Story?" Little Ralphie so desperately wanted a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, but everyone kept admonishing him, "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out!" It's the same way with our children today. We keep them from really living and experiencing life because of our own (mostly) irrational fears.

I attended a fantastic and enlightening lecture at the Madison Arboretum yesterday. The speaker was Sam Dennis, Jr., who is a Professor of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Science at the UW-Madison. His presentation was entitled, "Children, Youth and Environment - Diagnosis, Prognosis and Treatment of Nature Deficit Disorder."

I learned about Nature Deficit Disorder from the book entitled, "Last Child in the Woods - Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," authored by Richard Louv."

As defined by WikiPedia:

"Nature Deficit Disorder, a term coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, refers to the alleged trend that children are spending less time outdoors, resulting in a wide range of behavioral problems. Louv claims that causes for the phenomenon include parental fears, restricted access to natural areas, and the lure of the screen. Recent research has drawn a further contrast between the declining number of National Park visits in the United States and increasing consumption of electronic media by children."

Dennis has done local research in the diagnosis, prognosis and treatment of nature-deficit disorder in children. He offered that the following symptoms are signs of nature-deficit disorder in children:

  • Overweight
  • Sedentary
  • ADHD
  • Asthma
  • Vitamin D deficiency
  • Fresh food aversion
  • Myopia in 9-12 year olds
  • Loss of intelligence
  • Apathy toward local environment
  • Lack of local environmental knowledge
  • Lack of critical and creative thinking skills
He did a study with members of a Madison-based boys & girls club. Dennis employed a diagnostic tool called, "Participatory Photo Mapping," which uses GPS to track the places where the "last free-range Madison kids" played within the city. He gave them cameras and told them, "Tell me what life is like outdoors."

The prognosis for the future? The children report, "Nature is scary and fresh food is 'nasty.'" Is there a chance that our children can recover from this nature deficit? As parents, we must take an active role in changing children's perceptions that nature is something to be feared.

Dennis offered many ideas for treatment:
  • Reduce screen time (TV, Game Boys, DS, Iphones, computers, etc.)
  • Get your kids outside!
  • Address adult fears
  • Increase free play in natural settings
  • Make spaces for wild play
  • Model behavior instead of teaching and preaching (get out and splash in the puddles)
  • Include everyone in play, especially caring adults
I understand adult fears. We watch the news and we read newspapers. We are overwhelmed with stories of child abductions, death, injuries, food toxins, etc. The doom and gloom is enough to make us want to wrap our children in bubble-wrap.

A free-range childhood??? Even though I had one myself, I must admit that allowing my daughter to roam freely, unsettles me to the core. I worry that she will get hurt in nature...well, okay...everywhere. She'll fall down, she'll get splinters, she'll bleed, she'll wander into poison ivy, etc. Just like most parents, I want to know where she is at all times.

And, where has this constant vigilance led us? Every child I know has a cell phone so that Mom and Dad can know exactly where they are every minute of the day. It is an extension of the umbilical cord. Our children do not know how to make decisions for themselves anymore, because a parent is at the ready to jump in.

Children don't know how to play anymore. Children today are shuttled from one organized activity to another. With sports, music lessons, and educational classes, the time for unstructured free play has diminished. They have forgotten how to use their imaginations to invent games and activities.

I think that as parents we need to make a few resolutions:
  • Take our children out into nature to touch, smell, taste, enjoy
  • Allow children to play (see definition below)
  • Model getting in touch with the natural world
  • Shut off the electronic devices
  • Build a fort or a treehouse!
Today make a resolution to turn your children loose!
So, what is "Play" anyway? Dennis provided this definition from the Children's Play Council of the UK: "Children's play is freely chosen, personally directed, intrinsically motivated behavior that actively engages the child."

Explanation for adults: Don't tell kids what to play, don't guide them, get out of their way and let play happen naturally.

Learn more about Richard Louv's work here:

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