Do you remember playing outside as a child? My childhood I was in a village surrounded by hills, fields, a stream and the innocence only childhood can bring.
It was a time to run around and let loose, use your imagination and explore.
In my youth I was at one with nature – so much adventure!
Today, some children suffer from nature deficit disorder.
Nature deficit disorder is a phrase coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods meaning that human beings, especially children, are spending less time outdoors resulting in a wide range of behavioral problems
Why this is a problem
Children spending less time outdoors has been linked to decreased appreciation of our environment, health problems including childhood obesity and vitamin D deficiency, diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of emotional illnesses like anxiety and depression.
I want to focus on this last point and how nature helps reduce stress and anxiety. If children are no longer outside playing and enjoying themselves, then how will they naturally calm down and relax? My son is a child who definitely needs the outdoors!
Scientists continue to debate the evidence around SAD, with one recent study from Auburn University at Montgomery, in the US, claiming that the idea we become depressed due to a lack of sunlight is a myth. Yet, some estimates suggest that 20% of people in the UK do experience some form of ‘winter blues’ and sufferers continue to flock to GPs, who often recommend light boxes and even cognitive behavioural therapy as a treatment.
Could it be that, instead of being sensitive to changes in the seasons – we’re actually suffering from a disconnection with nature?
Being indoors creates a world that’s compartmentalised from the changing weather, landscapes and feelings. In contrast, being outside enriches our lives. Experiencing the unpredictability of the weather – a breeze over your face or an unexpected rainfall adds variety to our lives.
Smells evoke memories and thoughts and connecting with nature allows us to escape monotony.
How did we get here
Five key changes over the last 30+ years have impacted our relationship with nature:
- How Society Developed. We are increasingly living in urban areas. According to the United Nations, almost 50 percent of all people in the world now live in urban areas, and this is projected to increase to 65 percent by the year 2030. Also, poorly designed outdoor spaces make it more difficult for children to play outside.
- Fear. Richard Louv wrote: “Fear is the emotion that separates a developing child from the full, essential benefits of nature.” Since the 1980s, we live in a more fearful society hyped up by 24/7 media reporting, which was intensified after 9/11. Parents worry about many safety concerns that impact the time their children spend outside, such as traffic, crime, strangers, injury, and nature itself (e.g. skin cancer due to sun exposure, bug bites, and harmful animals.) A 1991 study of 3 generations of 9 year olds showed that between 1970-1990, the radius around home where children were allowed to roam on their own shrunk to 1/9 of what it was in 1970. Imagine what that statistic is today!
- Technology. Children spend more and more time focused on screens instead of nature scenes. According to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study, daily media use among children and teens has risen dramatically. Today, 8- to 18-year-olds devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes to using entertainment media across a typical day (more than 53 hours a week!). Common Sense Media reports a huge increase in the use of mobile media by young children in the past couple of years. To learn more, check out this fantastic Top 5 best bike seats for preschoolers summarizing the findings of their 2015 survey. Finally, in his book, Richard Louv sadly quotes a fourth grader: “I Like to play indoors better because that’s where all the electric outlets are.”
- Time pressures. Children are living an overly structured lifestyle involving sports teams, indoor play centers, homework, extracurricular activities, etc., that prevent them from simply enjoying free play outdoors.
- Education trends. Unfortunately, outdoor education is not a priority, and recess time and physical education classes are being threatened in many schools.
Well, the statistics aren’t great.
A 2009 report by Natural England found that only 10% of children played in woodland, compared with 40% of their parents’ generation.
Mr Gill’s report, commissioned by the London Sustainable Development Commission, listed 12 recommendations that it felt could help address the deficit.
Among them were:
- Promote better use of accessible green space in order to increase the use of under-utilised areas,
- Promotion of “forest schools” and similar approaches to learning in the outdoors,
- And encouraging schools to give greater emphasis to offering children “engaging nature experiences”.
The report championed the use of forest schools because it quoted research by the Forestry Commission that showed lessons and activities within a woodland appeared to have a beneficial effect for children with emotional or behavioural problems.
A recent study by researchers at the University of Sheffield found that visitors to urban green spaces in the Yorkshire city felt a greater sense of well-being in areas they perceived to have greater biodiversity.
It is not only within the UK where the benefits obtained from natural habitats, such as woodlands, are being recognised or researched.
Following the success of his book, Richard Louv established the Children and Nature Network to promote ways to reconnect children, families and communities to the natural world.
In Japan, the health benefit of spending time in forests has its own word – “shinrinyoku“, and literally means ‘forest bathing’.
How Nature Helps Reduce Stress
A growing number of studies from around the world show the importance of nature in our life such as improving mental health. Examples include recreation activities in the wilderness, community gardens, views of nature and/or gardens at hospitals, and contact with animals. Why is this the case?
- Humans have a nature instinct known as biophilia—an innate bond we share with all creatures and plants in the natural world that we subconsciously seek.
- Nature provides a sense of wellbeing.
- The natural world offers solace and comfort unlike what we find in any manmade environment.
- Spending time in nature reduces the level of human response to stress and allows us to recover from stressful situations more quickly.
- Having contact with nature promotes healing. A breakthrough study in 2001 in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that a healing garden at a children’s hospital in California had positive effects on users—about 85 percent reported feeling more relaxed, refreshed, or better able to cope after spending only 5 minutes in the garden.
How Can You Help?
We are all struggling to balance a million priorities and to make the best decisions for our family. Now that you know how critical it is to our children’s wellbeing for them to spend time outside in nature, you may want to take some steps:
- Spend more time outside as a family. Keep your children’s outdoor time unstructured, so go for a walk, visit a local park, garden, bike ride or have a picnic in your garden.
- Plan day trips and vacations based on National Parks or other outdoor experiences.
- Register your children for outdoor sports and summer camp (my eldest has joined Beavers!)
- Be mindful of nature around you – we’re lucky we live in the Wolds and it’s everywhere!
- Suggest a nature group at your child’s school.
- Get involved in a community garden or local environmental group.
- Examine ways to minimize technology use in your house. Common Sense Media is a great resource to explore in your free time.
Maybe, just maybe it’s time to rediscover our relationship with nature.