Nature Deficit Disorder in Kids

Could Nature be a big part of the parenting journey?

Posted Dec 02, 2019

I went to see a Broadway play earlier this week and met a wonderful retired school principal from Florida, Bonnie. She was the one called in to fix schools that were failing. She mentioned a term to me I had never heard before: Nature Deficit Disorder, (NDD).

When I researched it, I saw it has been around for more than a decade. The term was coined by Richard Louv in his book, Last Child in the Woods. Nature Deficit Disorder is the idea that human beings, especially children, are spending less time outdoors and the belief that this change results in a wide range of behavioral problems. It seems we live more and more in a culture that favors safe sports and activities over imaginative outdoor play. Reasons for this include parental fears, safety issues, restricted access to nature, and of course the addiction and pull of electronic devices.

What surprised me most about the conversation with Bonnie, was that she was talking to me about kids who were living and at school in Florida, a state I would certainly associate with nature. And yet, no, she was adamant that even those kids needed way more outdoor time than they were getting daily.

It made me think about my own childhood. I grew up in five cities: New York, Brussels, Paris, Hong Kong, and London. My parents did a good job of making sure I was outdoors over the holidays, but during the school semesters, I remember being in swim training, dance class, French class, tennis, more than being in just pure and simple nature doing nothing.

Fast forward a few decades and I now have a child of my own, Everest, a 6-year-old adventurous boy. He was born in Cape Town, at the bottom of the African continent. Nature there is all around, from the giant sky to two oceans that meet, to animals big and small. Nature is much more dominant than people or shops. You feel you are living within nature, as opposed to finding pockets of nature within a city.

Everest was barefoot until he was 3. He climbed trees, learned to swim as a baby, ate his share of dirt, got stitches a few times as a toddler, played at the beach, became good at climbing rocks, was always around animals and his first school was an outdoor Montessori environment.

We now live in New York. I’ve had my share of hearing: Why on earth would you do that? Leave Cape Town, go to a busy city where there is no nature?’ That’s a whole other story.

When you think of New York City or any major city, you don’t say: Wow, nature is all around. That was certainly one of my fears as a parent. And yet, there is always a way. When you make something important, you find a way to experience it.

Here is how I define nature: dirt on the ground, moving water either in the form of a lake, river, sea, more than one tree, dirt, animals, bugs, paths not made of concrete, signs of seasons changing, seeing the sky, the sun, the moon, the stars, unstructured outside environments, flowers, plants, gardens, seeing food grow (even in a small potted plant), lack of goals or destination and very importantly, not being on your clock but on nature’s.

I asked parents I know how much nature their kids got daily. For many of them, according to the definition above, it was close to none. And yet, many of these ways of connecting to nature can be experienced in any city, anywhere in the world.

Bonnie, shared with me her proven techniques for improving academics and student behavior. Not one of them had to do with different ways to teach reading, more homework, or disciplinary measures. Top of her list was outdoor time, nature, and more unstructured play areas in classrooms.

We are all familiar with the signs of having a child who has not been nurtured by nature. They are wired, have too much energy even at bedtime, they will find anything to throw or kick around, they have trouble listening, they complain and whine, they can misbehave, and they more recently are addicted to their screens. Many of us label these kids as easily distracted, can't sit still, boys will be boys, difficult, ADD, too much screen time…

The bigger problem is that we are all (adults included), spending too much time indoors.

I too can fall into the signs I described in the paragraph above. We are disconnected from the seasons, other than complaining about the cold in the winter or too much humidity in the summer. We are disconnected from animals and from how and where food grows. We are disconnected from getting dirty. We are disconnected from the cycles of the moon. We are disconnected from planet Earth and all the messages that she is trying to give us and that kids pick up quickly when you ask them.

NDD is very real. There are studies now to show the effects of too little nature and what happens when kids are nurtured by nature the way they were meant to. Louv is quoted as saying: "It's a problem because kids who don't get nature-time seem more prone to anxiety, depression and attention-deficit." He suggests that going outside and being in a quiet and calm place can help greatly. According to a University of Illinois study, interaction with nature reduces symptoms of ADD in children; "exposure to ordinary natural settings in the course of common after-school and weekend activities may be widely effective in reducing attention deficit symptoms in children.”

NDD affects our physical health, too. For example, how much sunlight reaches us and our kids. Yes, Vitamin D3 is a good supplement, but real sunshine is a better choice. Probiotics are good, but real probiotics from dirt and less than perfect environments are also better. Nature helps us all sleep better, too.

Last weekend it was raining and grey here in the city and my son still wanted to go outdoors. I remembered what I was learning from researching this post and also that I'd benefit from all this, too. We walked around Central Park, he climbed rocks, (yes slippery ones), he jumped in puddles and got soaked. There was no one else around as you can see in the photo. He was super happy.

Ariane de Bonvoisin
Nature even on a rainy, cold day.
Source: Ariane de Bonvoisin

Today we are having our first proper snowfall. And yes, while a part of me will want to rush home after I pick up my son from school, we will no doubt go to the park, to make fresh footprint tracks and to throw a few snowballs around. Our bodies will send us a thank you note.

There is a real connection between nature and our own ‘inner nature’. We are living in a world where we see everything as divided. But in reality, our own inner nature is intimately connected with nature outside of us. We are all getting signs that we need to reconnect. Let nature help. Perhaps make this one of your goals for the new year.

In my humble experience, there is a reason why Nature is called Mother Nature, maybe she really is our missing parent.

I want to end with a quote from Richard Louv:

“The future will belong to the nature-smart—those individuals, families, businesses, and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world and who balance the virtual with the real. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”