In today’s expanding jargon and creation of new medical terms for psychological conditions, some of which are conveniently linked to a designed pharmaceutical course of action, one may be reticent in accepting or giving one’s attention to new disorders. However, while labels can have negative consequences, they can also draw our attention to something that is missing or not in harmony.
The term ‘Nature-Deficit Disorder’ was coined by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods (2005). This book looked at the deficit of nature awareness and contact in today’s children and how it affects behaviour and how to address it. To provide further understanding of this term it would be best to place it in a relative context, of how children played in the past.
Louv brings in stories from his own childhood, walking through Nebraska forests, fishing, raising pigeons, riding horses near the swamp and climbing tall trees on his own. Moving around the United States talking to various groups, many from his generation (b. 1949) recalled playing in vacant fields and being outdoors all the time. Most who grew up before the dominance of TV, video and computers will have similar stories.
However, increasing use of technology is not only to blame for sitting inside. Landscapes have been developed and there are fewer vacant fields, but also what has increased is a culture of fear. This is not only of the abduction of children, but also institutions fearing lawsuits lest anything should not go according to plan during outdoor activities.
While children these days most likely have a greater knowledge of environmental problems and processes, this knowledge is not connected to tactile experience of being in nature. This has the result of a disconnected and poor relationship with the living world, which can result in an apathy and lack of emotional connection in adult life with the biosphere. Would a real estate developer today think of destroying a local estuary if they had an emotional connection to nature?
Along with an indoors culture it is unsurprising that childhood obesity has increased. In the US this has tripled since the 1970’s, while in the UK, 20 % of 10 and 11 year olds are obese. While junk food marketing and sugared drinks have increased, the youth of today are also burning far less calories by remaining indoors.
The Harvard biologist, Edward O. Wilson, notes that humans have an innate tendency to seek connections with nature. He called this biophilia, meaning “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”. Louv’s research points to the consequences if this urge is inhibited or prevented from expression. His research and investigations found that a lack of nature contact in children led to attention deficit disorders, depression and a dampening of creativity. What has also been realised is that nature is naturally fascinating to the mind and especially to a child’s mind, and induces a relaxed and focused state. Natural landscapes are engaging and creative, yet they do not demand our attention like a phone call or noisy car driving past. They are naturally restorative and there is increasing data to suggest people recover faster from illness when exposed to nature.
In UK comprehensive schools there is a strong, but rather blinkered focus to achieve suitable levels in Maths and English, as these two subjects are rated highly with Ofsted, the Office for Standards in Education. While Ofsted has recommended outdoor education as ‘good practice’, especially with its positive effect on students who are not naturally academic or who have emotional behavioural issues, a further step is required such that it becomes a requirement. This does not have to be grand adventures in the countryside, but simple activities like gardening and greening the school grounds could suffice.
The way humans respond to the current environmental onslaught of the planet depends upon not only those who have more influence, but those who will soon be joining the economy. We are at a tipping point and Earth cannot afford for a generation of humans to be disconnected from natural living processes and the simple joy of being in the presence of nature.