Is Your Child Experiencing Nature Deficit Disorder?

It can be hard to connect with nature this time of year. It’s cold outside in the Western hemisphere, and in many areas, spending recreation time outside requires gear, or heavy jackets and snow pants at the very least. While there are plenty of reasons why it’s easier to stay inside, making sure that you and your children are getting quality time outdoors is vitally important. 

The term, “Nature Deficit Disorder” was coined by author Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods to describe a disconnection with the natural world and the detriments that accompany it. “Nature-deficit disorder is not a formal diagnosis, but a way to describe the psychological, physical and cognitive costs of human alienation from nature, particularly for children in their vulnerable developing years,” Louv writes. Although this discussion began in the 2000s, it has only grown more relevant as we - and our kids! - lead increasingly digitally-saturated lives, and, due to COVID-19, are statistically spending more time indoors and in front of screens than ever. 

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Kids who experience Nature Deficit Disorder are missing out on many desirable benefits of meaningful time spent forming a relationship with nature: social bonding with their family and peers during outdoor play, greater degrees of capable mobility in unpredictable terrains, physical resiliency and motor skill development, increased confidence, and benefits for mental focus and stress reduction. While there has not been a large amount of study on the subject of the effects of deprivation of nature time, there is a great deal of research showing the correlative flip side of the conclusion: that time spent in natural spaces is highly beneficial, especially for developing children. In fact, spending time outside can benefit your child’s microbiome and immune system; essentially, exposure to nature can help keep kids healthy. 

Of course, there can be many barriers to giving kids regular outdoors adventures. While some folks reside in small towns and can easily access trails, activities, and parks, families in urban environments might find that there are financial and organizational difficulties that get in the way of a family hike or skiing day. Likewise, many parents may struggle to reduce their children’s screen time, especially if their child is engaged in an online learning program. Parenting is challenging at the best of times, and winter during the COVID-19 pandemic is definitely not the best of times! 

So, what can you do if the thought of having to buy specialized winter gear and wrangle your children for a car ride in order to find some untamed spaces is melting you into a stressed-out puddle? Find a way to make nature time work for you in your neighborhood - suggestions from Louv’s book include such easy and low-effort options as cloud-spotting, or going for walks together. Although exposure to wilderness is the best case scenario, even a small local park can be a great place for your child to run around, burn off some energy, and observe birds and bugs. If you have a backyard, there are quite a few ways to utilize your own green space to its fullest potential - and a few winter-specific suggestions include the classics of making a snow person or a snow fort.

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Spending time outdoors with your child can support your brain and body, as well. All those de-stressing, increased physical fitness, and mental wellbeing benefits of being outdoors are also accessible and helpful for adults. Fostering a love of the natural world with your child can be incredibly rewarding and inspire your sense of curiosity and wonder - would you be questioning what that interesting mushroom or unfamiliar bird is without your child pointing them out? Spending unstructured time with your child outdoors is a wonderful opportunity for you to learn about your local flora and fauna together. 

If you’re building a new family tradition of spending time outside together, be sure to do your research about your area and activity, and keep your child’s safety in mind. Mindfully letting your child engage in some developmentally-beneficial risky play is an excellent way to empower them to test their boundaries and learn new skills, but knowing basic outdoors safety and when to step in is always a good idea.  

Reaping the benefits of a relationship with nature, what writer and ethnobotanist Robin Wall Kimmerer calls “the covenant of reciprocity,” can help kids be their best outdoors and indoors, as well. Regular exercise and unstructured play outdoors can support emotional regulation, social relationships with peers, as well as the ability to focus on tasks and schoolwork - although if your child is still having difficulty staying on task after introducing a regular outdoors routine, it may also be worth trying a targeted supplement formulated to help support kids’ concentration! However you choose to augment your parenting strategy, spending time together with your child in nature benefits their - and your - overall quality of life.

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