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Do you remember playing outside as a kid? It was a time to run around and let loose, use your imagination, and explore. As a child growing up in the eighties, I remember walking to school, riding my bike to the swim club or just around the neighborhood to see friends, and making up all kinds of imaginative games in the woods behind my house. Well, that doesn’t happen much anymore. Today, children suffer from nature-deficit disorder.
This term was coined by Richard Louv, author of the book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder and co-founder of the Children & Nature Network (C&NN). It refers to children having less experience with and connection to nature over the last couple of decades. Here are some facts:
- Only 6 percent of American children ages 9-13 play outside unsupervised, according to Frances Moore Lappe in her book top 5 best bike seats for preschoolers.
- In a 2004 survey of 800 American mothers, 71 percent said they played outdoors every day as children but only 26 percent of them said their kids played outdoors daily.
- The Outdoor Foundation surveyed 40,000 people and found an overall decrease in the amount of time children participated in outdoor activities.
- A 2005 study indicated that 71 percent of adults reported that they walked or biked to school when they were children but only about 20 percent of children did in 2005. This is very true for my family. We live five minutes from my children’s schools, yet I spend about 2 hours each week in carpool lines.
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?
Well, the statistics are frightening. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), it is estimated that 1 in 8 children suffers from an anxiety disorder. More worrisome, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that 25 percent of teens ages 13-18 will experience some form of anxiety. Additionally, the use of anti-anxiety medications is exploding. It increased by almost 50 percent for children ages 10-19 between 2001-2010, explained Scott Shannon, author of Mental Health for the Whole Child: Moving Young Clients from Disease & Disorder to Balance & Wellness.
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 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.)
- 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 preschoolerssummarizing 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.
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. Don’t overthink this. Keep your children’s outdoor time unstructured–go for a walk, visit a local park, garden, bike ride, or have a healthy meal in your backyard.
- Plan day trips and vacations based on National Parks or other outdoor experiences.
- Register your children for outdoor sports and summer camp.
- Teach children to “stop and smell the roses”. In other words, be mindful of nature around you.
- Lobby for your school to keep physical education and recess on your child’s schedule.
- Start 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 fabulous resource to explore.
There is hope. Recently, my son and I met a friend of his for a playdate at the local library. At first the kids played video games on the computers, but once the rain stopped the boy’s mother suggested we go outside to feed the ducks with some bread that she brought. I thought, “What a wonderful idea!” We ended up discovering some trails around the lake and really enjoyed ourselves. My son had a blast exploring in nature. Through this experience, I learned that it is very easy to be creative and add some nature experiences back into our children’s lives. Get them out from behind the screen, and go explore outdoors! (Just remember to bring your sunscreen and bug spray.)
How do you incorporate nature time into your family’s life?