Pediatricians nowadays see fewer kids with broken bones from climbing trees and more children with longer-lasting repetitive-stress injuries, which are related to playing video games and typing at keyboards. Indoors is in. Outdoors is out as in, out of favor with kids. "I like to play indoors better, because that's where all the electrical outlets are," said a fourth-grader quoted in the book Last Child in the Woods, in which author Richard Louv coins the term "nature deficit disorder."
What is nature deficit disorder? It's not a medical term, but a social trend. The term describes "the human costs of alienation from nature, among them diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional illness," Louv explains. We're raising the very first generation of Americans to grow up disconnected with nature, he says, and this broken relationship is making kids overweight, depressed and distracted.
Society inadvertently teaches children to fear the outdoors, where there's traffic, nature and strangers, and feel safest inside (where, unfortunately, air quality can be 10 times worse, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). Maybe you remember playing outdoors with friends from dawn to dusk on summer weekends several blocks away from home when you were young. By 1990, according to one study, the radius of play around a house for a nine-year-old had shrunk to one-ninth of what it was 20 years earlier. Louv pointed to a recent UCLA report showing that American kids now spend virtually no time in their own yards.
Young people often have many demands on their time in today's competitive world, such as team sports, enrichment programs and lessons, homework and part-time jobs (for the older set).
Yet research shows interaction with the natural environment plays an important role in children's development, including building problem-solving and critical thinking skills, as well as fostering creativity. As one example, Louv points to research on attention-deficit disorder at the University of Illinois, in which exposure to nature was shown to decrease ADD symptoms.
Louv calls on adults to take kids hiking and camping or go just plain encourage them to spend unstructured time outdoors. Go! Explore! That's the cure for the disorder.
* Get ideas for how children can spend one hour outdoors every day by going to GreenHour.org.
* Listen to a forum on Nature Deficit Disorder: kqed.org/epArchive/R706011000.
* To join the Children & Nature Network or watch a video on nature deficit disorder, go to TheFuturesEdge.com (click on links on the left side).
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