Gone are the days of neighborhoods filled with the voices of children riding bikes, climbing trees and playing ball in the yard into the twilight hours. Somehow the free-range outdoor days of childhood that many adults recall are no longer part of childhood. Recent studies indicate that American children, on average, spend about 30 minutes of unstructured play time outdoors each week.
By Jenni Veal
Child advocacy expert Richard Louv, author of the book Last Child in the Woods, has coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the lack of nature in the lives of children today. The phenomenon Louv has identified is often associated with many of today’s troubling childhood trends, including obesity, attention disorders and depression.
“Nature-deficit disorder is not just a problem with children – this is a problem for society as a whole,” says Dr. Jane Jones, a pediatrician with Signal Mountain Pediatrics and nature advocate. “We all need to be outside and have fresh air more often.”
The Science of Playing Outside
Psychologists argue that truly healthy kids need unstructured time and natural places where they can interact with the world on their own. While adult-organized sports have a place in childhood, they do not represent the unstructured play that researchers recognize as critical to childhood development.
In a 2007 report, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) touted the importance of free play in the development of healthy children, with benefits including brain development, a more developed imagination, dexterity, emotional strength and physical strength.
Children today spend less time playing outdoors than their mothers and fathers did as children. A Hofstra University survey of 800 mothers, with children between the ages of 3 and 12, found that 70 percent of mothers reported playing outdoors every day when they were young, compared with only 31 percent of their children. Also, 56 percent of mothers reported that, when they were children, they remained outdoors for three hours at a time or longer, compared with only 22 percent of their children.
What Keeps Kids Indoors
Many adults today can remember being pushed out the door by their parents each day, being told to “go outside and play.” What has changed in American culture that keeps children and their parents indoors?
In general, children ages 8 to 18 spend more time (44.5 hours per week) in front of computers, televisions and game screens than any other activity in their lives except sleeping, according to studies by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Additionally, 83 percent of kids ages 8 to 18 have at least one video game player in their home. Nearly 85 percent of mothers, in a recent survey, identified their child’s television viewing and computer game playing as the number one reason why their children don’t go outside to play more often.
Children develop habits at an early age, and if they are raised in front of a TV or computer or video game, those habits will continue through their adult years.
“Technology is such an easy and addictive pastime,” says Jones. “There needs to be balance in allowing kids their pastimes, but putting a limit on it. Nighttime is a good time for video games and computers; daylight hours are good for being outdoors – without technological gadgets.”
Additionally, today’s children have harried lives that are organized and timed nearly to the minute. Well-intentioned parents spend their days toting children to and from school, after-school activities, sports, dance classes, clubs and social events. While each of these activities has the potential to be of value, many children – and families – are out of balance with the number of extracurricular activities that dominate their days and nights.
Even the opportunity to play outdoors in nature is becoming a thing of the past, as access to nature has been cut off. Woods are replaced by subdivisions, many of which are manicured and often times restrict what children can do with what is left of nature. School playgrounds are manicured, lacking woods and rough edges where children tend to naturally gravitate to explore. Most parks today are dominated by baseball and soccer fields and surrounded by suburbia.
Jean Lomino, Ph.D., executive director of the Chattanooga Nature Center, says she sees the nature-deficit phenomenon with students. “Many children who come to the nature center are afraid of being outside,” Lomino says. “I think a lot of that is learned behavior, and some of it is lack of experience,” she says. “They feel threatened by even the smallest things. They are afraid of big animals coming out of the woods. They don’t want to sit on the ground and don’t want to get dirty.”
Parents as Role Models
In a recent study, 94 percent of parents surveyed said that safety is their biggest concern when making decisions about whether to allow their children to engage in free play outdoors. In the media-driven world we live in today, with 24-hour newscasts from around the globe, parents are taunted with fear for the lives of their children.
Because the world has changed, the way we help children engage with nature has changed, too. Today’s prevailing concern about safety requires far more adult presence with children in nature. That means parents and other adults in the lives of children must be intentional about taking them outdoors to explore, discover and play.
Jones says getting outdoors should be a family affair anyway. “Many of us are so busy with our work and so tired that we forget how important it is to get outside,” she says, adding that family hikes or even simple walks after dinner can make a difference. “If we take the time, we feel so much better and can be better parents and spouses.”
What Do We Stand to Lose with Nature-Deficit Disorder?
While many parents fear the risks associated with being outdoors, there are also dangers in raising children who are not provided time to play outdoors. Risks can include threats to a child’s independent judgment and value of place, ability to feel awe and wonder, sense of stewardship ethic, and, most critically, threats to a child’s physical and psychological health.
The obesity epidemic spread rapidly during the 1990s across all states, regions and demographic groups in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coincidently, this boom in children’s weight occurred right around the time when PlayStation and Nintendo 64 came out. The New York Times reported in 2008 that a growing number of children are taking medication to treat Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and acid reflux – all problems linked to obesity that were practically unheard of in children two decades ago.
“Nature-deficit disorder is real,” says Jones. “Get your kids outside. Get yourself outside, too.”
It isn’t just the health of children at stake, but the future of stewardship ethics, as well. Studies of conservationists – or any adults with environmental awareness – show that childhood experiences of natural, rural or other relatively pristine habitats were the most frequently cited influences in their lives.
“People will not care about the world unless they have a love for it first,” says Lomino. “You only develop that love by experiencing it first.”
Fortunately, there are parents, teachers, doctors and leaders who recognize the importance of the outdoors in the lives of children and families and are working to make changes in the community to increase access to the outdoors for all children.
“I believe more and more teachers are recognizing the need for students to be outside and develop a connection with the natural world,” says Lomino, who also teaches an outdoor classroom development course at Southern Adventist University. “Despite the economy, the nature center has seen a steady increase in environmental education field classes. Teachers and administrators are beginning to recognize that this is a critical part of their students’ education.”
The stakes are high. A child who grows up indoors, sitting in front of a TV or video game or computer, will become a much different adult than a child who spends free time roaming and exploring nature, discovering how beautiful and alive it is. In today’s world, it is up to adults to create opportunities to share nature with the children in their lives.
Jenni Veal is a journalist and editor based in Chattanooga, specializing in outdoor education and the natural landscape of the Southeast. She has a degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, as well as a strong background in conservation and outdoor recreation.