Paying Attention to “Nature Deficit Disorder”

Having just spent a week on vacation in the beautiful mountains around Vail, Colorado, I was impressed how quickly and completely relaxed I felt once I entered the natural beauty of this area. In fact, my personal experience has been that whenever I am in a natural, non-built environment-forests, mountains, beaches, rivers – I feel calmer, more peaceful and usually quite happy.

So this invites a question – how important is a walk in the woods for our own sanity as humans and for our kids’ development?

Turns out, according to author Richard Louv, that this relaxation response I experienced in the lovely areas of Colorado, is quite common and explained by the fact that humans have an instinctive liking of nature (which is called the biophilia hypothesis) and that a nature-oriented existence is likely hard-wired into our brains. Louv authored the book “The Last Child In The Woods” and coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe this phenomena of children spending less time outdoors in natural environments and the resultant behavioral problems in children based on this lack of exposure. Children that spend less time in nature may experience higher rates of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and depression. We know for example that lack of sun exposure can contribute to low mood via low vitamin D levels.

Causes for “nature deficit disorder” may include parental fears about kids getting hurt or lost in natural settings, restricted access to natural environments for many kids who live in cities, and the lure of indoor “screen” activities including video games, TV shows and surfing the internet on home computers.

Research studies examining the effects of nature exposure (and lack of it) on human behavior are fascinating. In one study of kids with ADHD, parents described their observation that their kids with ADHD generally exhibited less of the core ADHD symptoms (inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity) when in a natural environment than when in a “built” environment.

Although time in nature is not a “magic bullet” that will cure all behavioral challenges, parents should see woods, streams, lakes, and fields around their neighborhoods as a potential type of “therapy” to help keep kids focused, confident, healthy and balanced.

Here are some actions parents can take to prevent nature deficit disorder in their kids

  1. Be a role model. Show your children how much you enjoy outdoor activities in nature
  2. Plan a weekly or monthly surprise outdoor adventure for your family
  3. Limit kids to no more than 2 hours of total “screen time” per day on computer, TV or video game
  4. Take a nightly walk after dinner as a family in a natural area
  5. Get a map of local parks and trails and get out and explore them once or twice a month

How does your family take advantage nature to reduce stress and even manage behavioral challenges?

Tim Culbert, MD

Tim Culbert, MD, is the medical director of Children’s Integrative Medicine program. You can also read more about him in his first post to the Kids’ Health blog.

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