The Reality of Nature Deficit Disorder, and How You Can Fight It

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My toddler has a lot of demands these days, but one that I always try to accommodate is when he asks to go outside (usually followed by another request to take his shoes off). Our outdoor play takes many forms—sometimes it’s just turning on the hose in the front yard— but my favorite is when we go into the Greenbelt or other nature areas.

He seems especially free and curious when he’s climbing trees, wading in the creek, balancing on logs, and throwing rocks.

three toddlers climbing on a log
Exploring a log at Free Forest School on the Greenbelt

It’s easy to doubt yourself as a parent, but when we’re out in nature my doubts disappear. I know that we’re doing something good, something that will benefit him in many ways in his childhood and throughout his life.

Unfortunately, most kids today don’t spend enough time outside in nature, engaging in unstructured play.

In the U.S., children ages 2 to 8 spend almost 3 hours daily with screen media, and kids ages 8 to 12 spend 6 hours per day. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for outdoor play. Other studies have found that kids spend only four to seven minutes a day engaging in unstructured outdoor play. A U.K. study discovered that the average child plays outside half as much as time as their parents did (4 hours a week vs. 8 hours a week).

There’s a term for this epidemic, coined by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods: nature deficit disorder. And research links this decline with many negative consequences, including obesity, attention difficulties, vitamin D deficiency, and sensory issues. Perhaps most troubling is that rates of anxiety and depression have been increasing among kids and teens, and lack of outdoor play has been cited as a possible reason.

The long list of benefits of unstructured outdoor play confirms how important it is to get out there.

Outdoor play and time in nature have been shown to:

  • Relieve stress and decrease anxiety and brooding
  • Decrease attention problems like ADHD
  • Improve school performance
  • Promote social connection and creativity
  • Protect children from nearsightedness, and make them less vulnerable to health issues like bone problems and cardiovascular disease
  • Provide opportunities for risky play, an important part of children’s development
  • Improve physical fitness and sleep
  • Make people kinder and more generous
  • Help kids grow up to be environmental stewards

With all of life’s challenges and busy schedules (not to mention the Texas heat), it’s not always easy to devote time to nature play.

But it’s our job as parents to make it a priority and encourage our children to connect with nature. If we don’t, they won’t know what they’re missing. Children can’t learn to love nature if they never experience it.

As Louv writes in Last Child in the Woods, “Nobody wants to be in the last generation that remembers when it was considered normal and expected for children to go outside and play. Nobody.”

two toddlers sitting on a large rock overlooking a creek
Taking in the view at The Flats on the Greenbelt

If you struggle with spending enough time outside in nature, here are some tips for getting out there more often with your kids:

  • Embrace the dirt. Dirt is good for kids’ immune systems (and may even make us happier and smarter), and mud is great for sensory play, so don’t be afraid to let them get messy. Just hose ‘em down when it’s time to go inside.
  • Be prepared. I always keep outdoor essentials in my diaper bag: sunscreen, a few bug spray wipes, hat, wet/dry bag with a spare outfit, and water bottles. In the summer heat, we head for spots with shade and water, and my son almost always wears water-friendly shoes, like Natives or Crocs. In the winter, we dress in layers. That way, there’s never an excuse to miss out on outdoor fun.
  • Have a picnic. An easy way to clock some time in nature is to have an outdoor picnic. One night nobody felt like cooking, so we picked up some sandwiches from Thundercloud Subs and hiked down to Gus Fruh on the Greenbelt for an easy dinner al fresco. And if we’re going to a park (or the Wildflower Center or Nature and Science Center) for a playdate, we always pack a lunch so we can extend our outdoor time.
  • Join a group. Free Forest School leads free weekly meetups at various nature areas all over the city. Hike It Baby hosts family-friendly hikes, and Tinkergarten offers play-based outdoor classes.
  • Plant flowers or a garden. It’s good for the planet and good for wildlife, and it will give you a reason to get outside several days a week. Plus, kids will get the satisfaction of seeing their seeds progress and grow.
  • Explore wildlife. Get a book or an app to learn about local plants and animals, and try to identify some on your next outing. Even if you can’t identify something, just taking the time to point out a fascinating bug or flower helps your child gain an appreciation for the natural world.
  • Get creative:
    • Go on a treasure hunt. Make a short list of items (a mix of challenging and easy things that can be found high and low, that incorporate all of the senses) for your kids to look for outside.
    • Do an art project. Turn a piece of masking tape into a bracelet and collect items on a hike to stick to the bracelet. Use rocks or shells to create shapes or pictures. Make a flower crown. The possibilities are endless!
    • Build something. Like a rock tower, a fairy house, or even a water dam.
    • Start a collection. We often hear about the “leave no trace” principle, but some research shows that for kids, it can inhibit their bonding with nature. So let your kids bring home a few flowers, rocks, or shells to add to their nature collections.
  • Let go a little. As parents, we often feel an urge to direct our children and interfere too much with their play. But child-driven play is essential to development, and being outside in nature is a great time to take a step back and let your child take the lead. If you’re hiking, let them stop as long as they want to look at whatever catches their interest; don’t rush them along. Let them get covered in mud. Let them take risks with their climbing and balance. Give them the space they need to develop their skills and confidence.

What are your favorite ways to get your kids outside?

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