The Nature Deficit

I go into nature to be soothed and healed and to have my senses put in tune once more.”   –    John Burroughs


I’m on vacation in Destin, Florida, and my extended family – all 14 of us – are spending each day building sandcastles, playing in the waves, cooking seafood, and sharing life’s problems. And I can’t believe how many teenagers (girls mostly) walk by with their smartphones in their face, oblivious to both the wonder of the ocean and the people with whom they walk.

The statistics say that kids spend over 40 hours per week in front of electronic screens, while they spend less than 40 minutes per week in nature.

Richard Louv is an author who understands this problem more than anyone, and he loves children enough to cry out for them, “Let the children play outdoors!”  His books and lectures are inspiring a national movement to leave no child inside.

Louv explains how this generation is suffering from what he calls “nature deficit disorder,” a preventable ailment of the body, mind, and soul. Kids just don’t go outdoors anymore. Just look out the window and count the children; most likely the only people seen are older people walking the dog or taking out the trash. While this may seem like a harmless sign of the times, Louv illustrates how harmful this trend is for society. His best-selling book, Last Child in the Woods, is one of those books that everyone should read, especially those with children.

The book opens with a telling quote by a fourth grader in San Diego who said, “I like to play indoors better ‘cause that’s where all the electric outlets are.”

Here are my favorite excerpts from this great book.

“For children, nature comes in many forms. A newborn calf; a pet that lives and dies; a worn path through the woods; a fort nested in stinging nettles – whatever shape nature takes, it offers each child an older, larger world separate from parents. Nature offers healing for a child living in a destructive family or neighborhood.

“Nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualization and the full use of the senses. Given a chance, a child will bring the confusion of the world to the woods, wash it in the creek, turn it over to see what lives on the unseen side of that confusion. Nature can frighten a child, too, and this fright serves a purpose. In nature, a child finds freedom, fantasy, and privacy: a place distant from the adult world, a separate peace.


“Nature is often overlooked as a healing balm for the emotional hardships in a child’s life. Play in natural settings seems to offer special benefits. Although countless children who suffer from mental illness and attention disorders do benefit from medication, the use of nature as an alternative, additional, or preventative therapy is being overlooked. In fact, ne evidence suggests that the need for such medications is intensified by children’s disconnection from nature. And we know that nature experiences can relieve some of the everyday pressures that may lead to childhood depression…In The Human Relationship with Nature, Peter Kahn points to the findings of over one hundred studies that confirm that one of the main benefits of spending time in nature is stress reduction.

“As the young grow up in a world of narrow yet overwhelming sensory input (from multi-media everything), many of them develop a wired, know-it-all state of mind. That which cannot be Googled does not count…Frank Wilson, professor of neurology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, says, ‘For a whole generation of kids, direct experiences in the backyard, in the tool shed, in the fields and woods, has been replaced by indirect learning, through machines. These young people are smart, they grew up with computers, they were supposed to be superior – but now we know that something is missing.’

“Growing up, many of us were blessed with natural space and the imagination that filled it. One might argue that the internet has replaced the woods, in terms of inventive space, but no electronic environment stimulates all the senses. Parents who wish to raise their children in a climate conducive to modern creativity do well to expose them to that world, but not at the exclusion of the natural world.

“Nature is imperfectly perfect, filled with loose parts and possibilities, with mud and dust, nettles and sky, transcendent hands-on moments and skinned knees.

“Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health (and also, by the way, in our own). Stress reduction, greater physical health, a deeper sense of spirit, more creativity, a sense of play, even a safer life – these are the rewards that await a family when it invites more nature into children’s lives.”

“Find a ravine, woods, a windbreak row of trees, a swamp, a pond, a vacant and overgrown lot – and go there regularly. Encourage your child to get to know a ten-square-yard area at the edge of a field, pond, or garden. Together, sit at the edge of a pond in August – don’t move, wait. Use all your senses, as the frogs emerge.”


“Reflect on Genesis: ‘The purpose of creation really is to bring us – children and all of us – closer to the creator,’ says Paul Gorman. ‘As a parent, you don’t encourage children to experience nature because it’s pretty, but because your children are exposed to something larger and longer standing than their human existence.’ Most people are either awakened or strengthened in their spiritual journey by experiences in nature.”

I wish there were more people like Richard Louv out there. We need more prophets like him, encouraging us to get outside and to take kids with us. There are a few, such as the filmmakers who put this documentary together.

And studies are showing that exercise outdoors is TWICE as good for you as working out indoors. Click here for more on that.

Here’s another example of a specific study on nature’s effect on personal health. Click here.

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