My brother Paul, who started this blog with me a few years ago, used a phrase recently that I’ve not heard before – ‘nature deficit disorder’. He’s been involved with a nascent conservation programme in Glasgow that aims to engage young people in the natural environment, and it’s a key idea for the people behind it. But what is nature deficit disorder? This week I’ve been reading the Natural Childhood report from the National Trust, to find out a bit more about it.
The phrase was coined by California based writer Richard Louw in his book Last Child in the Woods. He defines it thus:
Nature Deficit Disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.
It’s not a medical condition of any formal sort, or a psychological syndrome. It’s a shorthand description of a cultural trend towards sedentary indoor lives, particularly among children. Many children lack any real connection to the natural world, for a whole variety of reasons. Technology is the most obvious culprit – television and computer games are their main diversions, but much of the problem is to do with access to nature too. Parents are less likely to let their children play outside unsupervised than in the past. There is more traffic, and children often get driven to planned activities rather than making up their own games.
The average child in Britain now spends 17 hours a week watching television, and 20 hours on the internet. By the time they reach their early teens, they spend 7.5 hours in front of a screen every day.
It is easy to blame the technology, but that may be to confuse cause and effect. It is more likely, research suggests, that the children are online because they are indoors. There has been a huge change in the amount of freedom children are allowed. Two thirds of ten year olds have never been to the park or a shop on their own. When the Children’s Society surveyed parents about when they thought it was safe to let children out on their own, the average age suggested was 14.
There are a variety of reasons why parents are so reticent about letting their children outside. There’s the fear of abduction, and the level of trust in society is very low – although perception of risk runs far ahead of the statistics. Increased traffic is another consideration, with more cars making it unsafe to play in the street. We’re also a more mobile society, and people may settle in a town where they didn’t grow up. Children won’t be known in the community in the way they used to be.
Some of these concerns may be legitimate, some not, but the consequences of this indoor existence is that children no longer have any understanding of the natural world. The National Trust discovered recently that 9 out of 10 children could recognise a Dalek, but only half could tell a wasp from a bee. This, as George Monbiot suggested recently, has serious consequences for conservation in future. The biodiversity crisis is scarcely recognised as it is. Can we expect future generations to value wildlife, green spaces and the planet if they have grown up with no appreciation for it? “No one will protect what they don’t care about” says David Attenborough, “and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”
There are more immediate effects too. A third of British children are overweight, and 15% are obese. Incidences of asthma and rickets have risen, general fitness levels are poor, and researchers say that a lack of outdoor play is at least partly to blame.
Children’s mental health may also be suffering. One in ten children has diagnosed mental condition, the Good Childhood Report found. (That was the report that was commissioned, you may remember, after the UN found that Britain had the unhappiest children in Europe.) Contact with nature is known to reduce the be a factor in attention deficit disorder.
Children are also missing out on life skills, developing a curiosity that may later express itself in scientific research or artistic endeavour. Children also learn to understand and manage risk as they climb and swim and run.
What do we do about this? As with any long term cultural trend, there’s no immediate solution. It will take a deliberate decision to do things differently at all levels. That starts at home, where parents can choose to give their children more freedom or plan in more time for outdoor adventure. That depends on understanding their children’s needs and weighing the outdoor risks and the indoor risks – apparently more children are taken to hospital after falling out of bed than falling out of trees.
Schools can plan in more outdoor time. I had an interesting conversation with a child minder at my son’s nursery recently. They had just had a training day where they were told that they should aim to have as much outdoor time as indoor time in the course of a day. They should let children climb the trees and play in the bushes, and jump in the puddles. She was very excited about this philosophy, and also terrified of the consequences.
Protecting green spaces and play areas is also a real priority. There’s something of a vicious circle that I’ve seen at work in the little park near me. If children aren’t using a playground much, there’s little point in maintaining it and adding new features. As it decays, even fewer children will use it and eventually it gets handed over for development. My local council now has a remove rather than replace policy on the play equipment at the park. The last working swing disappeared this summer, and there’s really very little reason to go there. Regardless of budget cuts, we need to do better than that.
There are organisations working on this problem, such as Play England and the Children’s Society. The National Trust have just launched a major consultation. If you have ideas on how to engage children with nature and create more opportunities for outdoor play, they’d like to hear from you.
- For more on this, see the Natural Childhood Report (pdf).