Are you, or your children, deficient in vitamin “N” for nature? The US-based non-governmental organization Children & Nature Network’s vision is “a world in which children have access to the benefits of nature everywhere they live, learn and play.” Its co-founder Richard Louv introduced the term “Nature-Deficit Disorder” in 2005 with the publication of his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Algonquin Books).
As Laura Mylan, senior vice-president, Children & Nature Network, explains, “Nature-deficit disorder was not intended to be a medical diagnosis, but physicians, educators, parents, and caregivers recognized its profound impact on children.”
According to Mylan, “We know that kids today spend up to 44 hours per week in front of a screen, and—on average—less than 10 minutes a day outside. This lack of physical activity has led to serious health problems for too many children, putting them on a fast track for a lifetime of chronic disease. But kids who spend regular time in nature are proven to be more active and physically fit. Playing outdoors promotes core strength, balance and agility, and the development of key gross motor skills.”
Mental health, too, is intricately connected to time spent in nature. “Regular time in nature enhances children’s mental health,” Mylan says. “Multiple studies show that spending time in natural places reduces stress and anxiety, promotes positive moods, and improves the social functioning of children. Unstructured outdoor recreation provides opportunities to take risks, develop problem-solving skills and build self-esteem and a sense of agency. Families who spend time together in nature develop strong bonds and better communication—not to mention incredible memories.
“We also know that spending time outdoors improves academic outcomes,” Mylan continues. “Regular physical activity, which tends to be greater in natural environments, improves brain function in children. When kids learn and play in natural environments, we see improved performance in reading, writing, math, science, and social studies. You will find enhanced creativity and executive function, fewer behaviour problems, and increased engagement and enthusiasm for learning. In addition, time in nature helps kids develop a love of outdoor places and fosters a conservation ethic in children. In a time of global climate crisis, encouraging new generations of ‘nature champions’ is critical for the future of our planet and the natural places we cherish.”
So, what do we do about this nature deficit? “Parents and caregivers are key influencers in how children spend their days. With so many demands on families’ time, one strategy is to be very intentional about scheduling ‘nature time’ (or unstructured outdoor time) on the family calendar.”
Don’t be overwhelmed! “Benefiting from nature doesn’t require travelling to a wilderness area or special gear, Mylan reassures us. “The same benefits can be found in ‘nearby nature’– in your backyard, boulevard, community garden, or local park. Kids can play with sticks, rocks, and other natural items; turn over rocks to find worms and insects; watch birds and identify plants and trees; climb, crawl, get muddy, and create games. It’s just about making time to get outside. For families without safe or easy access to natural spaces, even observing birds, weather, and greenery from windows provides benefits.”
Schools can take part too, says Mylan. “With children spending so much of their (pre-COVID) time at school, creating nature-filled schoolyards is another proven strategy for combatting a nature-deficit. … The Children & Nature Network offers a free online advocacy toolkit for parents, educators, and community members interested in launching green schoolyards efforts.”
Finally, Mylan offers her thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic: “Children are experiencing tremendous pandemic-related stress that impacts their physical and mental health, social, and academic needs. At the same time, people around the world are recognizing the power of nature to provide respite and restoration, as evidenced by unprecedented use of parks, trails, campgrounds, and other outdoor amenities. Indeed, time in nature is proven to reduce stress and anxiety and enhance well-being. Children in particular can benefit from time in natural surroundings, especially as many are spending even more time indoors and on screens due to COVID safety restrictions and remote learning. In addition, studies show that time in nature boosts immune functioning, promotes resilience, and helps kids cope with adversity. Children need nature now more than ever.”
Sadly, not everyone has equal access. “The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus stark disparities in access to nature,” explains Mylan. “Long-standing systems of injustice have impacted the design and distribution of green spaces, and call for new policies and practices. Studies show that children in the most challenging environments can benefit most from restorative time in nature. Now is the time to strengthen efforts to make sure that nature access is not determined by race, income, or postal code.”
Learn more about the Children & Nature Network at childrenandnature.org. Find their free research library of more than 1,000 curated scientific studies that highlight the importance of nature in children’s lives at childrenandnature.org/research-library.