Something strange is going on. Between 1997 and 2001, the amount of time that American children ages 8 to 10 spent on outdoor activities declined by 50%. Richard Louv, the author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, believes this is a factor in the recent rise in childhood depression, attention-deficit disorder, and obesity.
What’s keeping kids indoors? Louv covers a variety of reasons, starting with the fact that 57 million Americans now live in homes governed by coop, condo, or homeowner’s associations, many of which have rules that restrict outdoor free play. School recess is becoming a thing of the past, thanks to liability concerns and the increased focus on testing. Fewer children are playing alone even in their own backyards, due to parents’ excessive (and statistically unfounded ) fears about “stranger danger.”
Of course, there’s always soccer, right? Unfortunately, the explosion of organized sports has only served to make matters worse, without providing much of a benefit. Many towns are opting to bulldoze areas of natural parkland to make room for more playing fields. But the increase in sports has gone hand-in-hand with that famous rise in childhood obesity. Something isn’t working.
Louv presents studies that show how nature can soothe traumatized children, fascinate kids who suffer from ADHD, and stimulate physical exercise and social interaction. He also reminds us of the value in the kind of skill-building experiences that are unique to the outdoors, like camping, fishing, or constructing a tree house. We’re also in danger of losing an entire generation of potential environmental activists.
And guess what? Adults have nature-deficit disorder too. So don’t just send your child outside to play. Go with her! Don’t forget to grab a fishing rod, a sleeping bag, or a jar to collect fireflies on your way out. Just be back in time for dinner, okay?