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Ever heard of nature deficit disorder? Don’t shrug it away as just another one among the plethora of “New Age” disorders. Nature deficit disorder is not exactly a medical condition. But that’s no great consolation; its consequences are grim enough — and your child may be at risk.
The term “nature deficit disorder,” coined by Richard Louv in 2005, refers to the negative effect that lack of exposure to nature has on the mental and physical development of today’s children. He goes on to explain it:
“I hesitated (briefly) to use the term; our culture is overwrought with medical jargon. But we needed a language to describe the change, and this phrase rang true to parents, educators, and others who had noticed the change. Nature deficit disorder is not a formal diagnosis, but a way to describe the psychological, physical and cognitive costs of human alienation from nature, particularly for children in their vulnerable developing years.”
Recognizing the Symptoms of Nature Deficit Disorder
If your children prefer to spend more time inside the house than outside, and seem to be addicted to their hand-held devices  even when they are outside, they are at high risk. Deprived of the soothing as well as stimulating effect of nature, they may develop the following symptoms:
- Lack of interest in what’s happening around them
- Keeping to oneself
- Destructive tendencies
- Attention deficit hyperactivity
- Allergies and asthma
- General weakness and frailty without any medical reason
- Reluctance to come out of the comfort zone
As mentioned earlier, it’s not a recognized medical condition, but you can see that its effect impacts their physical and mental health to a great extent. The most difficult part is recognizing this condition in children. After that, all it takes is exposing the children to the healing power of nature.
How Did This Happen?
Why are our children alienated from nature? First it was the TV, and then the gaming consoles that kept children indoors for more time than was healthy for them. These electronic gadgets completely changed the way children spend their leisure. It’s perplexing how they effectively subdued the boundless energy of childhood.
But don’t blame it all on the influence of the electronic media; our socioeconomic conditions are just as responsible for turning our kids into prisoners of the indoors.
Looking back, the era in which we all walked or pedaled the bicycle to school is not that remote. Many of us remember the leisurely pace of our morning routine: getting together with friends on the way to school, and stopping by the wayside to look at a sparrow’s nest, tadpoles in a puddle, or the squirrels chasing each other. Or you might have had impromptu matches by the side of the lake, flipping a few flat stones across the water.
People of the previous generation regaled us with stories of more adventurous undertakings, as schooling was not always top priority those days. But do we allow our children to have a fraction of the freedom we enjoyed as children?
Kidnappings and other crimes against children are very much in the news. When we send our children out to school, it’s not rare that the parents keep their fingers crossed. Many prefer to drop them off at school and pick them up in their cars rather than sending them off in the school bus.
At least in some households, “why don’t you just go out and play?” would have been said multiple times a week. But of late, parents are rather relieved when kids remain at home afterhours and stay out of harm’s way. Bullying and substance abuse are real threats they face even within their peer group.
In a bid to provide the family with all the modern comforts possible, parents may seek better job prospects further away from home and spend more hours at work and in commuting. It might actually work out cheaper if we moved out to the suburbs or spent less time in the climate controlled – thus expensive to maintain – environs within our homes. Outdoor activities are not a priority anymore with too many parents, and that’s the impression children get as well.
What Can We Do?
Nostalgic musings or laying the blame on the gadgets is not productive. Technology is here, and it’s here to stay. In fact, the more technologically advanced we become, the more we need the nature to counterbalance its undesirable effects.
It may not be possible to reverse the social degradation of our times either, but as parents we can take steps to reconnect our kids with nature.
Here are a few ideas to avoid or remedy nature deficit disorder in kids:
1. Take camping trips
Camping out in the wild is the best way to experience nature in all its beauty and rawness. It brings forth the survival instincts in anyone otherwise ensconced in the safety of home. Nature never fails to touch us in more ways than one; it evokes in us something primal that changes us from inside out. It’s hard to explain the transformation; nevertheless, it’s as real as can be.
Do not cut on the trappings of technology all at once; you may need to do it in small doses as the kids become more comfortable in the natural setting. In other words, perhaps you shouldn’t ban their Mp3 players or iPads on the first camping trip; but you could set an example by not using yours.
2. Plan outdoor activities
Exposure to nature need not be in the wilderness exclusively. That park in the neighborhood or your own backyard can be where children can have regular doses of it. The best way to get children out and playing games is to do it yourself.
A hike to the nearest mountains, rivers or lakes should become a regular affair. Ask the kids to search on the Internet for walking trails you can attempt as a family.
Join berry picking or mushroom hunting groups – with all the precautions against eating unknown wild berries and mushrooms that may be poisonous – in the respective seasons.
3. Grow a garden
A garden is a microcosm, a miniature version of what we call nature. Let them get their hands dirty in the mud, get connected with things living and growing, and the elements that make it possible. It nurtures creativity and a love for nature in kids.
4. Get a dog
Most children love to have pets. Letting your kids adopt a dog – not a puppy, unless you have the time and inclination to train it – may be a step toward getting them out of the house. The responsibility of walking the dog and the time to do so should be agreed upon beforehand.
Often, tiny steps taken toward a closer interaction with nature work like magic, and the benefits may become apparent sooner than you think. And there’s every possibility that the positive influence of nature may transform the society as well, paving the way to a better future for the coming generations.
What are other ways nature deficit disorder can be cured? Share your suggestions in the section below: