Medical Moment: What is ‘nature-deficit disorder’?

Published: May. 17, 2022 at 3:28 PM EDT
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(WNDU) - Studies show children are spending more time indoors and less time in nature.

It’s a phenomenon some experts have dubbed “nature-deficit disorder”.

Research shows it’s happening much less often. One recent survey found half of all kids spend less than an hour outdoors daily, which is less time than the average prison inmate. In fact, inmates at maximum security prisons in the U.S. are guaranteed at least two hours outdoors each day. This lack of outdoor time is denying kids of vital time in nature, causing them to become nature deficient.

“Being in nature helps to decrease cortisol levels, it decreases stress levels, helps to improve overall health. There’s a relationship between how many trees are in your neighborhood and how healthy you are,” said Laurie Bostick Cammon, MD, a pediatrician at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center.

According to Harvard Medical School, the benefits of being outdoors is our bodies need sunshine for optimal health, providing us with vitamin D, which is vital for a variety of bodily functions such as bone health and immune response.

The CDC recommends that kids should get at least one hour of physical activity a day. Outdoor play helps kids build executive function skills. These are the skills used to multitask, negotiate, plan, prioritize and troubleshoot, and learn about taking risks and negotiating risks. Other benefits include decreasing stress levels, reducing symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and even better distance vision. And, even getting dirty can help build a stronger immune system while also giving them a better understanding of life all around them.

A less obvious, but almost most important result of kids spending time outdoors that parents can appreciate is better sleep.

Studies also show more time spent outdoors can lessen symptoms of behavioral disorders in kids. So how can you coax your kid into going outside? Visit local parks and playgrounds as often as you can. Limit screen time so kids will look to other activities. Invest in outdoor items, like sidewalk chalk, bubbles, or balls to encourage play. And take family time outdoors. Go for a short walk or bike ride every evening.

“We can’t make big changes, but we can start making small changes,” Dr. Cammon continued.

Research has shown that children do better physically and emotionally when they are in green spaces.

They benefit from the positive feelings, stress reduction, and attention restoration nature offers.

An active advocate, Richard Louv, co-founder and chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, and author, has spoken and written about the importance of nature for children and what they miss by spending too much time indoors, which has inspired parents and educators to incorporate outdoor experiences more thoughtfully into children’s daily lives.

Louv warns about the consequences for the environment if our children aren’t raised to have a personal relationship with nature.

“There will always be conservationists and environmentalists, but if we don’t turn this trend around, they’ll increasingly carry nature in their briefcases, not in their hearts. And that’s a very different relationship,” Louv said.

Some exciting trends Louv sees is the emergence of biophilic design of homes and workplaces, reconciliation ecology and human-nature social capital, restorative homes and businesses, eco-psychology, and other forms of nature therapy.

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