Is Nature Deficit Disorder Real?

Is there concrete evidence for the health benefits of childhood nature play? Some parents, particularly those who live in an urban setting, worry that they don’t get their kids outside often enough. Outdoor play has been linked to better health, but what specifically are the benefits?

The $500 million No Child Left Inside Act (H.R. 3036, sponsored by Rep. John Sarbanes and Sen. Jack Reed) was passed by the House in September 2008 and might actually be up for Senate scrutiny in early 2009 if all goes well. In anticipation, the No Child Left Inside (NCLI) coalition has already drafted an open letter to the President-elect, urging him to throw his weight behind the bill. According to a government press release, “The legislation would improve existing environmental education programs by providing states with resources to train teachers, develop research-based programs and create environmental literacy plans to ensure that students understand the role of the environment as a natural resource.” In other words, it would get kids outside and instill in them a bit of awe and respect for the natural world.

But the real authority when it comes to nature play and outdoor education is Richard Louv—Audubon Medal winner, author of 2005 bestseller Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, and founder of the Children & Nature Network. Having literally written the book on the importance of nature play, Louv had this to say about its psychological and physical health benefits:

“Children benefit greatly from unstructured play, particularly make-believe play. And kids are far more creative in natural play spaces than on the typical flat playground, whether it’s made of concrete or turf. They are far more likely to invent their own games in natural places. And in schools that have outdoor classrooms kids tend to do better across the board from social studies to standardized testing. One reason is that other than in a New York subway, when else do you use all your senses at the same time? It seems to me that using all of your senses at the same time is the optimum state of learning. When you’re sitting in front of a computer screen, or locked in a cubicle called a classroom, you’re not using all your senses at the same time. Outdoors, you are.”

Nature play has also been correlated with a longer attention span, and studies show it’s an antidote to child obesity. Psychological health is another benefit: Kids with more experience in nature, even if it’s just a view from their room of a natural landscape are more psychologically resilient, or correlated to more psychological resilience.”

Creativity, greater capacity for attentive learning, sharpened senses, physical fitness, psychological resilience—there’s clearly no dearth of reasons to get children outdoors as early as possible. If you’re a numbers person, and this all sounds a little touchy-feely to you, try these stats on for size: According to a study done at the University of Illinois, “children with ADHD demonstrate greater attention after a 20-minute walk in a park than after a similar walk in a downtown area or a residential neighborhood.”

Another study, conducted on at-risk children by The American Institutes for Research for the California Department of Education, found that week-long outdoor education programs produced a 27 percent increase in “measured mastery of science concepts; enhanced cooperation and conflict resolution skills; gains in self-esteem; gains in positive environmental behavior; and gains in problem-solving, motivation to learn, and classroom behavior.” Not too shabby.

The good news for your kids, (if they didn’t get out much in early childhood), is that it’s not just young children who benefit from outdoor education. A 1998 study by Dr. Stephen R. Kellert at Yale University looked at the positive effects of wilderness trips on teens, studying youth enrolled in programs with the Student Conservation Association (SCA), National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), and Outward Bound. Kellert found that the teens’ experiences inspired lasting growth on personal, intellectual, and even spiritual levels. Participants left with greater self-esteem, self-confidence, independence, autonomy, and initiative.

So it’s like George Eliot, wise lady, said in the late 1800s: “Never too late to be the treehugger you might have been.”

Plenty is an environmental media company dedicated to exploring and giving voice to the green revolution that will define the 21st Century. Click here to subscribe to Plenty.

By Tobin Hack, Plenty magazine


Robin R.
Past Member 1 years ago

I don’t waste my free time that’s why I read the informative things when I got this blog I really enjoyed reading this. Health

Monica M.
Past Member 7 years ago

The psychiatric influence has played a major role in this with all of their made up disorders. Kids were never meant to sit at desks all day long and be bored out of their minds. Participation and hands on activities is how they learn the best. The outdoors is the place where their natural curiosity is challenged. It is outside where their imagination soars!

Spelling Games

sue w.
sue M8 years ago

Flag this Vural K. guy he has been posting the same stuff all over the joint under a different name, then Care2 gets attacked.

Sarah G.
Sarah G.8 years ago

I thoroughly agree that nature exposure and recess is sensible and healthy for kids; but I wonder how this bill will really effect it? NCLI seems so wishy-washy. I would like to see mandates, such as a certain number of minutes of recess, or a certain number of hours *actually spent outside.*

Rutilia Bautista
Rutilia Bautista8 years ago

I live in an older place with a big yard and lots of trees and plants. I could never move to an new apartment or new home with no yard. My child has grown up catching bugs, lizards making mud pies, growing plants, swinging from a tree swing - all the things that let kids be kids. So although my inside of my home is a little old and run down, my yard makes it worth being there.

Sarah Yapp
Sarah Yapp8 years ago

I am a Reflexologist, and have discovered that a part of the big toe which is the reflex for the pituatry gland, (which governs the whole endocrine system) will feel very hollow and emplty in a person or child that is not getting enough daylight, or seeing nature.

I am tired of all these "disorders" but I have to say that I agree on this one. In people with this hollow space, I often discover other inbalances, such as extreme tiredness, Insomnia, hypo-thyroidism, early stages of diabetes, or hypo-glycemia, PMS and infertility.

I see this pituatry as a solar panel in the brain which converts light into energy for the body. However just being around nature also seems to "feed" the pituatry in my experience.

Check your big toe out!

Steve B.
Steve B.8 years ago

A better way is to break down the barriers to getting kids outdoors and to communicate with kids in their modern language of technology. The current discussion about nature deficit disorder misses the point about kids today. Besides the Internet there is a lot of great new technology out there including outdoor products that makes it easier, safer and a lot more interesting to be outside. Kids love technical stuff. Is it really off limits to bring an iPod or to play your Gameboy DS Lite with your dad in the tent at night? How about the new Jetboil stove that is super light, easy to use and can cook a meal for four in 15 minutes or less so that you can get on to playing Animal Crossing on that DS or go Exploring with your Fozzils Flatware aquarium . All kids today were born after the advent of the Internet and most are simply wired differently than their parents. In fact technology is what they are interested in even more than “the outdoors”. One place looking at this point is the new web site There they talk "online" about What they did, Where they did it and How they did it (WWH) outdoors. Over time it will help break down the primary barriers to getting kids outdoors: lack of knowledge and lack of interest. –

Nuraini A.
Nuraini A8 years ago

well, didn't teachers and parents from generations ago manage to do exactly this without needing 500 million to teach them how to do it? seriously, talk about over-intellectualisation. i mean, i am the first to admit to the weakness of over-analysing but even i (and my fiancee vehemently agrees) this is natural to children and you just have to have enough supervision but that's all. the very nature of this exploration is spontaneous and self-generative. in fact, we're designing our future home to merge naturally with the outdoors, so that it is easy and natural for our children to use the outside as a living space.

sue w.
sue M8 years ago

Nor does it cost 500million to train a teacher to take her lessons plans outside. That part I agree is total BS!

Tony Hall
Tony Hall8 years ago

I agree with the entire article, except for throwing $500 million at it. It doesn't cost anything for parents to turn off the xbox, playstation, or computer.
In this time of economic crisis I can think of better programs that need the money.