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Saturday, April 7, 2012

Do Your Kids Suffer from Nature-Deficit Disorder?

From PsychCentral.com Parenting Tips

By Debra Manchester MacMannis, M.S.W., LICSW

“They took all the trees, put them in a tree museum. Then they charged the people a dollar and a half just to see them. Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve lost ’til it’s gone? They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”                       – Joni Mitchell

When you think about some of your happiest memories as a child, what do you remember? My husband spent countless hours of his childhood playing on his own or with pals in the woods near his home. No adults supervising. Hours building forts, throwing acorns, damming the creek, climbing trees, playing hide-n-go-seek.

And mine? Summer nights with a dozen kids of all ages, catching fireflies in jars, playing kick-the-can while being dive-bombed by bats. Or going to the dump in Wisconsin with my dad, where we were almost guaranteed to see bears or other animals foraging after dark.

Even as recently as the 1970′s, American kids still spent most of their free time exploring and playing outdoors, using the sidewalks, streets, playgrounds, parks, and vacant lots with little or no restriction or adult supervision. Our children, when allowed many choices, usually opted for the nearest wild place—if only a big tree in the back yard.

Throughout all but the last tiny sliver of human history, adults and children alike were in constant relationship to nature, working with its rhythms of dark and light, sometimes in harmony, often struggling with its unpredictability. Two hundred years ago, most children were still surrounded by fields and farms. Little by little, since then our lives have become more urbanized. As Joni Mitchell so aptly warned, “They paved paradise to put up a parking lot!”

I worry about what we are losing when we allow, sometimes even push, our young children towards more time spent indoors, attached to electronics, playing games on computers or watching TV. In what often feels like a fear-based frenzy, we schedule our kids in endless classes, sports and adult-managed activities, presumably to keep them out of trouble. But what if we are depriving our kids of the very thing they most need to thrive?

Parents have become so full of fear that they barely let their kids walk to school anymore. I’m not referring to the neighborhoods that are unsafe for adults and children alike – those that are unfairly plagued by guns and gangs. I mean all the towns, villages and city neighborhoods where hundreds of kids could be walking each morning at the same time to the same place instead of being dropped off by lines of cars, plugged into radios and cell phones until the last possible minute. What future are we creating?

What if part of the cause of the epidemic of childhood disorders–ADD, ADHD, depression, anxiety and phobias, obesity and childhood onset diabetes–comes from our kids being deprived of their relationship to Mother Earth?

Warning to Parents: Do your kids suffer from Nature-Deficit Disorder? This wonderful name was coined four years ago by journalist Richard Louv with the publication of Last Child in the Woods. His newest book, The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder, offers a new vision of the future, in which our lives are as immersed in nature and in technology.

A growing body of literature, described in Louv’s book and others like it, shows that exposure to nature has profound effects on the health and well being of children and adults. Here are a few of the benefits of more time in nature for children:

1. Kids get along better. Research has found that children who play in nature have more positive feelings about each other. There is something about being in a natural environment together that stimulates social interaction. Another study showed how play in a diverse natural environment can reduce or eliminate bullying. In several studies, researchers have found that some of the kids who benefit most are those with attention and learning challenges.

2. Imaginative processes are enhanced. Early experiences with the natural world have been positively linked with a sense of wonder. Children are more likely to use their imagination outdoors.

3. Cognitive development is improved. Curiosity and wonder are strong motivators that make children more eager to learn. When children play in natural environments, their play is more diverse. Creative play, in turn, nurtures language and collaborative skills. Spending time in natural environments helps improve their awareness, reasoning and observational skills.

4. Physical health is improved. Children who play regularly in natural environments show more advanced motor fitness, including coordination, balance and agility. They get sick less often. Just getting their hands in the dirt can bring exposure to “good bugs” that stimulate the immune system.

5. Kids are less stressed out. Nature buffers the impact of life stress on children and helps them deal with adversity. The greater the amount of nature exposure, the greater the benefits. Nature helps children develop powers of observation and creativity and instills a sense of peace and connection to the planet. Haven’t you noticed how kids can do whatever they need to do when they are out in the wild? They can just sit and stare at bugs or scream at the top of their lungs.

6. Kids are more psychologically mature. A boost in maturity comes from the increased independence and autonomy that free play in nature encourages. Children with more contact with nature score higher on tests of concentration and self-discipline. The more green, the better the scores. In a study of kids with Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity, it was found that those who played in windowless indoor settings had significantly more severe symptoms of ADHD than kids who played in grassy outdoor spaces. School classrooms with outdoor views even help!

7. Kids are more likely to love and protect the environment. When people like John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt spent time in places like Yosemite Valley, they realized that these wild places were “America’s treasures.” In order to teach children how to treasure nature, they must be allowed to explore it in their own way.

Nature has always been, and always will be, one of our greatest companions and teachers. Has your child attended Earth School lately?

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