Nature Deficit Disorder

With winter ending and spring on the way, parents have been getting off the couch asking me what they should be doing to get their children to do the same thing.  It turns out that the indoor use of technology combined with our own lack of familiarity with nature has led to children spending less and less time enjoying the outdoors and more time restricted to the computer screen. 

Yet there is evidence to suggest that being away from enjoying nature, particularly in our beautiful part of the country, can result in children who are less physically fit and who have an increased risk of obesity from sitting indoors for hours on end in front of a video game or computer.  Not getting outdoors to enjoy nature and the surroundings we live in has also been associated with increased feelings of stress, anxiety and depression, as well as  trouble paying attention - resulting in a condition now being referred to as   “nature deficit disorder.”

So how do we treat nature deficit disorder? The National Wildlife Federation recommends a "green hour" of unstructured play outdoors. You can find a lot of ideas on how to make this hour a highlight at www.nwf.org .  Perhaps if your children are older, take them with you on a creative adventure each day to try to identify birds or unusual plants or flowers in the neighborhood.  Putting in a bird feeder or hiding something special under movable rocks or at the base of trees or bushes to create a daily treasure hunt can get your children to log-off and head-out.  In fact, trees, bushes, and flowers are the best kind of toys for play activities because unlike action figures or collectibles, your child can imagine them to be anything. 

So, what can parents do to combat nature deficit disorder?

Hopefully, tips like this will feel natural to you and your children when it comes to overcoming nature deficit disorder this year, and enjoying what the outside can give to our children and to ourselves.

Lewis First, M.D., is chief of Pediatrics at Vermont Children's Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. You can also catch "First with Kids" weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at http://www.FletcherAllen.org/firstwithkids