Have you ever noticed your kids’ behaviour seems to improve in fresh air?
It’s not your imagination. Studies have been showing the effect of “nature deficit disorder” for years. But under conditions of lockdown, the full impact has really hit home. Literally.
“Ironically, the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, as tragic as it is, has dramatically increased public awareness of the deep human need for nature connection,” child advocacy expert Richard Louv told The New York Times.
Research reported in The Conversation showed 82% of parents said that their children’s screen time has increased during lockdown, and 30% said that their children were having an extra four hours or more of non-school related screen time per day.
The resulting “displacement effect” from that increase, say experts, means kids are spending less and less time doing everything else: especially getting outside to play, explore and get their hands dirty.
Why nature matters
Louv’s 2016 book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, examined the growing body of research showing that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development and for the physical and emotional health of children and adults.
Our digital kids are the smartest generation that has ever lived. But there’s no doubt about it, says Louv. They need to get out more.
“A kid today can likely tell you about the Amazon rainforest—but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude, or lay in a field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move,” he observes.
“Increasingly, nature is something to watch, to consume, to wear—to ignore.” He cites the example of a TV ad featuring an SUV racing along a sublime mountain stream “while in the backseat two children watch a movie on a flip-down video screen, oblivious to the landscape and water beyond the windows.”
The cost of NDD
Studies have begun to calculate the steep costs of a radically de-natured, screen-centric childhood. “As young people spend less of their lives in natural surroundings,” Louv explains,
“their senses narrow, both physiologically and psychologically.”
Research has shown that even small changes, like adding greenery to schoolyards, can improve children’s behaviour dramatically, encouraging more generosity and cooperation. Simply viewing nature scenes has been shown to reduce stress.
Recent studies conducted at the University of Illinois have demonstrated that access to green space decreases aggression, increases focus and even boosts the immune system.
Tips for parents
But knowing all this - as most of us do in our bones - doesn’t solve the problem. The challenge for parents remains. Sure, switching off the screens for an hour or two is a good start. But then what?
Pick a “sit spot”
Invite your child to find a special place in nature, whether under a tree, on the banks of the river or next to a favourite plant in the garden - and to spend time there at different hours of the day. “Know it by day; know it by night; know it in the rain and in the snow, in the depth of winter and in the heat of summer,” advises nature educator Jon Young, “Know the birds that live there, know the trees they live in. Get to know these things as if they were your relatives.”
Go backyard camping
Turn your own backyard into a campsite with a tent you buy or borrow - or just set up a teepee with a blanket and sticks. Cook camping treats like s’mores and billy tea over a (supervised!) open fire or barbecue. Play “spotlight” when the sun goes down, tell spooky stories by candlelight, make shadow puppets in the moonlight …
Louv tells the story of a dad who bought a truckload of dirt from a local landscape supplier and had it delivered to his yard as a special surprise for his kids. “He reports that the dirt pile cost less than a video game and lasted far longer.”
Share the love
Stories you share of “transformational encounters and deep relationships” with wild animals (or wild places) can have a dramatic impact on how your child relates to their environment. The seal that swam straight up to you and looked you in the eye - the nest of baby rabbits you discovered under a pile of twigs - the gecko who lived in your bedroom for an entire summer … Simple stories like these can help fire your child’s imagination - priming them to seek out their own discoveries.
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