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nature-deficit disorder

noun [uncountable]

the tendency for children to spend less time outdoors than they did in previous generations, and the way this influences them as they grow up

'Overprotective parents, too much TV and not enough time to mooch around, mean most children now know more about the Amazonian rainforest than their nearest riverbank. It's time to fight this nature-deficit disorder …'

The Guardian 5th June 2010

Could you identify a sycamore tree, recognize a peacock butterfly, or correctly distinguish a frog from a toad? If the answer is yes, then it's likely that you're old enough to have had a childhood where screens and electronic toys weren't the main leisure activity. If the answer is no, then maybe you're young enough to count among a generation now alleged to be suffering from nature-deficit disorder.

the contention is that today's kids do not play and interact with nature in the way that their parents did, instead spending most of their leisure time inside

Relating to contemporary children and young people, nature-deficit disorder refers to the increasing tendency to spend very little time outdoors in the open countryside. The contention is that today's kids do not play and interact with nature in the way that their parents did, instead spending most of their leisure time inside. Whereas older generations might have built dens and swings in the woods, climbed trees and collected frogspawn, 21st century kids are far more likely to watch TV or play on computers or games consoles. If they do engage in a physical activity, it's likely to be some kind of organized sport under the watchful eye of adults, rather than wandering through the countryside unsupervised.

Though this might just appear to be a general observation on the way technology has changed childhood, the premise of nature-deficit disorder goes beyond a simple lack of exposure to the countryside. The suggestion is that this is more like an illness, with symptoms which might include depression, hyperactivity, boredom and loneliness. The concept is further galvanized by an acknowledged increase in obesity rates, and research that suggests that a child's 'radius of activity' – meaning the distance from home kids are allowed to play unsupervised – has declined by 90% since the 1970s.

As well as the lure of instant electronic entertainment, suggested causes of nature-deficit disorder include parental fears about traffic and predatory strangers, health and safety rules, and laws against collecting fossils or wild flowers.

Background – nature-deficit disorder

The expression nature-deficit disorder was coined in 2005 by American author Richard Louv. The term originates from his bestselling book on the same topic entitled Last Child in the Woods – Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Algonquin Books, 2005). Since its first publication five years ago, the book has stimulated more widespread discussion about the disconnection between children and nature, and inspired the formation of the international Children and Nature Network, a movement which campaigns to reconnect young people with the natural environment.

Underpinning the principles described in Louv's book is the concept of biophilia, the idea that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems, and therefore that exposure to nature is a key factor in healthy child development.

A related expression in the same domain is slow parenting, which advocates sending children into natural environments rather than keeping them indoors. Slow parenting is a kind of 'hands-off' style of parenting in which few activities are organized for children and they are encouraged to explore the world at their own pace. Like slow food and slow travel, slow parenting relates to the Slow Movement, which embodies a cultural shift towards slowing down the pace of 21st century life.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 19th July 2010.

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