Nature deficit disorder

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Children playing in a stream

Nature deficit disorder is a phrase coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods[1][not in citation given] meaning that human beings, especially children, are spending less time outdoors[2] resulting in a wide range of behavioral problems.[3][4] This disorder is not recognized in any of the medical manuals for mental disorders, such as the ICD-10[5] or the DSM-5.[6] Evidence was compiled and reviewed in 2009.[7] Richard Louv has stated "nature-deficit disorder is not meant to be a medical diagnosis but rather to serve as a description of the human costs of alienation from the natural world".[citation needed]

Louv claims that causes for the phenomenon include parental fears, restricted access to natural areas, and the lure of electronic devices.[8] Recent research has drawn a further contrast between the declining number of National Park visits in the United States and increasing consumption of electronic media by children.[9]

The phrase has been criticized as a misdiagnosis that obscures and mistreats the root problems of how and why children do not spend enough time outdoors and in nature.[10]


Richard Louv spent ten years traveling around the US reporting and speaking to parents and children, in both rural and urban areas, about their experiences in nature. He argues that sensationalist media coverage and paranoid parents have literally "scared children straight out of the woods and fields", while promoting a litigious culture of fear that favors "safe" regimented sports over imaginative play.

In recognising these trends, some people[11] argue that humans have an instinctive liking for nature—the biophilia hypothesis—and take steps to spend more time outdoors, for example in outdoor education, or by sending young children to forest kindergartens or forest schools. It is perhaps a coincidence that slow parenting advocates send children into natural environments rather than keeping them indoors, as part of a hands-off approach.[12]

Studies by other researchers throughout the world suggest physical activity and exposure to nature are important to good health,[13][14] report positive impacts upon mental health and wellbeing associated with natural environments,[15] and can reduce sadness and negative emotions.[16]


  • Parents are keeping children indoors in order to keep them safe from danger. Richard Louv believes we may be protecting children to such an extent that it has become a problem and disrupts the child's ability to connect to nature. The parent's growing fear of "stranger danger" that is heavily fueled by the media,[17] keeps children indoors and on the computer rather than outdoors exploring. Louv believes this may be the leading cause in nature deficit disorder, as parents have a large amount of control and influence in their children's lives.
  • Loss of natural surroundings in a child's neighborhood and city. Many parks and nature preserves have restricted access and "do not walk off the trail" signs. Environmentalists and educators add to the restriction telling children "look don't touch". While they are protecting the natural environment Louv questions the cost of that protection on our children's relationship with nature.[17]
  • Increased draw to spend more time inside. With the advent of the computer, video games, and television children have more and more reasons to stay inside—the average American child spends 44 hours a week with electronic media.[17]


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  • Children have limited respect for their immediate natural surroundings. Louv says the effects of nature deficit disorder on our children will be an even bigger problem in the future. "An increasing pace in the last three decades, approximately, of a rapid disengagement between children and direct experiences in nature…has profound implications, not only for the health of future generations but for the health of the Earth itself".[18] The effects from nature deficit disorder could lead to the first generation being at risk of having a shorter lifespan than their parents.[19]
  • Attention disorders and depression may develop. "It's a problem because kids who don't get nature-time seem more prone to anxiety, depression and attention-deficit problems". Louv suggests that going outside and being in the quiet and calm place can help greatly.[17] According to a University of Illinois study, interaction with nature has proven to reduce symptoms of ADD in children. According to research, "Overall, our findings indicate that exposure to ordinary natural settings in the course of common after-school and weekend activities may be widely effective in reducing attention deficit symptoms in children".[20] Attention Restoration Theory develops this idea further, both in short term restoration of one's abilities, and the long term ability to cope with stress and adversity.
  • Following the development of ADD and mood disorders, lower grades in school also seem to be related to NDD. Louv claims that "studies of students in California and nationwide show that schools that use outdoor classrooms and other forms of experiential education produce significant student gains in social studies, science, language arts, and math".[21]
  • Childhood obesity has become a growing problem. About 9 million children (ages 6–19) are overweight or obese. The Institute of Medicine claims that over the past 30 years, childhood obesity has more than doubled for adolescents and more than tripled for children aged 6–11.[19]
  • In an interview on Public School Insight, Louv stated some positive effects of treating nature deficit disorder, "everything from a positive effect on the attention span to stress reduction to creativity, cognitive development, and their sense of wonder and connection to the earth".[18]
  • Lack of exposure to bright light (at outdoor levels) among children contributes to myopia due to lack of resulting chemical signals to prevent elongation of the eye during the growth phase.[22][23]


The Children & Nature Network is leading the movement to connect all children, their families and communities to nature through innovative ideas, evidence-based resources and tools, broad-based collaboration and support of grassroots leadership.

The No Child Left Inside Coalition works to get children outside and actively learning. They hope to address the problem of nature deficit disorder. They are now working on the No Child Left Inside Act, which would increase environmental education in schools. The coalition claims the problem of nature deficit disorder could be helped by "igniting student's interest in the outdoors" and encouraging them to explore the natural world in their own lives.[24]

In Colombia, OpEPA (Organización para la Educación y Protección Ambiental)[25] has been addressing the issue since 1998. OpEPA's mission is to reconnect children and youth to the Earth so they can act with environmental responsibility. OpEPA works by linking three levels of education: intellectual, experiencial and emotional/spiritual into outdoor experiences. Developing and training educators in the use of inquiry based learning, learning by play and experiential education is a key component to empower educators to engage in nature education.


Elizabeth Dickinson, a faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studied nature deficit disorder through a case study at the North Carolina Educational State Forest system (NCESF), a forest conservation education program. Dickinson called Louv's book "an important call to fix damaged human-nature relationships," and agrees that allowing students to connect directly with nature is therapeutic; however, she argues that it is what Louv's narrative is missing that prevents nature deficit disorder from effecting meaningful change. She attributes the problems described by nature deficit disorder as coming not from a lack of children outside or in nature, but from adults' own "psyche and dysfunctional cultural practices". According to Dickinson, "in the absence of deeper cultural examination and alternative practices, [nature deficit disorder] is a misdiagnosis—a problematic contemporary environmental discourse that can obscure and mistreat the problem."

Dickinson analyzed the language and discourses used at the NCESF (educators' messages, education and curriculum materials, forest service messages and literature, and the forests themselves) and compared them to Louv's discussion of nature deficit disorder in his writings. She concluded that both Louv and the NCESF (both who loosely support each other) perpetuate the problematic idea that humans are outside of nature, and they use techniques that appear to get children more connected to nature but that may not.


She suggests making it clear that modern culture's disassociation with nature has occurred gradually over time, rather than very recently. Dickinson thinks that many people idealize their own childhoods without seeing the dysfunction that has existed for multiple generations. She warns against viewing the cure to nature deficit disorder as an outward entity: "nature". Instead, Dickinson states that a path of inward self-assessment "with nature" (rather than "in nature") and alongside meaningful time spent in nature is the key to solving the social and environmental problems of which nature deficit disorder is a symptom. In addition, she advocates allowing nature education to take on an emotional pedagogy rather than a mainly scientific one, as well as experiencing nature as it is before ascribing names to everything.[10]


  1. ^ Marilyn Gardner, "For more children, less time for outdoor play: Busy schedules, less open space, more safety fears, and lure of the Web keep kids inside", Christian Science Monitor, June 29, 2006
  2. ^ Diane Swanbrow "U.S. children and teens spend more time on academics", The University Record Online, The University of Michigan.
  3. ^ 10 Reasons Kids Need Fresh Air by Kevin Coyle, National Wildlife Magazine
  4. ^ Tammie Burak, "Are your kids really spending enough time outdoors? Getting up close with nature opens a child's eyes to the wonders of the world, with a bounty of health benefits", Canadian Living.
  5. ^ "ICD 10 Codes For Psychiatry: F00-F09". 
  6. ^
  7. ^ Charles, Cheryl; Louv, Richard (September 2009). "Children's Nature Deficit: What We Know – and Don't Know" (PDF). 
  8. ^ Stiffler, Lisa (January 6, 2007). "Parents worry about 'nature-deficit disorder' in kids". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. 
  9. ^ "Is There Anybody Out There?". Conservation. 8 (2). April–June 2007. 
  10. ^ a b Elizabeth Dickinson (2013). "The Misdiagnosis: Rethinking "Nature-deficit Disorder"". Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture. doi:10.1080/17524032.2013.802704. 
  11. ^ Kellert, Stephen R. (ed.) (1993). The Biophilia Hypothesis. Island Press. ISBN 1-55963-147-3. 
  12. ^ Hodgkinson, Tom (2009). The Idle Parent: Why Less Means More When Raising Kids. Hamish Hamilton. p. 233. ISBN 978-0-241-14373-5. 
  13. ^ Pretty, J.; Angus, C.; Bain, M.; Barton, J.; Gladwell, V.; Hine, R.; et al. (2009). "Nature, childhood, health and life pathways" (PDF). University of Essex. 
  14. ^ Kuo, F. E. (2010). "Parks and other green environments: essential components of a healthy human habitat" (PDF). National Recreation and Park Association. 
  15. ^ Townsend, M. & Weerasuriya, R. (2010). "Beyond blue to green: The benefits of contact with nature for mental health and well-being". Melbourne, Australia. 
  16. ^ Bowler, D. E.; Buyung-Ali, L. M.; Knight, T. M. & Pullin, A. S. (2010). "A systematic review of evidence for the added benefits to health of exposure to natural environments". BMC Public Health. 10 (1): 456. doi:10.1186/1471-2458-10-456. 
  17. ^ a b c d Outside Agitators by Bill O'Driscoll, Pittsburgh City Paper
  18. ^ a b Last Child In The Woods Interview by Claus von Zastrow, Public School Insights
  19. ^ a b [1] National Environmental Education Foundation
  20. ^ Jim Barlow, "[2]", News Bureau
  21. ^ Richard Louv, "[3]", Orion Magazine.
  22. ^ American Academy of Ophthalmology (2013-05-01). "Evidence Mounts That Outdoor Recess Time Can Reduce the Risk of Nearsightedness in Children". Retrieved 2013-10-07. 
  23. ^ "New research an eye opener on cause of myopia". 2011-06-01. Retrieved 2013-10-07. 
  24. ^ Nature Deficit Disorder, No Child Left Inside Archived January 15, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.
  25. ^

Further reading[edit]

  • Louv, Richard. (2011) The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder. Algonquin Books. 303pp.
  • Louv, Richard. (2005) Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Paperback edition). Algonquin Books. 335pp.
  • Louv, Richard, Web of Life: Weaving the Values That Sustain Us.

External links[edit]