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Nature deficit disorder: just another buzzword?

By Nadine Clarke

The term ‘nature deficit disorder’ is not a medical diagnosis, but a way to describe the growing gap between children and nature.

By its broadest interpretation, nature deficit disorder is an atrophied awareness; a decreased ability to find meaning in the life that surrounds us. All of life is rooted in nature and a separation from it desensitises and diminishes us. In 2008, for the first time in history, more than half the world’s population lived in towns and cities.1 The traditional ways that humans have experienced nature are vanishing, along with biodiversity. At the same time, we sink ever deeper into a sea of technology.

Nature is good for us

As children, today’s adults all slipped out into nature away from the watchful gaze of our parents to build a fort, make a mud pie with a friend, or sit quietly by ourselves. The culture our children embrace today is very different. They live very structured lives, participating in classes, clubs and sports. They also spend many hours a day plugged into some form of electronic media. This behaviour is leading to obesity, attention deficit disorder and depression. In recent years, an emerging body of research has begun to describe the restorative benefits of time spent in the natural world.2 Even in small doses, we are learning that exposure to nature can measurably improve our psychological and physical health. At least two factors are involved: first, our senses and sensibilities can be improved by spending time in nature; and second, the natural environment seems to stimulate our ability to pay attention, think clearly and be more creative.

Go outside!

Can teachers help combat the effects of nature deficit disorder? Yes, they certainly can. Teachers spend many hours with children every day and there are ample opportunities to present subjects outdoors. This can be achieved by proactive networking with other educators, organisations and parents. If you want your learners to be successful, teach them in nature – not alongside it.3 When teaching about the natural sciences, teachers should also ask, what’s the most effective way to educate children so that they will grow up to behave in environmentally responsible ways? Or, more specifically, what kinds of learning, or what sorts of experiences, will most likely shape young adults who want to protect the environment, serve on conservation commissions, think about the implications of their consumer decisions, and minimise the environmental footprints of their personal lives and the organisations where they work?

Foster children’s innate love of exploration

Between the ages of six and 12 years, children have an innate desire to explore the woods, build forts, make potions from wild berries, and dig to China – and each of these activities is an organic, natural way for them to develop environmental values and behaviours. The ‘look but don’t touch’ approach cuts kids off from nature, teaching them that nature is boring and fraught with danger. Inadvertently, these messages send children back inside to computer games. Could it be that our fear of litigation and our puritanical concerns for protecting each and every blade of grass are hampering the development of the very stewardship values and behaviours that we environmental educators all say we’re trying to foster?

It’s environmental education that allows kids to live in ‘kidville’ for a while, before rushing them out of the woods into ‘adultville’. John Burroughs once said, “Knowledge without love will not stick. But if love comes first, knowledge is sure to follow.”4 It’s our responsibility as teachers to make sure that love comes first. The challenge we now face as educators is to bridge the gap by reconnecting the present and future generations with the natural world around us.


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Category: Winter 2013

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