Nature Deficit Disorder

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By Sheldon Greaves
Photos by the author

Overlooking the irrigation canal with a field of beets beyond.

This weekend we traveled to Aberdeen, Idaho on the occasion of a family reunion to visit with my in-laws. It's been a fun weekend that gave us a chance to reconnect with a lot of people we haven't seen in a long time. My Father-in-Law is a retired farmer who now lives near downtown Aberdeen. Part of the festivities this weekend included a long walk around the old family farm. It takes a good hour or two to amble around the the fields.

The weather was perfect as we sauntered along the irrigation canals bordering the fields. It struck me very forcefully how much a farmer must also be something of a naturalist. Our walk included sightings of several bird species, a skunk keeping a wary distance, and to Denise's delight, clouds of dragonflies, most of which were some type of variegated meadow hawk.

Rushes blooming in the canal.

One of my Sisters-in-Law mentioned to me about some of the science related activities in their local school, and in the process she mentioned a term I hadn't heard before: Nature Deficit Disorder. It is the idea that children in our society are spending too much time in front of computer screens or the television, playing video games, etc, and as a consequence do not get sufficient time spent outdoors. Other factors cited as curtailing outdoor play are the lack of outdoor spaces, parental fear, and similar constraints on unstructured, creative outdoor play. NDD is blamed for behavioral problems, depression, and attention disorders. Other speculative concerns are a lack of respect for nature and a diminishing appreciation for the place of humans in the the natural world.

Nature Deficit Disorder is not an officially recognized disorder; it is not found in DSM-IV, nor is there any proposal to include it in future editions. The first mention of this term is in Richard Louv's 2005 book Last Child in the Woods in which he first articulated the problem of Nature Deficit Disorder. Whether this is a full-blown mental disorder or not is something to be worked out by the experts. That said, there seems to be plenty of anecdotal evidence that hints that there may be something to this. It certainly seems like a good idea to get both kids and adults outside more often.

My opinion is that this is nothing new, and it's not just restricted to kids; it's more a matter of degree. In Walden, Thoreau recalls some of the visitors who came to spend time in the woods where he lived:

"I could not but notice some of the peculiarities of my visitors. Girls and boys and young women generally seemed glad to be in the woods. They looked in the pond and at the flowers, and improved their time. Men of business, even farmers, thought only of solitude and employment, and of the great distance at which I dwelt from something or other; and though they said that they loved a ramble in the woods occasionally, it was obvious that they did not."

One has to remember that the reason we teach science and nature to children is to produce science-literate adults. When we go to a park or open space, it always seems bit empty. I keep asking myself why it isn't more crowded. On the other hand, when I was much younger we didn't have the internet or video games although there were other things to lure us away from the outdoors.

Of course, you don't need a national park to see nature; maybe we can't all be lucky or perceptive enough "To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour", but Blake makes an important point: nature's wonder is where you find it, whether it's a vacant lot, a flower pot, or a patch of weeds. It's closer than we think.

But it also doesn't hurt to make an effort to meet it halfway.

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  1. Pingback: Unexpected Pleasures of Unplugging in the Amazon | Citizen Scientists League

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