It seems obvious to people who spend time outdoors that nature brings peace of mind and a better understanding of our relationship with the Earth. So why are parents allowing their children to spend more time inside than ever before?
“It’s a modeling thing,” says Andy Lenartz, a children’s health advocate and psychology professor at Gateway Community College in Phoenix. “I spend a lot of time in nature with my children, and other parents always tell me, ‘I wish my kids liked going outside and doing things.’ Well, it starts with us, the parents. If we want our kids to behave differently, we need to put our own phones down and be role models.”
Lenartz gave a lecture last year titled, “Get Outside and Stay Alive: The Impact of Nature Deficit Disorder.” In it, he wanted to demonstrate that there was a positive correlation between spending time in nature, life expectancy and overall mental health.
The term, “Nature Deficit Disorder,” was first coined in 2005 by California journalist and author Richard Louv. It is used to describe the negative effects on the developing body and mind that living a sedentary lifestyle in an urban environment can cause. “It is no coincidence that with our increasing urbanization, we have increasingly common incidences of anxiety and depression,” said Louv, who cited studies done at the Human-Environment Research Lab at the University of Illinois.
He said the evidence of the study indicates that nature may reduce symptoms of ADHD, serve as a buffer to depression or anxiety, help prevent or reduce obesity and myopia, boost the immune system, and offer many other psychological and physical health benefits.
The trend of spending less time in nature has continued since the 1990s, according to Louv. Where before there were children building forts and utilizing their imaginations, now there are children spending over eight hours a day in front of a screen and being shuttled from one organized event to the next by overprotective parents. A study completed by market researcher Childwise in 2015 and later promoted by the National Wildlife Foundation shows that a modern child spends less than 30 minutes per day outside.
Organizations in Phoenix such as the Phoenix Zoo aren’t going to let that trend continue without a fight. Liesl Pimentel, manager of programs at the Phoenix Zoo, hosts pop-up Nature Play events where families from all over the Valley can come together and experience unstructured outdoor time.
Echoing Lenartz’s sentiment that a child learns best from their parents, Pimentel explained how she helped the program build momentum in 2015.
“We started off approaching parents first,” she said. “They learned why spending time in nature is beneficial for a child’s development. We talked about barriers, like the heat and desert climate of Arizona. After we hosted that workshop, those families left and started their own nature clubs.”
Pimentel said that kids today live in a very structured environment. It’s not just the hours spent inside at school, it’s being driven by parents from activities like ballet to soccer practice, then from piano lessons to supervised play dates. Parents might actually prefer that their children’s time is always structured, simply because they are easier to keep track of.
“Kids need the chance to take risks and try new things when they’re young, or they’ll never do it when they’re older,” she said.
Allegra Hudson doesn’t want her daughter to grow up without that chance. Hudson is a parent who has attended almost every Nature Play event with her now 4-year-old child, Lennix Mae Vasquez, since the program’s inception in 2015.
At a recent Nature Play event, Hudson watched her daughter look for shells in the mud at Papago Park near the Phoenix Zoo. Lennix was surrounded by dozens of other kids all coming up with their own ways to enjoy the outdoors. “I see that she’s more calm when she’s outside, more aware. She’s free of distractions,” Hudson said.
“Lennix gets so excited to go outdoors, and she loves bugs. I hope this will spark an interest in science for her, there aren’t many black women in those fields,” she continued. Lennix held up a shell for her mom, excitedly telling her to look at what she had found.
Two other moms at the event, friends Jennifer Nerat and Mikall Foerster, shared similar experiences they have had with their own children.
Whenever Nerat and her family go to the Salt River, her kids are already aware of and pick up the trash left behind by groups of tubers. “One of them is just turning 6, and they already care for their environment,” she said.
Nerat said nature has made her children more creative. Foerster agreed and explained that a lot of children’s toys have a specific design in mind that leaves little room for imagination, like a slide on a school playground.
“You can only really use it one way, go up or down, so something as simple as a stick can be a more compelling toy than anything man-made,” Foerster said. “Making the word wheels on the board at the playground line up to say, ‘Bob-Ate-Food,’ isn’t going to teach any child how to be creative.”
The medical community also has started to acknowledge the effects of Nature Deficit Disorder. It is a societal disorder and not a medical diagnosis, according to Louv, but it has the potential become a medical term in the future. Pediatricians today are overwhelmed by the increase in issues like ADHD and anxiety, health problems that were far less prevalent in children two decades ago.
Dr. Mary Brown, who is on the board of directors at the American Academy of Pediatrics, has said the focus of pediatricians has expanded from routine issues like infections, immunizations, car seats and helmets to more complex problems like mental health, obesity and early brain development, “all of which could be changed by reconnecting our kids to the wonders of nature.”
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