Remember the good old days, when your mom told you to go outside to play all day and just to be sure to come home when the streetlights came on? Yeah, me neither (nor do most of my friends). But my slightly older husband, who grew up in a small town, does, and probably most of our parents or grandparents do. Now try and think about telling your own child to spend his or her day outside playing, exploring, and soaking up nature. If it seems like a highly unlikely experience to imagine, you’re in good company. There are multitudes of reasons (crime, environmental hazards, fear of seeming like a negligent parent) why you wouldn’t allow your children to play outside all day. Yet there are some equally compelling reasons to make sure, nonetheless, that your child is spending time getting down in the dirt, and this need for kids to reconnect with the outside world keeps growing. Richard Louv made waves with his last book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. His concept of Nature Deficit Disorder refers to some of the common issues that occur when kids don’t spend enough time in nature, including links with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, childhood obesity, higher rates of physical and emotional illness and vitamin D deficiency.

Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.

nature deficit disorder, playing outside

Richard Louv‘s book Last Child in the Woods is a great read and an essential one for parents of children and young adults today. His newest book The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End Of Nature-Deficit Disorder outlines why adults need nature too. Studies are constantly being done that show that even looking at trees has been linked with increased work satisfaction, having lower stress levels, and recovering more quickly from surgeries. These studies are done on adults-imagine what the results would be for kids, who are unarguably much more sensitive to environmental factors.

When my son was a colicky and ill-tempered infant, the first thing (and second and third) I did was go on a walk with him. Being outside seemed to calm him, and many other families we know have shared a similar experience. As he got older, he would stand, nose smushed against our sliding glass window, and grunt while gesturing towards our backyard. Maybe it’s the way the breeze feels on their skin or how the shadows of leaves and trees dance in front of their still-developing eyes; whatever “it” is, kids get it and love it. Why should the natural world stop being a soothing, stimulating, and ultimately educational experience as our kids get older?

kids in nature, eco play, kid and leaf
Image © Pink Poppy Photography

In simplest terms, it isn’t the natural world and its palliative effect that changes: rather, our society places more value on indoor-oriented skills, especially those relating to technology. Additionally, the media often promotes a culture of fear, in which parents and children are taught that playing outside is unsafe.

In The Happiest Toddler on the Block, Harvey Karp discusses how toddlers are a bit, well, like cavemen (Dr. Karp’s humorous description of how your child is like a caveman actually makes a lot of sense, and it really helped us relate to our son in a much more effective manner). One of Karp’s points is that these “cavemen” need to roam, and I couldn’t agree more. If playgrounds had frequent visitor reward programs, many of us would have earned a platinum card. Post-playground or park trip, kids are often in a better, more peaceful mood, and the skills that they learn simply by interacting with the natural world cannot be measured by a simple test.

Playing outside is more than just playing-kids learn about the subtle color variations in types of leaves, they learn about weather and clouds, they learn about the ways that other animals interact. And, perhaps most importantly, time spent outside will likely result in an appreciation and respect for nature. How can we expect our children to love and take care of Mother Earth when they haven’t even experienced any of her simple, yet sublime wonders?

nature disorder, kids in nature, eco play, kid in grass
Image © Ernst Vikne

Thankfully, there is hope as Louv discusses. I haven’t read his new book, but Last Child in the Woods includes numerous examples of people and programs that are making this connection between children and nature a priority. The growing number of Roots and Shoots-based gardens around the country as well as those with an individual, local focus such as Red Hook Brooklyn’s Added Value are continuing to reach out within their local community. Some programs, such as the Edible Schoolyard, get a PR bump when headed by a famous face like Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters, but these programs and their tangible results (in the forms of better grades and behavior in the children who participate in them) are making their own names.

Organized programs aside, Louv and other experts stress the importance of time spent in nature in general. So plan a day-long family hike or an afternoon picnic or even fifteen minutes watching fireflies. Put away your own electronic devices and show them how much you enjoy being in nature. If they are resistant to the idea, ask them to bring their toy or electronic gadget outside as a first step. Even sitting on a porch or stoop together will inevitably result in questions and remarks: “What animal is making that kind of noise? Look, there’s a chipmunk. How many different birds do you see?”

As adults, many of us have been accustomed to sitting in front of a screen for hours, and, if we drive to work, barely even spending a moment’s time outdoors. You will undoubtedly feel the effect of your family’s outdoor explorations, even if that means reading The Giving Tree or making mud pies in your own backyard.

So brush up on some of Inhabitots hints for how to get kids excited about gardening or creating a nature mobile, or just follow your children’s lead and see where a little dirt, fresh air, and creativity take you. And be sure to read our story, The Convincing Case for Sending Your Kids Outside to Play Alone.

Lead Image Flickr user Savannah (OpenFocusPhotography)