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Reversing Nature-Deficit Disorder: A Sustainable Future Through Outdoor Play

Recently I received the invitation for the next reunion of the kids I grew up with. “Can you come and play outside?” is the name of our Whatsapp group.

And that is what we did whenever possible, rain or shine. Endless imagination, play and joy. With jam jars, clothing pegs, and rubber bands, we would equip our bicycles with rattles and cycle around making a lot of noise. We would climb trees, build igloos from fresh snow in winter, and huts from leaves in autumn, play the game of tag, soccer, hockey, badminton, skating – both on ice and with roller blades, build karts, wonder through the woods; the list of activities is endless. Of course, we would also spend time inside, watching television, playing board games, and working our electric train table but still, the default was outside. I’m sure this paints a familiar picture of what your childhood might have been like as well.

Notwithstanding expert advice that active play is necessary for the development and long-term health of children, research consistently shows that children ages six to sixteen spend most time indoors gaming and on social media. Author Richard Louv coined the name for this phenomenon as “Nature-Deficit Disorder.” The reduced interaction with nature has a profound impact on both individual well-being and by extension the sustainability of our planet.

The adverse consequences of Nature-Deficit Disorder include:

Health Impact

The lack of exposure to nature has been linked to various mental health issues, including stress, anxiety, and depression. Additionally, sedentary lifestyles associated with increased screen time contribute to physical health problems such as obesity (nowadays, globally more people die of overweight than from hunger). Nature has proven therapeutic benefits, reducing stress levels and improving overall well-being.

Reduced environmental awareness and care

With the rise of indoor activities, individuals become less attuned to the cycles of nature and the impact of human activities on ecosystems. Disconnecting from nature can result in a lack of understanding and appreciation for nature. People who don’t spend time outdoors may be less inclined to embrace sustainable practices or support environmental conservation and regeneration. This lack of awareness hinders our ability to address environmental challenges, such as climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss, as supported by research published in People and Nature (BES).

I hasten to add that I was put to shame last year, by some smart students for Wageningen University who exposed my lack of knowledge of everything in my garden.

In January of this year, I was in the audience of a breathtaking presentation about basic research of water. An Austrian professor presented microscopic pictures taken from water drops. It evidenced the differences in water quality from different sources (different minerals) but also how the quality of water is affected by nuclear radiation (Chernobyl) and telecommunication masts. It made me realize how little I knew about something as basic as water and thus how disconnected I am from nature myself. So being outside a lot more, thus restoring an appreciating of how we are part of mother nature would benefit from additional education about the wonders thereof.

A striking image of a water droplet. 

Source: Devin Brown/Georgia Tech Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology

A Call to action: Reconnecting with Nature

We can make positive changes to reverse this trend by:

Playing outside:

Encourage our children to go out and play! Children get the necessary vitamin D when they play outside, and there are so-called happy chemicals released in the brain.

The Dutch saying ‘Jong geleerd, oud gedaan’ very much applies. Being in nature helps children’s development

  • physically – better motor coordination
  • emotionally – reduced stress levels
  • socially – increased social interaction with adults and other children
  • intellectually – increased concentration, greater attention, and higher academic performance

And when I roam the forest and see makeshift huts, fairy benches and colorful mushrooms in autumn where gnomes live, I realise there is also space for youthful imagination. By being outside and surrounded by nature, children experience an ever-changing and free-flowing environment that stimulates all the senses.

They gain a natural understanding of the intelligence of nature, its patterns, balance, reciprocity, lack of waste, and understanding of sustainability. I used to love it, to load the children in the car and drive them to a forest, to the sea or to a dude ranch with animals when we lived in Texas, and see the sense of freedom and play, a true metamorphosis from the son and daughter navigating their devices indoors.

Promoting outdoor education:

In addition to what we can do as parents, incorporating nature-based education into school curricula and community programs can also increase the exposure to the wonders of the natural world. Outdoor learning experiences not only provide valuable knowledge about ecosystems but also instill a sense of responsibility towards environmental stewardship.

In conclusion, addressing Nature-Deficit Disorder is not only essential for our children’s well-being but for that of all of us and that of our planet. By embracing positive changes that reconnect people with nature, we can foster a generation that values and protects the environment. As we work towards a more sustainable future, recognizing the importance of our connection to the natural world is a fundamental step in the right direction.

The invitation to play outside is more than a call to action—it’s a call to sustainability, urging us to embrace the outdoors and, in doing so, secure a healthier, greener future for generations to come.

Please let us know what you think, we would love to hear from you at sendlove at heartwork dot earth.

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