Friday, September 20, 2013

Nature–Deficit Disorder

Many years ago, a single mother with whom I worked had a son who was making dubious life choices.  The young man was 13 at the time.  His choices weren’t horrible.  He hadn’t yet gotten in trouble with the law.  But they weren’t the best choices and his mother was concerned about the direction.

She asked if I’d spend time with her son.  It needn’t be rigorous mentoring or tutoring, but only a chance for the young man to chat with an adult male.  I agreed.

For our first outing, I picked an undeveloped park on the outskirts of the town where we lived.  We spent two hours walking along a creek and through a pine forest while talking about school, life, and whatever else came to mind.

Early in the walk, he spied an abandoned Frisbee wedged against a log in the creek.  He freed it and let it become the talisman for the remainder of our walk.  When he wanted a break in the conversation, perhaps a chance to gather his thoughts, he’d move ahead of me on the trail and we’d toss the Frisbee back-and-forth as we continued to walk.

The tosses weren’t long, no more than twenty feet.  It wasn’t a park that accommodated long tosses.  But it was a chance for him to collect himself.  When he was ready to resume the conversation, he’d let me catch up to him and we’d resume our chat.

As we finished our outing and walked toward my car, the young man suddenly turned back and put the Frisbee atop a post near the park entrance.  Surprised, I asked if he didn’t want to keep the Frisbee for our next outing.  He responded, “No, I’d rather leave it for someone else to talk the way that we have.”

It might have been his most mature life decision in weeks.

It’s possible that the young man was subject to what author Richard Louv calls a nature-deficit disorder.  And a two-hour walk in nature was the best thing for what ailed him, far better than any words I offered.

Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder”, argues that, as a nation, we’ve systematically deprived our children of the exposure to the natural world that they need to grow up with good emotional health.

He argues that the deficit has resulted from many causes.  He cites “the criminalization of natural play” in which children are discouraged by neighborhood rules from unstructured outside play.  (Louv has also written a book “America 2” in which he argues that we’ve given to homeowners’ associations a level of control over our lives that we’d never give to a government.)

Louv also notes the increased time spent in front of electronic screens.  And he’s particularly concerned that too many children aren’t given a chance to learn what nature is, such as the 34 percent of elementary school students in San Diego who’ve never been to a beach.  San Diego!

Louv lacks the credentials to describe nature-deficit disorder as an official psychiatric condition.  But he provides a mound of compelling evidence for his hypothesis.  He notes that executive function, our ability to manage our many cognitive skills, has rapidly declined in children in recent decades, the same decades during which children have become increasingly divorced from nature.  He reports that cognitive skills are shown to improve after time spent in nature.

Louv describes how outside exercise shows more benefits that the same exercise inside.  And he reports that attention deficit disorder is often reduced after time spent in nature. 

Louv’s nature-deficit disorder hypothesis may seem unrelated to urbanism, but he argues that they should be complementary.  Louv notes that walkable communities offer more opportunities than sprawling suburbs to connect with nature.  Children on foot, and adults too, are more willing to explore a creek bed or a copse than the same people in a speeding car.  And a denser form of development offers more opportunities to leave undisturbed pockets of nature.

Louv also suggests that urbanism, with a renewed connection to nature as a key component, can become the new environmental movement.  He reports that the average age of environmental organization members is 67, with new members at 64.  He suggests that the environmental movement is dying because it’s increasingly focused on what human beings shouldn’t do.  He argues that an environmental movement based on urbanism can have a more positive, affirmative message.

Because of this suggested connection to urbanism, Louv was invited to give the opening plenary at CNU 21, the recent annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism.  If his nature-deficit hypothesis interests you, I suggest giving a listen to his talk.  I was at the plenary session and found the speech effective and compelling.

Although the link is through YouTube, the talk is audio only.  Personally, I re-listened to it through headphones connected to my phone, while talking notes on my laptop and watching a baseball game on a nearby muted television.  The irony didn’t escape me.

Remember the young man with whom I took the long walk?  He and I spent a couple of years in occasional outings, including nature walks and mountain lake canoeing.  Eventually life intervened and I moved away.  But at his request, I flew in for his high school graduation.  These days, we only email occasionally, but my wife keeps an eye on him through social media and advises me whenever he makes a good life decision in which she sees evidence of my long-ago mentoring.  I hope she’s right.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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