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Nature deficit disorder - reconnecting children with nature
Elvira Burger

Nature Deficit Disorder

One would have never imagined that people from sunny South Africa would suffer from Nature deficit disorder but sadly most of us with our over-scheduled, technology driven lives suffer from this new “epidemic of inactivity”.

The way most of us structure our lives,  deprives our children from direct contact with nature and the experience of unstructured free play in the out-of-doors. Nature-deficit disorder is not a formal diagnosis, but a way to describe the psychological, physical and cognitive costs of human alienation from nature, particularly for children in their vulnerable developing years. The term was coined by Richard Louv in his book “Last Child in the Woods”  that human beings, especially children, are spending less time outdoors. This modern lifestyle hurts our children, our families, our communities, and our environment.

Nature deficit disorder may be part of a much larger problem—the over-organization of childhood—rationalized and shrouded by a culture of fear. Childhood has moved indoors, and children are paying the price. Whether you live in a security estate or in a wendy house, it is not safe for the kids to play and explore outside like we used to do, when we were kids. One recent study described today's children as the backseat generation (Karsten, 2005). In affluent commmunities, these are the children escorted by car, to and from school, after-school activities, sports team practices and games, dance classes, and other adult-supervised and structured events. In poorer comunities these kids would simply be locked up at home where it is safe watching TV or playing computer games.

Louv shared that no child can truly know or benefit from nature if the natural world remains behind glass, seen only through windows or on screens and computer monitors. This rapid disengagement between children and direct experiences in nature…has profound implications, not only for the health of future generations but for the health of the earth itself

So why is nature devicit disorder a problem?

Does being outside really help with attention deficit?

A recent study done at the University of Illinois showed that children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) demonstrated greater attention after a 20 minute walk in a park than after a similar walk in a down town area or resdential neighborhood. The analysis of the study was based on reports by parents, of their children’s behavior in the hour after the activity. Specifically: the ability to focus on unappealing tasks; the ability to complete tasks; listenings skills and the ability to resist distractions.


In the above mentioned study, children with ADHD or ADD showed significantly reduced symptoms following afterschool or weekend activities in “green-outdoor- settings”, such as parks, farms, or green backyards compared to indoor activities or activities in the concrete jungle like parking lots or innercities.


Various studies has agreed that spending time outdoors, has lead to longer attention spans in children and adults. Higher levels of creativity, self confidence and better performances on standardized test scores were also reported. Most studies on outdoor education and the bennefits of spending time outdoors, conclude that participants experience overall greater academic sucsess as well as significant improvements in cognitive development, self dicipline, imaginative and creative expression, language skills as well as social interaction.


How can I prevent Nature deficit disorder?

Start by scheduling outdoor time. Literally write on your calendar “gone fishing” or whatever you need to write to ensure that you and the kids get time on a weekly, preferably daily basis to spend some outdoors. There are lots of fun activities one can do in your own backyard during the week. It is the only way to ensure that you and your family have time to stop and smell the roses.

Just be careful to try and over organize outdoor time. You need to understand what drives creativity. Several studies have shown that nature fosters creativity and calms children struggling with information overload. Rocks, insects, sticks, water or whatever you find in nature, are the best kind of toys, since it has the potential to be anything, unlike battery operated toys or action figures.

Despite our media driven fears, we as parents need to allow for opportunities of exploration and controlled risk taking in the outdoors.  It is a good idea to join up with a group of families or organizations like The Mountain club of South Africa, the Scouts or Voortekkers, to create a safe environment where kids are also allowed to experience unencumbered time to roam. Don’t forget to weight the risk of what happens to children’s imagination and inner life if we keep them inside because of our fears.

Practical ideas

There are so many fun activites you can do with your child in your own backyard like building a treehouse, setting up swings or fabricating ladders so they can climb the trees. Geocashing is another practical technology driven scavengerhunt that kids of all ages would enjoy. Here are 6 practical activities you can do in 5 minutes or less in your own backyard or school playground, during your weekly “gone fishing” time slot.

  1. Sprout Your Socks

This idea came from Lynn Brunelle's book, “Camp Out: The Ultimate Kids' Guide”. It is a wonderful activity for any age and has an added benefit: using all those stray socks that don't have matches. Once outside, you and your child put a sock on OVER your shoe and go for a nature hike. You could hike around your yard or hike around a park. The point is to get the sock dirty and pick up any seeds that might attach themselves.

After the hike is over, put the sock in a plastic zip bag with a squirt of water. Tape the bag on a window in a sunny place and check daily to see the sock slowly sprout to life. After the sock sprouts, you and your child can investigate what types of plants might be growing on the sock. Your child may never view socks the same way again.

  1. Turn over a rock

This activity is as simple and as powerful as you can get. Simply find a rock to turn over and observe. Just be careful, this is Africa and we do have scorpions J

Your child may want to find different rocks and compare the findings, or look under the rock during different times of the day and see the differences. After the exploration, the book “ Under One Rock - Bugs, Slugs, and other Ughs” by Anthony Fredricks and Jennifer DiRubio is an excellent book to use as a prompt to talk about the experience.

  1. Wildlife Hunt

Have you ever thought about having a nature hunt inside your house? This 5 minute activity shows children how wildlife can live in your habitat, too. All you need is a flashlight and a little bravery. You and your child can look for signs of life all around the nooks and crannies of your house or apartment. There might be a spider web on a baseboard, an insect on a screen, or something interesting on the inside of a windowsill. Identifying the evidence of wildlife becomes a natural next step.

  1. Five Senses" Wildlife hunt.

Being annn occupational therapist this is my personal favorite outdoor game. Since most children I work with in my practice, struggles with sensory integration, I would consider this quite an important game to play. Just be careful to allow time for free play and exploration and not to over organize this sensory hunting game.

It is common to see a child stick out her tongue to catch a raindrop, but with this science activity, you can catch it and bring it inside! The materials you need include flour, a pie pan, and a rainy day. First, sift some flour into a baking pan or pie pan until it is about one inch thick and covering the pan. Take the floured pan outside and let the rain come down on the pan for about a minute.

When the rain hits the pan of flour, a tiny "dough drop" is formed. These "drops" can then be sifted from the flour and examined. You can count the flour drops, compare the differences in size and shape. If you have a food scale around the kitchen, you can even compare the weight of the flour drops! Raindrop, Plop! by Wendy Cheyette Lewison and Pam Paparone takes the child on a counting journey through a rainstorm. Your child will want to read the book as soon as they feel a raindrop!

  1. Nature Alphabet


"Mom! That stick looks like a "T!" After a big rain and wind storm came through, we had several sticks that had fallen in our yard. What a great opportunity to create a stick alphabet. My sons started collecting sticks, organizing sizes, and started thinking about what we would use to make all the different letters; a short stick to connect an "H" and an acorn to dot an "i." After the alphabet was complete, we rearranged the sticks to create words. Not only was the alphabet reinforced, but our yard was cleaner too. “Discovering Nature's Alphabet” by Krystina Castella and Brian Boyl is a visually stunning book that encourage you and your child in this adventure.



Although Nature Deficit Disorder, is a worldwide problem, we in this beautiful country of ours are privileged to be able to get outdoors in the most spectacular outdoor scenery. We have no need to suffer from the epidemic of inactivity. We just need to plan ahead and schedule time to get outdoors. I remember my mom telling me when I was little, to go outside and play. Turns out, my Mom was right, as usual.



Castella, K. and  Boyl, B “ Discovering Nature's Alphabet” ( 2006)

Driessnack, M. “Children and Nature Deficit Disorder” Journal for Pediatric nursing, 12 January 2009

Black. R. “Nature deficit disorder damaging Britains children”  BBC News.

Brunelle, L. “ Camp Out!: The Ultimate Kids' Guide.” 2007

Louv, R. “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” (2005)

Fredricks, A and DiRubio, J “ Under One Rock - Bugs, Slugs, and other Ughs (2004)

Gardner, M. "For more children, less time for outdoor play: Busy schedules, less open space, more safety fears, and lure of the Web keep kids inside", Christian Science Monitor, June 29, 2006

Ward, J. and Love, R. “I Love Dirt: 52 Activities to Help You and Your Child Discover the Wonders of Nature (2008).

Karsten, L. It all used to be better? Different generations on continuity and change in urban children's daily use of space. Children's Geographies, (2005).

Burdette, H. L., & Whitaker, R. L. Resurrecting free play in young children: (2005).


Elvira Burger is an Occupational therapist in Wonderboom South, Moot area. She can be contacted at 076 808 2777 or at e.burger@aol.com

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