The high cost of ‘nature deficit disorder’ |

The high cost of ‘nature deficit disorder’

Jason Eberhart-Phillips

What does a child lose when she plays indoors all day?

What difference does it make if kids don’t climb trees, wander through the woods, catch lizards or splash through streams? What price do children pay when nature is only an abstraction they see on cable television or a picture they download from the Internet?

For many children, the price in terms of their physical and psychological development may be high. More than ever, kids growing up today are disconnected from the natural world, cut off from the excitement of exploring wild places, peering under rocks or simply digging holes in the sand.

For physicians, educators and other adults who care about children’s well-being, the trend is alarming. As a generation, our kids are suffering from what’s being called “nature deficit disorder,” a scarcity of outdoor playtime that may damage their development and diminish their inborn sense of wonder.

Evidence that kids are losing touch with the outdoors will come as no surprise to most parents, teachers and others who work with young people. Today’s children spend more than 90 percent of their waking hours indoors.

Since 1997, the percentage of children 9 to 12 years old who spend any time hiking, camping, fishing or playing at the beach has dropped 50 percent. Nearly one-third of California teenagers never participate in such outdoor pursuits, despite a mild climate that invites outside recreation.

In beautiful, rural El Dorado County one might assume that kids are getting more outdoor experiences than their counterparts in big cities, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Sadly, many children in our county may be just as distracted by indoor activities as kids from urban areas. The result is a generation that is developing sedentary habits and is fast losing touch with the patterns of nature that have been part of the human experience from the beginning.

Not surprisingly, scientists are finding that kids who don’t enjoy a kinship with nature are more prone to symptoms of hyperactivity, attention deficit and obesity. Girls who have more contact with nature act with better self-discipline, and both sexes perform better on science tests after time spent in natural environments.

Direct experience with nature stimulates all of a child’s senses. It fires the imagination, dispels depressive thoughts and creates a greater understanding of where one fits in the natural world and the human community.

What can parents do to encourage more outdoor play and contact with nature?

They can set limits on technology time. Kids 8 to 18 years old now spend an average of 6 1/2 hours a day with electronic media, such as television, video games or surfing the Web. They hardly have time for anything else.

Parents also can avoid overscheduling their children’s lives with indoor activities, especially when school is out. Freedom to explore natural places close to home should be encouraged, to the degree a parent is comfortable with this.

Fear of traffic, of crime, of stranger-danger and of nature itself are real for many parents and must be acknowledged. Creating safe places for children to play and experience nature should be a priority for planners, developers and local decision-makers.

What’s at stake in battling nature deficit is the heart and soul of our future: the health and vitality of our children. Let no child be left inside.

– Jason Eberhart-Phillips, M.D., is the El Dorado County health officer. He can be reached at

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