Today, kids are well aware of the global threats to their environment, but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature on a day-to-day basis, is fading.|
A fifth-grader in a San Diego classroom put it succinctly: "I like to play indoors better 'cause that's where all the electrical outlets are."
I believe our society is teaching young people to avoid direct experience in nature. That unintended message is delivered by schools, families, even organizations devoted to the outdoors, and codified into the legal and regulatory structures of many of our communities—effectively banning much of the kind of play that we enjoyed as children. Our institutions, urban/suburban design and cultural attitudes unconsciously associate nature with doom, while disassociating the outdoors from joy and solitude. Well-meaning public school systems, media and parents are scaring children straight out of the woods and fields. Many parents are aware of the change, and they sense its importance.
When asked, they cite a number of everyday reasons why their children spend less time in nature than they themselves did, including disappearing access to natural areas, competition from television and computers, dangerous traffic, more homework and other time pressures. Most of all, parents cite fear of "stranger danger," as round-the-clock news coverage conditions them to believe in an epidemic of child-snatchings, despite evidence that the number has been falling for years.
As a result, children's worlds, limitless in cyberspace, are shrinking in reality. As the nature deficit grows, new studies demonstrate just how important direct contact with the outdoors is to healthy human development. Most of the new evidence that connects nature to well-being and restoration has focused on adults, but during the past decade, scientists have begun to study the impact of nature on child development. Environmental psychologists reported in 2003 that nature in or around the home, or simply a room with a view of a natural landscape, helped protect the psychological well-being of the children.
Researchers have found that children with disabilities gain enhanced body image and positive behavior changes through direct interaction with nature. Studies of outdoor education programs geared toward troubled youth – especially those diagnosed with mental health problems - show a clear therapeutic value. Some of the most intriguing studies are being done by the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, where researchers have discovered that children as young as five showed a significant reduction in the symptoms of Attention-Deficit Disorder when they engaged with nature. Could nature therapy be a new option for ADD treatment?