Nature Deficit Disorder

Have you had your fresh air today? If you’re an average American you probably haven’t. According to a survey funded by the USEPA summarized in a recent article, you spend 90% of your time indoors each day!

Ok, technically it’s 87%, but that doesn’t include another 5.5% of the day spent driving in a car. While much closer to being outside, I certainly don’t count sticking my head out the window of a moving car as an “outdoor activity,” do you?

Getting outside in a free and relaxing way can be challenging given the busy lives we lead and the nearly constant barrage of digital distractions we face. I’m no expert, but I can tell you that there are great mental and physical benefits to spending even 30-45 minutes taking a walk outdoors, including lower stress levels and improved mental stamina and focus. One caveat here is that not all outdoor spaces are created equal. These benefits are more pronounced in natural environments (think trees, lakes, fields, etc.) as opposed to predominantly built environments (think the concrete jungle and roadsides) as studies show.

I’ve found myself thinking more about this as we raise our daughter in a city where unstructured free play in woods, streams, or empty lots that my wife and I both enjoyed growing up in suburbia is simply not an option, or at best hard to come by. Luckily, in Cambridge, MA where I live, the city is committed to maintaining tree-lined streets, and we have multiple parks and the Charles River within easy walking distance. Yet, while we frequently visit the parks with their manicured landscapes, asphalt courts, and play structures, I can’t remember the last time I took her to the river’s edge despite often driving over and around that beloved (not-so) dirty water. It’s a case of so close, yet so far away, and I sometimes wonder why is it so hard to go only 0.5 miles away and just skip stones or look for bugs?

My worry and (hopefully) my salvation come from the same text, a book titled Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. The book’s Wikipedia page summarizes that, “The book examines research and concludes that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development and for the physical and emotional health of children and adults.” The author, Richard Louv, mixes findings from scientific literature with real-life stories of people on the front lines – both parents of children suffering from, and those working toward solutions – of “nature-deficit disorder.” Once reading about it, you will likely find NDD in or around your own family and friends as we shuttle between work, sports and/or music practice, and then briefly home again before starting all over again the next day. 

Fortunately, it’s a condition that is treated not through expensive clinical medical trials and magic pills, but rather by encouraging yourself, family, and friends to reconnect (or continue connecting) with the landscapes we often overlook, but desperately need.

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