In 2005, author Richard Louv identified the phenomena of ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ in his book titled Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. According to Louv, Nature Deficit Disorder is when children are alienated from nature, which leads to a number of behavioural issues, including diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional illness.
Although this phenomenon is not an actual medical diagnosis, it certainly evokes the language of mental health and a serious societal problem plaguing children across Australia.
The Nature and Children’s Health Survey commissioned by Planet Ark in May 2012 reported some startling findings in terms of Australian children’s disconnect with nature. The survey reported that:
- 17% of carers (people who have regular responsibility of caring for children aged 15 or below, including parents, guardians, childcare workers and teachers) said the children in their care had never visited a national park;
- 22% of carers said the children in their care had never planted nor cared for a vegetable garden;
- 26% of carers said the children in their care had never bushwalked; and
- 25% of carers said the children in their care had never planted a tree.
Undeniably, children growing up in 2013 are influenced by many distractions that prevent them from spending time outdoors, subsequently increasing their time spend indoors. Distractions include the television, gaming consoles and a variety of gadgets which lure children to the screen and in some cases become defacto babysitters under the guide of ‘education’.
Aside from the influence of technology, parents have also become cautious about children playing outdoors unsupervised in a society where ‘stranger danger’ is widespread.
A 2004 study by Clements reported that 82% of mothers with children between the ages of 3 and 12 identified crime and safety concerns as one of the primary reasons they don’t allow their children to play outdoors. The same study identified a substantial shift in intergenerational independence with 70% of contemporary mothers having played outdoors as a child every day when they were young but only 31% permit their own children to do so.
This study supports the idea that today’s children lead a more passive, inactive life which may be contributing to the alarming increase in childhood obesity. Indeed, during 2007-2008, 25% of Australian children aged 5-17 years (or around 600,000) were overweight or obese with 7.5% of children (aged 5-17 years) classified as obese (ABS 2010).
Another important issue among children arising from a lack of engagement with nature relates to an increase in mental health problems. According to the ABS 2004–05 National Health Survey, an estimated 253,600 or 9% of Australian children aged 4–14 years had a mental or behavioural problem as a long-term condition.
This survey reported the most commonly reported problems were behavioural and emotional problems with usual onset in childhood or adolescence (3%), problems of psychological development (3%) and anxiety-related problems (2%).
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a behavioural disorder whereby a person has difficulty paying attention, controlling impulsive behaviours and keeping thoughts on track. Results from the 1998 Child and Adolescent component of the National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing estimated that 11.2% of children aged 6–17 years (an estimated 355,000 children and adolescents) had ADHD.
All is not lost as there is a growing body of evidence that clearly indicates that contact with nature during childhood may play a significant role in both the prevention and management of certain physical and mental health problems. For example, in relation to ADHD, Kuo and Taylor (2004) studied the impact of green space or natural settings on symptoms of ADHD across diverse subpopulations of children. They reported that green outdoor settings appear to reduce ADHD symptoms in children across a wide range of individual, residential and case characteristics.
Similarly, in relation to curbing childhood obesity, Bell et al. (2008) reported that greenness may present a target for environmental approaches to preventing child obesity. They found that children and youth living in greener neighbourhoods reported lower body mass index (BMI) scores taken over a two year period, presumably due to increased physical activity or time spent outdoors.
A recent Australian study (Lucas and Dyment, 2010) suggests that when primary school children are given a choice about where to play, they are choosing natural areas. These authors suggest that green areas of school grounds stand to make an important contribution in providing equitable, inclusive, healthy and inviting play opportunities for children.
Furthermore, Pretty et al. (2009) demonstrated that children encouraged to spend more time engaging with nature and given opportunities to learn in an outdoor setting (green education) are more likely to have active exposure to nature embedded in their lifestyle as adults, positively influencing their health and wellbeing.
Green space can clearly provide children with opportunities to lead happier and healthier lives; however enticing children outdoors to receive a daily dose of green can often be the hurdle. Participating in outdoor sport or recreation activities, building a vegetable garden or simply visiting parks and gardens are simple ways to achieve this.