Richard Louv coined the phrase “nature-deficit disorder” in his 2008 book Last Child in the Woods. The term describes the adverse effects of the dearth of nature in the lives of today’s young people, including depression, obesity, and attention disorders.
His most recent book, Our Wild Calling, brings in another factor: Loneliness. “I believe our loneliness is also rooted in something older, deeper: our alienation from the natural world, our desperateness to feel that we are not alone in the universe—our ‘species loneliness,’” he told Taste for Life.
Bring on the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting stay-at-home orders, and many of us—both children and adults—are longing for interaction with the natural world. Under work-from-home orders, we venture out for neighborhood walks during break time. In search of companionship, we adopt cats and dogs.
We live in a digital age when both kids and adults spend more time indoors than ever, researchers say. That’s led to more sedentary lifestyles, less time in the sun and the fresh air, and fewer chances to interact spontaneously with others. For children, it can mean fewer opportunities to figure out their direction in life.
“Nature is open-ended,” says Susie Spikol, community programs director and naturalist at the Harris Center for Conservation Education in Hancock, NH. “It’s unexpected and never the same. So when children spend time in nature, it wakes up their curiosity and allows authentic experiences. It’s the real deal.”
Outside of classroom walls, Spikol notes, a child can be “an explorer, a scientist, or an artist. But mostly they can just be themselves. We are hardwired to be in nature. It’s where we came from and it’s where we are most ourselves. For kids, nature is one of the best teachers they can have.”
There’s never a bad time to connect—or reconnect—with nature. But in these days of COVID-19, nature can provide both a refuge and a way to connect with our humanity.
“The novel coronavirus has forced us to reevaluate the value of natural outdoor settings, a rare pause to a decades-old trend,” writes Laurence C. Smith on the Scientific American blog.
Need some ideas for safely communing with the outdoors? Here’s a sampling from Richard Louv’s Children & Nature Network blog:
Find a special place in nature to visit and revisit—a tree in the backyard, a nearby creek, a rooftop garden. Get to know it in all seasons; learn the wildlife that visits, learn the plants.
Set up a “world-watching window” for times when you can’t get outdoors: Pick a view that’s relaxing and will take you outside of yourself.
Choose a trail or a walk where you can safely avoid crowded places and pay attention to what you see, hear, and smell along the way.
Go camping in the backyard, on the rooftop, or on the deck: You and your kids can get away from it all without leaving home.
Live in the city? Check out National Geographic’s “Finding Urban Nature” guide.
Have a yard? The National Wildlife Federation’s guide can help you build a backyard wildlife habitat.
Nurture nature in your neighborhood by planting or adopting a tree, perhaps to mark a special event, and watching the way it changes over the course of a year.
Read books that will inspire outdoor adventure. Louv suggests the following:
“Last child in the woods—overview,” richardlouv.com, retr. 10/20
“More time out in nature is an unexpected benefit of the COVID-19 sheltering rules” by Laurence C. Smith, blogs.scientificamerican.com, 4/26/20
Personal correspondence: Richard Louv, 9/23/20; Susie Spikol, 10/2/20
“What is nature-deficit disorder?” by Kimberly Jordan Allen, sonima.com, 10/21/18
Contributor Jane Eklund