Great outdoors


Has this ever happened to you? You’re having a bad day—everything’s going wrong and you become grumpier and grumpier. Finally, in desperation, you head out the door to get away from it all and stomp down to the local park, where…you start to feel calmer, and maybe even a little bit happy.

Many people believe that nature, even in small doses, can improve our mood and stimulate our creativity—a view that’s now receiving firm scientific backing. London’s Independent newspaper (August 29, 2005) reports on a study showing that people living in public housing projects landscaped with trees were less fearful of crime, less like likely to be victims of domestic abuse, more sociable and generally happier than those living in public housing with few trees in sight. “Without vegetation, people are different beings,” notes one of the researchers Frances Kuo, co-director of the Human-Environment Research Lab at the University of Illinois. Another study highlighted by the Independent shows that hospital patients with views of nature out their windows need less medication and stay in the hospital for shorter periods than those who do not.

While people’s attraction to nature has long been recognized as a strong aesthetic preference, the Independent notes that, “Now an emerging branch of psychology suggests it may be fundamental to our health and well-being…Eco-psychology is grounded in the idea that our innate craving for contact with nature is the result of millions of years of evolution.”

Indeed, spending time outdoors among trees and flowers may soon be recommended alongside eating fresh vegetables and getting daily exercise as basic requirements for staying healthy.

According to researchers at the University of Essex in England, “The evidence indicates that nature can help us recover from pre-existing stresses or problems, have an ‘immunizing’ effect by protecting us from future stresses and help us to concentrate and think more clearly.” They suggest that outdoor exercise—even less strenuous pursuits like gardening, fishing or strolling—offers benefits not found at the health club, including “improved self-esteem and reduced feelings of depression.”

These findings fuel growing concern about children in industrialized countries, who spend far less time in nature or outdoors than previous generations. The reasons are easy to see: a proliferation of computer activities and TV options, mounting fears about child molesters and speeding traffic, increased urbanization and sprawling suburbs that push the countryside farther away, greater amounts of homework and more structured recreation activities. While kids once spent the hours after school roaming through whatever wild places were available in their neighborhoods, they are now playing Game Boy, riding in the car to acting class or soccer practice, and being restricted to the safety of their own backyards. Even at school there are fewer chances to go to outside on the playground. More than 10 U.S. states have mandated shorter recess periods, or eliminated them altogether, in an attempt to boost academic performance.

All of this is being done in the name of what’s best for children, but the overall effect may be to cut off kid’s opportunities to explore the world and experience a sense of wonder. For most kids this represents a missed opportunity to expand their imaginations. But for some it can set the stage for academic and even personal disaster.

“Our brains are set up for an agrarian, nature-oriented existence that came into focus 5,000 years ago,” explains therapist Michael Gurian, author of several bestselling books on raising children. “Neurologically, human beings haven’t caught up with today’s overstimulating environment. The brain is strong and flexible, so 70 to 80 percent of kids adapt fairly well. But the rest don’t. Getting kids out in nature can make a difference.”

Richard Louv, also an author of books on childrearing, has coined a phrase to describe the situation many kids experience today: Nature Deficit Disorder. The association with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD or ADHD) is quite conscious, since he believes that the skyrocketing numbers of children diagnosed with ADD and ADHD are the ones most profoundly affected by lack of contact with wild places. In his new book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Algonquin Books, 2005) Louv suggests that instead of Ritalin and other medications many children suffering from ADHD need more unstructured time outdoors in nature.

He points to research by Nancy Wells, professor at the New York State College of Human Ecology at Cornell University, who documented children’s improved attention spans and cognitive functions when moving to housing with green, natural spaces nearby—even when other social and economic factors regarding their new homes were taken into account. “By bolstering children’s attention resources, green spaces may enable children to think more clearly and cope more effectively with life stress,” Wells writes.

Louv also quotes the same University of Illinois research team cited by The Independent who, “found that green outdoor spaces foster creative play, improve children’s access to positive adult interaction—and relieve the symptoms of attention-deficit disorders.”

The good news, Louv is happy to report, is that the solutions to Nature Deficit Disorder are all around us. Taking the time to introduce a child to the pleasures of nature is quite easy. Even the most rundown inner-city neighbourhoods are generally within reach of a city park or forest preserve where kids can climb trees, hear birds sing and roll in the grass. And anyone who cares about children should join in campaigns to preserve the countryside, limit sprawl and restore urban parklands.

The future for kids can turn out different from the sadly funny comment Louv heard from a fourth-grader at a school in San Diego, California: “I like to play indoors ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”