By Jena Ponti

“Nature-Deficit Disorder”(nit ?r dfisit disrd?r):

A non-scientific term for the cultural phenomenon that describes the increasing alienation of humans and nature. Symptoms of this phenomenon manifest in diminished use of the senses, attention issues, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses, and are evident at many levels, the individual, the family, the community, the region, the nation.

Richard Louv, futurist, journalist and author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, will be the keynote speaker for the conference for the Environmental Education Association of Washington to be held at Mirabeau Park Hotel in the Spokane Valley on March 23.

According to Louv, today’s kids, “are aware of the global threats to the environment but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is quickly fading. At no other time in our history have children been so separated from direct experience in nature.” In short, our culture is raising its youth to be “naturally” illiterate. Louv has spent much of his career questioning the cumulative impacts this will have on our children as they grow into adults, the effects on our society as they becomes ever-distant from their roots, and the impacts on nature itself if our future citizens don’t know enough to appreciate and protect it. “Good parents are doing their best,” Louv says, “but the information about the value of nature experience to child development has not been widely available.”

Louv has focused his energy and research on studying the trends of younger, “wired” generations of children who are more fluent in techno language than they are in identifying species of local plants and animals. Today’s youth are not getting outside and experiencing the natural world as previous generations of children did. Health-related studies, completed by Louv and other child-advocacy experts indicates that the disconnection with nature is directly linked to alarming trends in childhood obesity, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), stress and depression. According to Louv, “new studies suggest that exposure to nature may reduce the symptoms of ADHD, and that it can improve all children’s cognitive abilities and resistance to negative stresses and depression.”

Louv has traveled the country speaking with elementary school children and parents in a number of cities to get a reading of how youngsters interact with the natural environment. He found that a majority of children prefer indoor technology to outdoor activities. As one fifth grader in San Diego remarked: “I like to play indoors better ’cause that’s where all of the electrical outlets are.” Louv’s studies indicate that children are not experiencing nature due to parental fear (stranger-danger, dangerous traffic), decreased access to nearby nature, addictive computer gaming technology, increased structured time for after-school and weekend activities, more homework, and in general, less all-around family free time.

Many new studies confirm what many of us know intuitively: experiencing nature has positive effects on our general well-being, healing and restoration. For children, connection with nature is absolutely necessary. Nature not only has positive influences on unhealthy childhood trends, but at a more basic level encourages healthy child development. Childhood is a crucial stage in life as it encompasses the most receptive and sensitive developmental years (physical, cognitive, emotional, social and creative development). Children understand the world through their senses.

Louv is hopeful that our society can bring back nature into children’s everyday lives. “I am not suggesting that we bring back the free-range childhood of the 1950s,” Louv says. “Those days are over. But we can create safe zones for nature exploration, given our deeper understanding of the importance of nature play to healthy child development.” So, no matter what age your child, there is no better time than the present to spend time with them out in nature, whether it’s fly fishing the Little Spokane, hiking the Dishman Natural Area, or exploring the depths of your own backyard.