nature deficit disorder (image by sustainabletraditions.com)

Are you and your family suffering from nature deficit disorder (image by J Fowler of ST)

There have been several times my older two children have disappeared into the woods. The most recent was on a friend’s farm. After lunch, my kids and two of my friend’s kids donned capes, hats, loaded up with several plastic toy rifles and sticks jammed into their belts and headed out the door. When it was time to go home, I started calling for them, to no avail. My friend and I loaded up in her truck and drove around the farm hollering for them. When that didn’t work, we rang the outdoor bell loudly and hollered some more. Storm clouds were brewing in the distance and I hoped it would rain and bring the children scuttling home.

As bad as it sounds, I wasn’t really worried, just more annoyed. After all, my kids know the Rules of the Woods:  No snake handling without grownup permission. The shiny black spiders with the red hour-glass are not to be messed with. Never try to outrun a bear. Don’t swing on hairy vines. Don’t drink from the river if you don’t want bloody diarrhea. Finally, they appeared in a triumphant and glorious band toting several large sun-bleached bones and brimming with stories. A very large dead fish. Playing Rev0lutionary War. Frogs laying eggs in their hands.  Adventurous stream crossings. And, BONES! Middle Child (who tends to be somewhat of a whiner) stood before me, eyes shining and cheeks glowing, all traces of complaint erased from his soul. “Mama,” he said with a voice full of awe, reverently holding up his giant find, “just look at the size of this bone!”

I  am the self-designated Outdoor Police-person at our house. Sick? Go outside and get some fresh air and vitamin D. Whining? Go outside so at least I don’t hear it. Fighting? Go outside and duke it out in the grass. Bored? Either do some chores or go outside. Why am I such an enforcer of outdoors time? Because I am afraid of a certain terrible disease: Nature Deficit Disorder. Richard Louv talks about it in his book Last Child in the Woods.  It is a disease that is characterized by glassy-eyed stares, the frequent use of the words bored and whatever, the lack of wonder at the natural world, the need for constant rapid-fire entertainment with images and noises, the inability to sustain attention and the need for someone else to entertain you at all times. Nature deficit disorder leads to all sorts of other physical, mental and spiritual ailments, and worsens some pre-existing conditions (such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, among others).  Put a child with ADHD in front of TV and video games in his spare time, and ample research shows that you are sure to make his ailment worse.

Nature deficit disorder is something that creeps upon us during long indoor days when we have little exposure to natural light and when we spend our days in front of glowing screens, immersed in other’s worlds.  I see it sometimes on Saturday mornings in my own children after watching an hour of cartoons on the internet, or on long cold and rainy days, or even in myself after a whole day at work under florescent lights or if I spend too much time online. When I feel it coming on me: I know that it is time for my medicine.   I take a short walk down to the edge of our woods and river and stand for a few moments in complete silence. I hear the wind and see the vivid colors of the sky and the traces of complaint and anxiety and fatigue are erased from my soul. I feel like one giant eye, drinking it all in and being refreshed. I remember my place in the family of things, as Mary Oliver says.

So what to do to remedy this terrible affliction in ourselves and our children? Number one: turn off the TV. Television and internet are wonderful things, don’t get me wrong. Our kids love cartoons and Wild Kratts on National Geographic and Word Girl on PBS. But we try to limit screen time pretty strictly. Admittedly, my kids don’t always jump at the opportunity to go outside. They whine that it is too hot, there is nothing to do…blah blah blah. Usually, I don’t listen. Often, I go outside with them and point out the climbing tree, the sandbox, the long rope on the tree, their bikes, the woods, the baseball bat, the jump rope, the soccer ball….and usually, they get over the Whineys. Before we lived near the woods and instead had a busy road in our front yard, we’d head to our local park or across the street to the meadow behind the church, or the neighbor’s field, or take our bikes and ride in the church parking lot.

We go on a lot of nature walks with wildflower and tree books in hand. I try to model wonder for them–wonder at the evening light, the lace-like trees, the butterflies, the sunrise, the river, the moon, the flowers….you get the picture. I have to give up a little of my worried self and let the older two explore the woods on their own. I try not to worry about the lions and tigers and bears, OH MY!  After all, the physical danger of the woods pales in comparison to some of the spiritual dangers our modern world.

Television has the power to warp the human psyche: the insidious advertising, the fascination with the misery of others, the hype, the encouragement of envy, the obsession with the negative.  The average American child has 4 hours of screen time per day (during the school year–even more during the summer months).  In small doses TV and media can be pretty cool and educational and a fun thing to do together: think weekly movie night, or a few educational or fun cartoons on some days of the week.

In whopping daily doses, media can poison the soul and numb the mind to the true joy of living. It breeds acedia and ennui, and changes children and grownups into something less than we were created to be. If your children get mad at you for turning off the TV–it will be okay. I promise you they’ll get over it with a little help from you. If your children need a break after getting home from a long day at school: vegging out in front of the TV is not what to give them. They need to stretch their legs, to run, to be free, to be creative…to PLAY.  Same with grownups after work. Even if you’re too tired to run and play, at least just sit in the night air, or the sun, or the dusk, or the dawn and marvel at this incredible planet we live on.

So start tomorrow.

Or Sunday–it’s Earth Day, after all.

If you have Nature Deficit Disorder (and I would argue that we all do, to some extent), the cure is waiting for you.

Right outside your door.

In fact, I think I feel Nature Deficit coming on me right now. I’m going to head out to the garden and see what’s waiting for me.

[Kim blogs at: This Good Medicine-Thank you Kim!]

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