Seedlings and the “Need” for Nature

Now and then we stumble upon research and ideas that, while they’re not at the heart of MDA focus, nonetheless grab our attention and get us thinking. (Variety is the spice of life, no?) We talk a lot about the carryover between our paleo ancestors and contemporary selves: the physiological patterns relevant to nutrition, fasting, exercise, stress response, etc.

So, what about other vestiges from Grok’s heyday? Some of us were familiar with the scientist, E.O. Wilson and his theory of biophilia, the concept that humans have an innate, biologically determined need for nature. Wilson’s theory has been around for years, but the concept is getting renewed attention lately. Turns out, as we round the corner to April next week, we have the opportunity to observe not just the first full month of spring (group sigh of relief) but “Children and Nature Awareness Month,” as declared by the national organization Children and Nature Network. The organization was founded by Richard Louv, noted journalist and author of a book called Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, a book we were inspired to pick up. Sine then, it’s been intriguing fodder for water cooler talk.

As Louv and an increasing number of child psychologists and education experts note, research suggests that regular time in nature (a.k.a. “green space”) is vital for children’s cognitive and emotional development in addition to their physical wellness. Louv and several studies he cites suggest it’s no coincidence that childhood obesity (as well as ADD/ADHD and depression/anxiety diagnoses) have risen in direct correlation with the significantly decreased time children spend outdoors due to increased activity schedules, the proliferation of media entertainment and more parental control/supervision over children’s time outdoors. (One interviewed child shared, “I like to play indoors better ‘cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”)

Louv and others argue that this “need” for nature isn’t founded in modern or Western views of childhood. It’s allegedly in our biological blueprints themselves. Nature remains the default setting for our senses, our concentration skills and psychological/physical backdrop.

And while the concept would hold that we all (child and adult alike) benefit from time in natural settings, seedlings are especially vulnerable to “nature deficit” because of the continual succession of profound cognitive, psychological and physiological developments.

A Cornell University study compared the emotional well-being and educational performance of children grades three through five who lived in rural areas. Those children whose homes were surrounded by more natural, “greener” settings experienced fewer incidents of behavioral conduct disorders, anxiety and depression. This correlation was particularly strong when comparing children who were experiencing the “highest levels of stressful life events.” (Not available online) Other child psychologists have found that time in nature reduces the symptoms of attention deficit disorder, presumably by allowing children the restoration of “involuntary attention” (“sensing” attention found to be active during time in nature) between periods requiring “directed attention” (needed for academic work and most activities such as television viewing and sports). (article available here)

The compiled research seems to suggest, Louv says, that nature engages children physically and mentally in unique ways. It encourages physical activity and challenge. It invites creativity. It offers perspective and resilience.

Whatever your initial thoughts, we definitely think the book is worth a read, and the organization’s website is worth a look-see as well. It’s an intriguing idea, to be sure. No one is advertising nature deficit as the single answer to every problem plaguing all or any child, but parallel trends are harder to argue with. And we definitely can’t argue too much with anything that gets junior off the couch and out hiking.

As we always say, evolution is a measured and plodding process. A few thousand years, let alone a few generations, isn’t enough to put much of a dent in what was used and honed for millions of years before it. Does the nature deficit theory inflate or capture some of the detrimental contrasts between modern living and our biological imprint? Though no one’s arguing that we should be happier living without Grok’s daily challenges of saber tooth tigers, etc., are we or our children missing something essential stuck inside our offices, living rooms and indoor gyms?

Send us your thoughts.

Further Reading:

Raise Healthy Seedlings

Mind Hacks: Swimming with Dolphins Helps Depression

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