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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26 thoughts on “Seedlings and the “Need” for Nature”

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  1. Ah, the irony of sitting at the computer, inside, clicking through links to read websites about the benefits of being offline, outside.

    Couldn’t agree more with the less-TV-more-slip-n-slide stuff. But, I guess I’m more of a Ginsberg person in thinking there can be as much beauty in a pile of broken glass in an alley as in the leaves and trees.

    I camped in Death Valley this weekend. No sky scraper built can match the wonder of walking through thousand foot canyons and volcanic craters. But the streets of New York can be just as much of an engaging jungle as, well, the jungle.

  2. This post brought a smile to my face. Richard Louv used have a column I read often in my local newspaper. I read his book when it first came out. Great book.

  3. We used to live in a 100-year-old farmhouse on 3 acres, surrounded by cornfields and trees. It was great, but unfortunately the husband’s job was not, and so we had to move. There was no deficit of nature for us there – we could take long walks with our dog and cats through the fields and would get wild turkeys and ‘possums – once even a bobcat – in our yard.

    Here we do have a yard, but the weather can be a little less forgiving at times, and in the summer it’s harder to be outside. Most of our recreation is outside, though – the beach, parks, the beach, wildlife refuges, and my favorite, the beach.

    We don’t own a TV, so our sons are used to much more active play, inside or out (and we let them do things inside most parents probably wouldn’t). The lack of TV makes for interesting problems though – at the dentist yesterday my 4 yo was asked if he likes Sponge Bob, and he’s never seen it! People just don’t understand when you’re a no-TV freak family.

    I have decided to try my hand at a garden, and my sons (2 and 4) will certainly “help” with that. There’s lots of time spent with nature, and the money I won’t be spending on fresh veggies might go toward some nice grass-finished beef on the table more often!

  4. Great post. I work as part of a community collaborative that advocates for afterschool programs, youth development programs, quality early childhood education, etc. Among funders and others in high places, there’s a lot of pressure these days for everything outside of school to be academic, or to see academics as the only relevant outcome. What gets lost in the mix is the importance not only of things like arts and creativity, but time outdoors in nature, exploring and frolicking.

    Your post gives me some good ideas for articulating why time in nature is essential and beneficial. I really like how you frame it as part of our biological blueprint. That makes so much sense to me.

    Food Is Love

  5. Robert Burns said it well, “Give me a spark of nature’s fire, that’s all the learning I desire.” We are raising our kids in Denmark where the great outdoors and walks in the forest are essential parts of the school day – as is fresh fruit. Check out Waldorf education for brilliant ways to incorporate outdoor education and experience into the lives of your children. Turn off the TV!

  6. needed to see this this morning.

    I so often neglect work (read: am up at 4 a) so that I CAN play outside in nature with my toddler….


  7. Getting out in nature makes me a “kid at heart!” You just can’t beat it, Easter Sunday the weather was gorgeous, got my bicycle out, went ride in the park for a long time. I love summertime, go camping, hiking, outdoor grill at the park, it’s all fun and great way to get away from the house. Surrounding yourself in nature is healthy, it makes you feel great!!!

  8. I couldn’t believe when I got home last night and saw this post…it’s the same book I was reading at work. I’m not very far into it yet, but I can tell you from experience (5 kids,6-15) that today’s kids have lost a whole body of knowledge of how to amuse themselves outdoors. I have battled “electronics” their whole childhood, but it’s so hard because it’s what all of the other kids do/have. In our safety culture, kids just don’t have access to the time and raw materials to have a childhood like I had (1970s)when we played outdoors constantly. I would love to let my 8 yr old daughter roam the small woods and fields near my house…but I just can’t. She must go w. an older brother…after I pry one away from the stupid play station. When my kids were younger and I restricting these things even more, they just would go to their friends’ houses. What I’m trying to say is, it’s really difficult to be the “only one,” because the kids–playing-outdoors–all-day culture is gone. And it’s sad.

  9. While I do believe Television can be very useful and a rather constructive when used in wisely and in moderation, I think it’s really ruined a lot of our society and taken so many people away from the outdoors. It seems like even when people have company over these days it’s automatic to just have everyone sit down and watch tv or even a movie, what happened to people sitting down and having conversation and actually showing interest in eachother’s lives? And getting back to being outdoors it used to be so much more common to see families going on more vacations and just family outings in general, of course these things still happen, but with television, rising gas prices, people working more hours than ever, etc., it’s not as common to see those things happen anymore.

  10. I’m not sure why words in my post were twisted around, some of it doesn’t make sense now and I apologize. It didn’t look that way before I posted it so I don’t know what happened.

  11. The best way to teach kids to enjoy nature is to just be in it. Go camping or take the kids to a state park for some kind of sport activity, or go hiking. They’ll see it’s a whole different world!

  12. Donna: We’re going to attempt camping with our 2 and 4 yo sons in a few weeks. It’s been a long time since I’ve camped in a tent, and I’ve never done it with small children, so it will be an adventure for all of us. My 12 yo daughter wants to camp, too, when she comes to visit this summer (she lives with her dad). My 10 yo step-daughter, the one who needs the nature contact the most, actually broke down in tears when we suggested it to her, so I don’t know if we’re brave enough to try that one. (Her mom’s idea of contact with nature was staying in a fancy hotel and taking a guided tour of Niagara Falls. @@)

  13. I think nature is a vital part of childhood, not just for the simple fact of getting outside and being active but for proper development. While our modern culture has removed us from nature, as you said, it’s still an ingrained part of us. I think not getting out in nature is part of our collective cultural depression. I recall reading that just spending time outdoors relieves depression symptoms in sufferers. Makes sense to me.

    That book is on my list of reads, as suggested by Anna (2nd commenter) some time back. Watch taking her suggestions though…she suggests lots of good books and will fill your reading list for the next couple years! 😉

    Scott Kustes

  14. Judy, I just know you guys will have so much fun. When my girls were small i’d bring them camping i’d bring some things. Such as balls to throw to each other or small toy cars to roll around on the ground, a frisbee or horseshoes. If it’s a windy day, flying a kite is always fun, kids enjoy that. If you can bring bicycles, kids really enjoy riding out on a trail. I always tried to find a campground that offered swingsets which is a different change from the backyard at home. I even brought a compass, nature is a great place to learn to use one. At night making a bonfire and letting the kids sing their favorite songs is fun for them. Don’t forget the camera, letting the kids take turns take pictures of each other turns out to be exciting for them, and, when the pictures are developed, it’s memories to talk about how much fun everyone had, it’ll make you want to go camping again. These are some of the things that my girls enjoyed in nature.

  15. The YMCA has a great programs that include regular opportunities for camping, and are perfect for those needing to “get their feet wet” with camping because they are group camp-out and everyone helps out. It’s a bit different than scouts. There are father/son, father/daughter groups but also groups with mother/son, mother/daughter, too). My husband and son have loved their 3 years of Adventure Guides (used to be called Indian Guides) experience. I like it because I get the camping weekends to myself!