In my last blog on the growing numbers of kids being diagnosed with ADHD, I wondered out loud about the potential negative effects in our modern culture of things like: too much time spent indoors, too little sun and exercise, too many electronics, and not enough sleep. Rather than dwell on the causes of our problems, let’s consider what we can do to reduce the impact of stress on the lives of both adults and children. Not from a medical psychiatric perspective, but from the perspective of everyday life.
Ask yourself this question: Do you or your kids suffer from Nature-Deficit Disorder?
This wonderful name was coined by journalist Richard Louv with the publication of Last Child in the Woods. His newest book, The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder, offers a new vision of the future, in which our lives are equally immersed in nature and in technology.
What do we already know about the positive effects of time spent outdoors, immersed in nature?
Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, environmental psychologists from the University of Michigan, are internationally known for their research on the effect of nature on people’s relationships and health.The Kaplans got involved in studying the effects of nature back in the 1970s, and since then have done extensive research on “restorative environments” to understand the psychological benefits of time spent in nature and what types of natural environments stimulate health and reduce stress.
In order to work or study efficiently, we need to maintain focused attention on the task at hand–something that everyone struggles with–most especially those with Attention Deficit Disorder or ADHD. Too much focused attention can lead to mental fatigue and increased stress. One remedy for this fatigue is exposure to nature. The wilder the better, but even a little bit helps. Office workers with a view of nature are happier and healthier at work; kids do better academically; hospital stays are shorter with windows to nature; exercisers who walk outside in pleasant environments walk longer.
Positive Effects for Kids with ADHD
ADHD kids who participate in activities conducted in natural outdoor environments concentrate better and show less impulsivity. Published in The American Journal of Public Health, Frances Kuo conducted a national study comparing the effects of after school activities conducted in green outdoor settings versus those conducted in both built outdoor and indoor settings. Controlling for the amount of physical activity, type of activity, preference for nature, or timing of medication, they concluded that time spent in nature reduces ADHD symptoms.
The authors concluded that, “While medications are effective for most children with ADHD, they are ineffective for some, and other children cannot tolerate them…and a green dose or series of green doses might conceivably reduce the need for medication by 1 dose per day, allowing growing children to recover their appetites in time for dinner and get a good night’s sleep. These studies, and hundreds of others, add to the growing body of literature that shows how exposure to nature has profound effects on the health and well being of children and adults alike.
The Benefits of More Time in Nature for Children:
1. Kids get along better. Research has found that children who play in nature have more positive feelings about each other. There is something about being in a natural environment together that stimulates social interaction. Another study showed how play in a diverse natural environment can reduce or eliminate bullying. In several studies, researchers have found that some of the kids who benefit most are those with attention and learning challenges.
3. Cognitive development is improved. Curiosity and wonder are strong motivators that make children more eager to learn. When children play in natural environments, their play is more diverse. Creative play, in turn, nurtures language and collaborative skills. Spending time in natural environments helps improve their awareness, reasoning and observational skills.
4. Physical health is improved. Children who play regularly in natural environments show more advanced motor fitness, including coordination, balance and agility. They get sick less often. Just getting their hands in the dirt can bring exposure to “good bugs” that stimulate the immune system.
5. Kids are less stressed out. Nature buffers the impact of life stress on children and helps them deal with adversity. The greater the amount of nature exposure, the greater the benefits. Nature helps children develop powers of observation and creativity and instills a sense of peace and connection to the planet. Haven’t you noticed how kids can do whatever they need to do when they are out in the wild? They can just sit and stare at bugs or scream at the top of their lungs.
6. Kids are more psychologically mature. A boost in maturity comes from the increased independence and autonomy that free play in nature encourages. Children with more contact with nature score higher on tests of concentration and self-discipline. The more green, the better the scores. In a study of kids with ADHD, it was found that those who played in windowless indoor settings had significantly more severe symptoms than kids who played in grassy outdoor spaces. School classrooms with outdoor views even help.
7. Kids are more likely to love and protect the environment. When people like John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt spent time in places like Yosemite Valley, they realized that these wild places were “America’s treasures,” needing our stewardship and protection. In order to teach children how to treasure nature, kids must be allowed to explore it in their own way, and be given the time and opportunity to “dig in” and immerse themselves in its mysteries. Like a perfect mother, the earth welcomes us all with open arms.