Nature deficit disorder is a term from Richard Louv’s book “Last Child in the Woods,” describing child behavioral problems when alienated from nature. This is a growing body of research that directly links our association with nature to our health and well-being. For example, children who are frequently outdoors are at less risk for childhood obesity. Nature is a powerful form of therapy for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and simply being outside improves all child cognitive ability, resistance to negative stress and depression.
The childhood experience has dramatically shifted in past decades. Kids played mainly outdoors, spent afternoons playing in the neighborhood field making secret playhouses and mud pies, then came inside when the street lights came on. The childhood experience is now much more sedentary, indoor, and technologic. The deficit is in outdoor experience in natural areas.
How do our kids reap all those physical, mental, social and emotional benefits from the natural world?
It turns out kids in early childhood, middle childhood, and adolescence connect to nature in different ways. Scott Sampson, author of “How to Raise a Wild Child,” says 0-5 year olds need frequent time outside with caregivers who enjoy the outdoors, and that’s really it. No naming of plants or ecological concepts necessary, just being outside does it, and the little one’s natural inquisitive instincts fill in the rest. Middle-aged kids will want to go off and build a fort, a golden example for demonstrating competence and independence. Pre-teens and teenagers benefit most with their peers pushing physical limits. Camping and backpacking trips with a program like Outward Bound or a trail running club, for example, are fabulous for self esteem, identity building, and confidence — especially for girls.
In January 2017, my 4-month-old daughter and I became volunteer ambassadors for the Hike it Baby Reno-Tahoe branch. Hike it Baby builds communities getting families outside with children from birth to school age. If a diaper needs to be changed, or a break taken, we take it together! The goal is to get outside, in companionship. We come together to enjoy each other’s company, be healthy and expose our children to the wonders of nature.
My daughter Lacey and I have been hosting at least one hike per week, and I really love it. For starters, being a new mom without much family or friends in the area is challenging, isolating and lonely. We have made awesome friends and discovered beautiful places all over Truckee Meadows, the Sierras and Tahoe. In the beginning, I was bouncing and shushing a baby wrapped on my chest bundled up with layers. Now she can walk the trails with me, and she has young hiking buddies too!
There is an online calendar to view upcoming hikes, join a hike and/or host your own hike for others to come to. There are challenges called the “Hike it Baby 30” to encourage families across the globe to get their babies and children outside for 30 miles in 30 days or 30 minutes three times a week. We offer the challenges four times a year (January, April, September and November). The first time my family did a 30 challenge, we just aimed to get outside for 30 minutes, three times a week. The second challenge we hiked more than 50 miles in a month; pretty cool, huh? I’m proud of that.
So whatever age your children are, have good times outdoors for the many benefits nature offers us. Inspire that love for the environment, and ultimately, it will become desire to protect and conserve it!