If there’s one thing that most of us can agree on, it’s that we’ve lost touch with nature. At the very least, I know we should be spending more time outdoors, and this is especially true for the children of this generation. More screens than ever before have our attention, and while we used to have to be stationary to enjoy them, sitting in front of our televisions, we now have the ability to carry screens around with us at all times, as they so conveniently fit in our pockets. Yet this isn’t making us more active, only more distracted. Think about how many times a day you see children, or adults for that matter, glued to a tablet or phone at a restaurant or on a bus?
Of course, there are many educational games and programs that can assist with learning how to read, or count, or solve puzzles, but are our children missing lessons from the greatest teacher of all? What is the true cost of being disconnected from nature and how is it affecting children today?
What Is Nature Deficit Disorder?
It is now a well-known fact that too little time spent in nature can adversely impact our health, both physically and psychologically. San-Diego based child advocacy expert Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder and chairman and co-founder of the Children & Nature Network, coined the term nature deficit disorder to describe this phenomenon. His book outlines “the human costs of alienation from nature,” and he includes in it documented studies that suggest without regular immersion in nature, we can suffer physical and emotional distress, including anxiety, depression, and even obesity. Children, the primary focus of his research, are particularly affected by this lack, which shows up most often as difficulty focusing.
How Can We Fix This?
Fortunately, it’s an easy fix. A stroll through the forest or a dip in the ocean is absolutely free and in many cases very accessible as well. While admittedly, we don’t all have the luxury of living seaside, many people have access to a forest, or even a park with trees somewhere nearby. We often just get so caught up in our daily lives that we forget that perhaps all we really need to clear our heads and feel a bit better is to connect with our beautiful Mother Earth again. Make an effort to get outside during the day. Go to a park or walk on a trail nearby; chances are you’ll feel happier and less stressed almost instantly.
The implications of these findings, especially for children, have become a major discussion point in recent years. Dr. Faisal Moola, Director of the Terrestrial Conservation and Science Program at the Vancouver-based David Suzuki Foundation, says the international science community in particular is taking note: “Scientists are now beginning to quantify this and they believe communing with nature has a direct biological, psychological value, and these values are measurable,” he says. As adults, we have seen with our own eyes the differences between how children behave and learn now compared to how they did before screens were so prevalent, when they spent their hours playing in and exploring nature.
What Exactly Does Regular Exposure to Nature Do For Us?
Hiking in nature can stop negative obsessive thoughts. In fact, a recent study that was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that spending time in nature decreases obsessive, negative thoughts by a significant margin.
To conduct this study, researchers compared the reported rumination of participants who hiked through either an urban or a natural environment. They found those who walked for 90 minutes in a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination and they also had reduced neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain related to mental illness. Those who walked through the urban environment, however, did not report decreased rumination.
The researchers noted that increased urbanization closely correlates with increased instances of depression and other mental illness. Taking the time to regularly remove ourselves from urban settings and spend more time in nature can greatly benefit our psychological (and physical) well-being.
Just simply walking in nature can change our brains in ways that positively impact our health. Researchers conducted a study that asked randomly selected participants to spend 50 minutes walking in either a natural or urban setting, and to submit to a series of psychological assessments before and after the walk. They found that volunteers who walked through a lush, green portion of Stanford campus showed improve cognitive function and mood compared to those who walked near heavy traffic for the same period of time. However, while this study showed that nature could have a positive effect on mental well-being, it did not examine the neurological mechanisms underlying this change.
Another study conducted by psychologists Ruth Ann Atchley and David L. Strayer found that creative problem solving can be drastically improved by both disconnecting from technology and reconnecting with nature. Participants in this study went backpacking through nature for about 4 days, during which time they were not allowed to use any technology whatsoever. They were asked to perform tasks, which required creative thinking and complex problem solving, and researchers found that performance on problem solving tasks improved by 50% for those who took part in this tech-free hiking excursion.
Has your child been acting out, having a hard time paying attention, or straight up not listening? Maybe it’s time to bring them to a forest, or a park, or the ocean, and let them be free and clear from technology for a while. Chances are, it will help to improve your mood and overall well-being as well. What are you waiting for? Get out there!
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