‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ Is Really a Thing

LaToya Jordan and her family have no green space by their Brooklyn apartment. So she, like many other New Yorkers, relies on the city’s playgrounds and parks to give her two children, ages 2 and 8, some exposure to nature.

The outbreak of the coronavirus in New York City took away that access to green space when playgrounds closed across the city, and the city’s parks, like Prospect Park in Brooklyn, became too crowded for her children to properly social distance.

Jordan, 42, has observed a distinct change in her children’s well-being after having little to no access to green space. “Both of them are more moody and cranky,” she said. “My 8-year-old is so jealous of her friends who have backyards right now.”

The change in behavior has been so noticeable that she and her husband are considering renting a house with a yard in Brooklyn for a week.

Jordan found that despite the cancellation of all in-person activities — from Girl Scouts to piano lessons to gymnastics — what her children missed the most was just the freedom of playing outside with friends.

Numerous studies have shown the mental and physical benefits of spending time in nature, but for some people, it took a pandemic and stay-at-home orders for that desire to spend more time outdoors to feel like a necessity. Experts hope that desire for nature will remain once people physically return to their busy schedules.

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“Ironically, the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, as tragic as it is, has dramatically increased public awareness of the deep human need for nature connection, and is adding a greater sense of urgency to the movement to connect children, families and communities to nature,” said Richard Louv, a journalist and the author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.”

Before the pandemic, more children were spending their lives mostly indoors, and the spread of the coronavirus has likely accelerated that, and, in turn, deeply affected them, Louv said.

He added, “As young people spend less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow, both physiologically and psychologically.”

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Kiona Gardner, 41, suspects her two boys, ages 9 and 12, are showing symptoms of what Louv has coined nature-deficit disorder, a nonmedical condition that suggests that spending less time outdoors can contribute to behavioral changes in children. Their townhouse in Wilmington, Calif., has no yard, and any park within driving distance is too crowded to allow social distancing. The family anticipates a long summer ahead without any travel. Both boys are asthmatic and will be most likely be confined to their home.

“They are stressed and anxious,” Gardner said. “I had to buy them an anxiety chew necklace because they have both been putting everything in their mouth.”

Gardner said that when her family feels safe enough to resume a normal life again, she plans to prioritize unstructured outdoor play for her boys. “I really want to find a balance,” she said. “My oldest needs to get back to playing basketball, but I also would like for them both to have time for free play and not have to worry about getting sick.”

Research has shown access to green space is linked to a child’s well-being. For example, adding greenery to school play yards has been shown to increase prosocial behavior in kids. They help, cooperate, comfort and share more; the loss of access to this greenery has the opposite effect. A 2013 study found that even viewing nature scenes can reduce stress and regulate heart rates.

Louise Chawla, Ph.D., a professor emerita at the University of Colorado Boulder, studies the effects of nature and urban spaces on children. She explained how one of the greatest needs of young children is autonomy, and free play in nature is one way to satisfy that need.

“If you explore a woody area in the park, there is something for every age there,” Dr. Chawla said. “There are rocks of different weights, stumps of different sizes, lighter and heavier sticks. Whatever a child’s current skill level is, they can work toward their next level of challenge. They are learning about their own capabilities.”

Kim Shore of Chicago said she felt comfortable purchasing her condo with zero personal green space because there is a park across the street. “We would have everything we needed for nature access if the world were open,” she said. But access to their park has been curtailed because of the crowds during the coronavirus outbreak.

Early on in the pandemic, she noticed short tempers and anxiety in her 6- and 8-year old children that she attributed to a lack of time outdoors. Shore decided to take her family to a friend’s home with a large yard in a Chicago suburb for several weeks. Once her children had space to move outdoors, she said they seemed calmer, more regulated, and happier. When they returned to their condo, they seemed to regress, she said. They plan to stay with friends who have a yard in a St. Louis suburb for the summer. “I started to worry about the long-term impact on them,” she said. “In the city, they hold their breath when anyone walks by us. In the suburbs, they were able to relax. They were completely different human beings with a yard.”

Ming Kuo, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Illinois who studies urban greening, said parents, like Shore, have described how their children are “completely different” when they have access to green space. Dr. Kuo’s research has shown that access to green space decreases aggression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder symptoms, and boosts the immune system. But she also was quick to point out an unequal access to green spaces across socioeconomic and racial lines.

“Overall, wealthier areas are much greener with more street trees, more lawns and gardens, and more parks. It also varies by race because of segregationist housing policies,” Dr. Kuo said.

Rebecca Hershberg, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in early childhood social-emotional development and mental health, hopes parents will hold on to some of the lessons they’ve learned during the pandemic about the need for unstructured time and nature as states begin to lift restrictions.

“We now know, not just intellectually but based on recent lived experience, that not all activities are created equal when it comes to enhancing our children’s mood and behavior. Prioritizing time in nature, exercise, and even some unstructured downtime is analogous to prioritizing our children’s mental health, which is more important now than ever.”

In the meantime, Louv, the journalist and author who conceived of the concept nature-deficit disorder, created a list of ways that families could connect with the natural world, including some that don’t require having green space, like setting up a “world-watching window.”

In an interview, he recalled the excitement that many people experienced when they saw nature through windows in cities with shelter-in-place orders. “As we sequestered at home, many of us were fascinated by the apparent return of wild animals to our cities and neighborhoods. Some wildlife did come deeper into cities. But many of these animals were already there, hiding in plain sight.”

For families without their own green space, Dr. Chawla suggested taking some books or art supplies to any little patch of green outside.

“Children are moving all the time, but they also show sustained fascination,” Dr. Chawla said. “Even a tiny bit of green space can be a place to slow down, watch an insect, move some dirt around.”

In reconnecting with nature, Dr. Kuo said activities could take “a variety of forms — a hike in a forest preserve, or fishing or gardening, obviously, but also smaller doses we might not think of: walking in a tree-lined neighborhood, a glimpse of a green view through the window, the scent of roses. Every bit helps.”

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