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Could our kids have 'Nature-Deficit Disorder?'

On open space in a wired-world.
Could our kids have 'Nature-Deficit Disorder?'
By Jeanne K. Hanson

(Note: The writer has given us permission to post the following commentary which appeared in Sun Current and Sun Sailor newspapers on December 8, 2005)

"I like to play indoors better, because that is where all the electrical outlets are."

This quote, from an anonymous, fully wired child is in the new book, "Last Child in the Woods, Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" by Richard Louv, a California journalist.

The book is not diagnosing a new neurological condition, rather it is positing a problem, reporting research on how natural experiences actually help kids with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, and suggesting solutions. It is both a challenging and practical book.

The problem? We've separated ourselves from nature, according to the author. For example, no longer do we need to think about where our food comes from. We live in places where kids can't even build tree houses, because it is too dangerous or actually against the rules.

Summer camps now often focus on computers or on one sport, instead of nature study. And when we do ponder nature, it is often on far away topics, such as saving the rain forest or the whale. The escape from urban and suburban daily life is not a walk in the woods - it is something like drugs.

Attempting to explain rather than blame, Louv cites several reasons for our kids' "semi-divorce" from nature. The first is the enticing, distracting array of electronic amusements.

Even the excellence of nature television and movies contribute, persuading us that experiences with nature should be dramatic, fast-paced, action-oriented.

A stroll through the natural area of Lake Cornelia in Edina can seem dull, initially, if one is accustomed to seeing 100-mile penguin marches or lions attacking bleeding gazelles.

The proliferation of organized sports, another key factor here, eats up outdoor hours and, though beneficial in many ways, is not the same as a linkage with nature.

Parental fears also distance kids from nature. Will they be paralyzed for life by falling out of a tree, or kidnapped by a stranger in the park? Even air-conditioning, according to the author, has pulled us away from nature. And behind all these reasons is the fact that we live in an urbanized society in which nature is almost invisible.

Probably the newest part of the book is the research-based information on the ways experiences with nature can improve attention-deficit disorder in kids.

At first, this may sound preposterous. But ponder: our species evolved by both living in nature passively and also paying active attention to it. Without a key linkage to nature, a "cave person" wouldn't have lasted long. Our brains haven't completely adapted to today's new incessant artificial distractions.

The first stage of this research is older, focusing on the health values of pets, gardening, even views of nature outside of hospital windows - and on the association of lots of TV watching in preschoolers with the development of ADHD later.

The newer research, (conducted at the University of Michigan, Uppsala University in Sweden, New York State University and the University of Illinois) involves four teams of researchers. One study makes the distinction between "directed-attention fatigue," which can occur at school or in playing video games, and the kind of holistic attention that moves towards fascination. The latter kind of attention, when in nature, rests the brain for the former.

Another research probe found that both proofreading skills - a plausible measure of how well subjects could come to pay directed attention - and positive emotions improved after a 40-minute walk in a nature preserve. The studies typically controlled for the fact that nice settings are available more readily to more prosperous people.

This "nature therapy" doesn't have to include experiences in the wilderness, or even long hikes in a large urban area park, or certainly a "green" day care center set in a planted orchard, through those did prove therapeutic, too.

Simply reading in a grassy yard or on an outdoor bench, walking for 20 minutes in a small park, or having views of greenery outside a window all help a lot.

Anything with trees and grass seemed to control ADHD.

Edina author Jeanne K. Hanson talks about nature on MPR and volunteers with the Edina Conservation League. She can be reached at jkhlit@aol.com.

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