Nature: What Kids and Teens Need

The electronic age is here.

Almost everyone has a cellphone with them 24/7, and computers are everywhere. You’re most likely reading this article on a computer or smart phone right now. Screen time is a reality for almost all of us: many adults sit in front of a computer screen for a majority of their working hours, then come home and relax in front of a television screen during their leisure time. It’s not just adults: the latest report from Common Sense Media showed adolescents age 13-17 spend an average of 6.5 hours per day consuming digital media from computer, television, and telephone screens.

Some quick math brings these numbers home: 6.5 hours a day means over 2000 hours a year. That’s close to 100 days, which is almost one third of an entire year.

This begs the question: are we okay with this?

What are the Consequences?

According to child expert and advocate Richard Louv, one consequence of all this screen time is what he calls Nature Deficit Disorder. Louv first coined the term in his 2005 book “The Last Child in the Woods” to describe an unwanted side-effect of the electronic age: kids simply don’t get enough nature in their lives.

Disclaimer: Nature Deficit Disorder is not a medical diagnosis.

It’s a somewhat cheeky description a phenomenon we see with kids in the information age. Being connected to some form of electronic media – in the opinion of Richard Louv – means they’re disconnected from both the outside world and other people. While some kids adapt to this deficit, others might react by showing signs of agitation, frustration, and anxiety.

What Can be Done?

There’s a simple fix: nature itself, and plenty of outdoor time. In his book and on his website, Louv recommends countless activities for parents and kids to do together. The following suggestions are based on his ideas, and are do-able for just about any family:

  • Go for a walk or take a hike. This goes for teenagers, too: they may complain, but tell them it’s a new family tradition. If your kids are young, make your walks or hikes short. If you have infants or toddlers, start a walking club of parents with kids in strollers. Have fun and be adventurous explorers in your own neighborhood.
  • Do some of the outdoor activities you remember from childhood. In summer, catch lightning bugs and keep them in jars – just be sure to release them after a while. Collect leaves and press them between sheets of wax paper with an iron. Find a creek hunt for crawdads – turn over flat rocks until you see a tiny lobster-looking critter – that’s a crawdad.
  • Get an old piece of wood and lay it face down on a bare patch of ground. Return after a day or two, and see how many species of insect have taken up residence. If you’re so motivated, try to identify them with the help of an insect field guide.
  • Raise butterflies. The Chicago Wilderness website is a great resource and offers how-to instructions.
  • Start your own garden. Kids of all ages love digging in the dirt, planting seeds, and watching things grow. It’s a great chance to get dirty, and accomplish something while you’re at it. If you live in the city, a deck, porch or stoop is big enough for potted plants, and even some vegetables. Small herb gardens can do particularly well in small outdoor spaces.
  • Make “Green Time” part of your family routine. This simply means time spent outside, with no structure at all – walking in the woods in a park, playing in a creek, climbing trees – the idea is for children to have regular, direct contact with nature on a daily basis.
  • Become a cloud watcher – again. All you need is some time, and the sky – even a view out the window will work.

Screen Time to Green Time: Take 5 Minutes and Get Started Today

Both parents and teens alike can learn to view nature as a cure for the stress of the modern world. A simple walk in the woods has the potential to alleviate the cumulative hours of stress and anxiety which can build up as a result of sitting in traffic for too long or spending all day cooped up in an office or a school building.

The hardest part of making the shift from screen time to nature/outdoor time is taking the first step. Every family has its particular routines, and while prying children away from their favorite TV shows or computer games might not be easy, it will be well worth the effort it requires. Even if you start with something as quick and easy as taking a piece of scrap wood and placing it on some bare dirt, as in suggestion (3) above, it doesn’t matter: what matters is just doing it.

And one last thing: teenagers – once you get them out there – love doing activities like the ones we list above. As a parent, you may think these things have little chance of success. However, give them a chance, and you may be surprised.