Fighting the Nature Deficit

Over the Winter Break, we visited my parents in a valley in Western Montana. From their living room, I had a view of farmland turning into forest turning into a mountain range with snow-capped peaks. We saw bald eagles from the kitchen, and there were signs that deer had just crossed through their yard.

This is so much closer to nature than my normal existence in suburban St. Louis.

As I sat in their living room, I read a book given to me by a friend, Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. Louv spends many chapters extolling the benefits that nature provides to children, from anecdotal stories of the calming effect of camping on delinquent teenagers who had never been out of a city to the great number of creative geniuses who apparently wrote about playing in the woods and building tree forts in their autobiographies. He also decries the opposite effects of a lack of nature, from the disappearance of knowledge of natural history in the population to the increase in obesity to what he considers parental overprotection to our much-bemoaned addiction to computer and TV screens.

Louv seems to build a strong case with many stories about families that were improved by walks through the park or schoolkids who didn’t know the basics about the natural world around them, but I couldn’t help but notice that it was a circumstantial and anecdotal case. After all, how many kids came out of the campsite unaffected? How many non-creative non-geniuses of the 19th century spent just as much of their childhoods outside without having the same effect? Does obesity really result from losing touch with nature, or is it just a correlation? I also had problems with his later chapters, in which he promotes going beyond Green Urbanism to complete societal redesign. He lost me even more in his chapter “The Spiritual Necessity of Nature for the Young” – he assumed a lot about God and spirituality that just doesn’t work for me.

Despite those weaknesses that rang my skeptical alarm bells, Louv’s message in the early chapters about children and nature generally rings true to me. My kids don’t get as much screen time as many kids do, but they still don’t play outside much. We have a nice semi-wild woods right behind our house, but I’ve never seen them playing in there, and we’ve never sent them there. We have a good-sized park a couple blocks from our house, but months can go by without a visit. I don’t see the negative psychological effects in my boys that Louv describes affecting the most-nature-deprived kids, but I do see other aspects: the ease of getting bored, the love of TV time, and a lack of understanding of the outdoors. They probably know more about the ancient species described by Dinosaur Train and Aaron’s World (a fantastic kid-driven podcast about dinosaurs and more) than they do about the animals in the woods of Missouri.

Walking near the mountains
Walking near the mountains

I felt this disconnection from the natural and physical world in their generation and mine even more acutely while visiting Montana. My parents’ house is built on land that my grandparents farmed, upon which they built several houses by themselves using stones they found throughout the area. As we drove around the valley, my father pointed out creek after valley in which he brought down elk as a kid; apparently, he rarely ate beef until college because the family instead ate game that they had killed themselves. That meant that they spent days or weeks in the mountains, tracking animals, getting to know the plants, animals, and land intimately. My father and his brothers hiked the mountains extensively, but I can barely tell one mountain from another.

Perhaps I would have maintained a strong connection to the land if I had stayed in Montana – after all, a cousin came by and told stories about hiking and fishing nearly all the mountains and creeks in the area. But I’ve lived in big Midwestern cities or their suburbs since I was 6 – I lost my connection to the cathedral of wilderness in Western Montana and never replaced it in the Midwest. I now work in computer software development and am more comfortable in an office building than in the woods, and I’m happy to come home and look at the laptop screen, the TV, or my smartphone for the evening.

Of course, I can’t necessarily blame my inclination to avoid nature on the move from Montana; I might have ended up the same way had I stayed there, and others from the Midwest found their way to nature more than I did. Either way, though, it’s my responsibility to decide whether and how to try to change things for my kids.

The boys are fortunate that they do not need to rely just on me for this. They also have my wife, J, who is more comfortable outside than I am. She loves to garden, and I can already see that paying dividends with the boys. During spring in particular, they are out in the backyard with J, helping to turn and mulch the dirt and planting seeds that will grow into food that they will eat themselves. Gardening is one of Louv’s suggestions for how parents can help their children, and I’m glad that J took the lead in making that happen. We also have a chicken because of J’s interest in providing our own food, so the boys will get to learn more about how we get our food from animals.

For another of Louv’s suggestions, I took the lead, and I think it could have a big impact on my kids’ appreciation for nature. A few years ago, I realized that they might want to get involved in Cub Scouts, and I objected to the official positions of the Boy Scouts of America regarding non-theists and homosexuals. As a result, I worked with other parents at the Ethical Society of St. Louis to start a chapter of Navigators USA, an inclusive, Humanist alternative to the Boy Scouts.

Ironically, at the time, my goal was not really to improve my boys’ appreciation for the outdoors; it was to make sure that there was an inclusive alternative available to them in case they wanted it. I was acting to reduce my need for ethical compromise, not to teach them skills from my personal experience. After all, as I joked when we started the group, I’m barely qualified to be outside myself, much less to teach skills to children. Fortunately, though, there were other families in the Ethical Society with many years of outdoor experience who were excited to share their enthusiasm and skills in an inclusive structure.

I stumbled into creating a way to ease my children’s nature deficit a couple years before recognizing that it was a problem to address.

But I shouldn’t just rely on my wife to sneak in love of nature through gardening and rely on my fellow leaders of the Ethical Navigators to teach about hiking and trees and nature. I need to put away my screens and participate myself. When I was at my parents’ house in Montana working on the first draft of this post, the boys came up to me and said “Let’s go outside, Daddy!” The temptation was strong to say “Not now”, or “Ask Grandpa.” After all, I was deep in thought, sitting in the warmth of the house in my typical pose between a laptop and a comfortable chair. I had things I wanted to say, and I needed computer time to write them.

“Sure, kids, let’s go. Get your coats and let’s check out the canal. Think we’ll see anything cool?”

Featured Image credit: By the monk of the TrueSchool (Own work) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Other image credit: The author, all rights reserved


Lance is the father of two boys, a software developer, and an occasional world traveler. Now an active member of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, he grew up in an Evangelical Lutheran home in which he took Christianity very seriously. Fortunately, going to college helped him break through to see that he believed because he thought he was supposed to, not because it makes sense. Now he's glad to be more than just a SIWOTI skeptic. @LMFinney

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  1. I have that book on my shelves and have yet to get around to it, but I definitely see dividends in our family outdoor time, be it actual trips to hiking trails, or a day at the zoo, or just ambling about the neighborhood or hanging out in the yard – I am happier and more refreshed (if exhausted), the kids are less crazed, we all eat better and sleep better and are more engaged with our world.

  2. Nature Deficit Disorder? Seriously?
    How is calling it that not another way to shame parents for not living in the perfect place with the perfect amount of money and the perfect amount of time?
    No, my kids don’t get into nature as much as I did. I grew up in the same house as my grandparents who had a vegetable garden. So helping them in the garden was simply the way things were. And especiall my grandpa used to go on walks with us, teaching us a bazillion things about the world we live in.
    No, I don’t have that nice house with a garden and unfortunately my parents are assholes and it makes me really sad that my kids don’t get to experience these things. Oh, and should I mention that they cannot come home at 12 o’clock and get a good homecooked meal with homegrown vegetables like I used to because my grandma really rocked? Nope, they’re in school and daycare until 5pm, although they go outside to play in good weather. I refuse to feel ashamed for this and for giving my kid “nature deficit disorder”.
    What I do, for their benefit as well as mine (yes, I MISS the garden) is “balconing”. We grow strawberries, tomatoes, herbs and flowers in pots, so they can see how things grow.

    1. You’re right, there’s definitely privilege in what I’ve been able to do to respond to this. Thank you for pointing this out. The parts of Louv’s book that seemed the most “out there” to me were the parts that advocated for overall societal changes that would bring these benefits to everyone. Maybe I was just reacting to how hard the changes would be, and maybe I was unconsciously exercising my privilege in not thinking about those parts as necessary. I’ll have to think about that.

      Regarding the use of the word “Disorder”, well, you’d have to take that up with Louv. I don’t know what the definition and demarcation of “Disorder” is, so I can’t defend the use of the term. But I do think that there is benefit to the outdoors, and I hope there’s a way for a book to advocate for that without being classist.

      1. I wasn’t criticizing you with that.
        I think the use of “Disorder” is quite a strong one if we simply look at what other “disorders” we have out there, which are usually clinical terms, like AD(H)D, OCD and all the eating disorders. It’s not a neutral term.
        I most definitly agree that there are benefits to being outdoors, and being “in nature*”, and I think that our societies should work hard to make sure that all children have access to such experiences, by funding and offering field trips and camps for everybody, especially kids who might grow up in a city without access to big parks or small gardens.

        *nature being a rather vague term here as well

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