childhood nature deficit disorder, and how to combat it

new year, new me

Having been ‘in’ education most of my life, I always relished the opportunity to have two ‘new years’; January and September were both chances to make resolutions, set intentions and buy new stationery. Well September has fallen off my radar these days, so January has been a big one this year in terms of life admin, planning and generally sorting out my s**t. Firstly, I did my taxes, myself! Honestly, as someone who’s always considered myself rubbish at maths and financially illiterate, I could not be more proud. And, I absolutely loved it; literally accounting for everything, picking through the minutiae of my life. It was also hugely helpful for the forward planning which came next; what to prioritise this year, what works, what pays off etc. Which then led to some intense brainstorming, list writing and intention setting. And a massive pile of reading to enjoy; for fun, for research and for inspiration because one of my resolutions for 2019 is to write a book! Jeez, I’ve said it now. Ok, to start writing a book. Eek! Ok, more on that later.

my new year reading pile

my new year reading pile

last child in the woods?

Anyway, I’ve started by reading ‘Last Child in the Woods’ by Richard Louv; a book which examines the decline of free outdoor play and nature experiences amongst American youth, and draws a link between this and the rise of fear, litigation and screen-time, as well as urban expansion and less than thoughtful city planning. Louv postulates that the dramatic recent increase in the diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in the USA could be better termed ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’, since it seems to be exacerbated by screen time and countless studies show that exposure to nature can reduce the symptoms of the condition, leading to better mood, less frustration, more focused attention, better cognition and clearer thinking. He also suggests that Separation Anxiety Disorder is on the rise in American partly due to the most fundamental separation of our age; disconnection from nature.

Furthermore, Louv reports a study by Cornell University where it was found that the psychological distress of ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences: abuse; neglect; parental substance abuse, imprisonment, mental ill-health or violence) is mitigated by exposure to nature, and that the presence of nature near the home is most protective for the most vulnerable children. Lower levels of anxiety and depression and higher ratings of resilience and self-worth were reported.

These are great claims. And although I found the book annoyingly high on random anecdote, and very American (with chapters devoted to the importance of hunting and fishing in childhood!), I found myself scribbling notes in the margins and underlining lots of key passages. There’s also a list of ‘100 actions we can take’ in the back of the book, which I loved. And there are parts which I read as a call to arms for my generation, so that we can ensure we were not the ‘last child in the woods’.

generation x

Louv states that a bracket of GenXers and Millennials, people born between, say, the late 70s and mid 90s (i.e. me and the vast majority of my friends, co-workers and close acquaintances) although living a technologically advanced and possibly de-natured adulthood, had a childhood or adolescence where they still played outside, built bases in the woods and went camping with friends, all activities that their Baby Boomer parents took for granted, and which Gen Z kids (born post-2000) rarely experience. Witness the 50% decline in the number of children aged 9-12 who spend time hiking, walking, fishing or playing on the beach between 1997-2003. Or the fact that 71% of today’s mothers say they recall playing outside every day as kids, but only 26% report that their own kids play outside every day. The shift is recent and marked.

And my generation is particularly well-placed for noticing this decline of nature time, because we are aware of what is at stake; looking back to our own rose-tinted childhoods, whilst fluent in the technologies which govern our adult lives, we can see the inter-generational difference in recreational pursuits and the likely connection to poor mental health amongst the young people we parent, teach and support. Articles such as this draw the same link and urge GenX parents to “let go” in order to let their kids develop into healthy adolescence.

meadow memories

A psychologist mentioned in Louv’s book uses the charming term “meadow memories” to describe the times when he consciously returns in his mind to a childhood experience of solace and peace in nature as a way of holding off a slide into depression. Louv also quotes Edith Cobb’s ‘The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood’, in which she argues that creativity in adulthood comes from the “experience of emerging … into a living sense of kinship with the outer world”. She hypothesises that these “memories of awakening to the existence of potential” are often as a result of “an acute sensory response to the natural world”, which she locates as taking place primarily in the middle years of childhood.

This chimes explicitly with what Wordsworth explains in his “Prelude” and describes in his poem “Tintern Abbey” (which I have written about previously, here); texts central to the Romantic movement, and which were personally pivotal to my career change from English Literature teacher to wilderness therapy facilitator, linking as they do landscape and nature immersion to improved state of mind and good health.

Tintern Abbey, with nature stealing the show

Tintern Abbey, with nature stealing the show

In ‘The Prelude’, Wordsworth describes himself as “bred up in Nature’s lap” and elaborates:

                “A child, I held unconscious intercourse

                With the eternal beauty, drinking in

                A pure organic pleasure from the lines

                Of curling mist”


                The earth

                And common face of Nature spake to me”

In explaining the impact of the adult recollection of such childhood experiences in nature, Wordsworth writes:

                “Those recollected hours that have the charm

                Of visionary things … that throw back our life

                And almost make our infancy itself

                A visible scene on which the sun is shining”

He believes that his immersion in natural forms as a child was pivotal to his adult poetic sensibility, as well as being sufficient to protect him from later melancholy. He says that when we are “depressed by trivial occupations … our minds are nourished [by] spots of time which … retain a fructifying virtue”, meaning certain moments in our past which are still potent and beneficial. And “such moments … take their date in our first childhood”.


I’m not sure what ages Cobb defines as belonging to ‘middle childhood’, nor what Wordsworth means by ‘first childhood’, but what’s important is that both define the crucial experiences as being free and sensually rich, with features of spaciousness, fascination and discovery. A crocodile-line march to the playground won’t do it; for good mental health, creativity and sustained powers of attention, children need exposure to nature that is self-directed, unfettered and loose; “dreamtime” Louv calls it. However, it is important to note that this exposure is actually more beneficial if it is local, daily and unstructured. Letting your child walk to school alone and kick about in the leaves or splash in the puddles every day is more beneficial than a once-a-year activity-packed holiday to a picturesque national park. It is pointed out that children actually prefer the unstructured ‘wildernesses’ at the edges of the neat parks and safe playgrounds councils lay out for them. Give a kid a leaf-filled ditch, a manky pond, a row of gnarled bushes and time to play, without adult supervision, and they will find the imagination, resilience and sense of calm we are so desperate to instill.

The phrase ‘dreamtime’, and Cobb’s description of a childhood moment of “awakening to the existence of potential” resonate powerfully with me. So I set myself the delightful task, waiting for sleep to come one night last week, of consciously recalling, in chronological order if possible, all my unstructured, unsupervised Nature Immersion Childhood Experiences, NICEs, if you will, in order to create my own bank of “meadow memories” upon which to rely in times of need, or in which to revel in times of joyful plenty. And my goodness what a joy it was simply to recollect them. Wordsworth was right!


So please indulge me as I offer you this list. Not to show off, but simply to share, and possibly as an inspiration to start your own list.

  • Playing with my imaginary friends, a herd of deer-like creatures with antlers and a hump, which I called ‘hornrushers’ and believed lived in the bulrushes at the park, or amongst the beech trees at the bottom of our garden. I called them, they came, we galloped. That is all. (3)

  • Peeking through a gap in the fence to see our neighbour’s ducklings. (4)

  • Looking in detail at a starling feather and noticing how multicoloured and shimmery it was. (5)

  • Finding a thrush’s egg and being entranced by its beautiful colour and disgusting smell. (5)

  • Tramping in our wellies at the source of a freshwater stream and collecting the shrimps in jam-jars. (5)

  • Playing in the tree house my dad built in the back garden. It had a window and everything! (5-7)

  • Deciding that primroses were my favourite flower. (6)

  • Damming the stream on the common with rocks and wading in the deep water. (6)

  • Making mud pies and rose petal ‘perfume’ for my mum. (6)

  • Getting properly lost in the woods. This was with my mum, but it was really intense; we were lost for hours and she was crying. I suggested we head towards the sound of traffic, and we walked miles back home along the road. (6)

  • Finding and ‘rescuing’ a tiny frog from the swamp in the woods and bringing him home to live in a shoebox in the shed. Toby died a few days later. (7)

  • Weeing in the garden one boiling hot summer’s day. (7)

  • Making a base in a corrugated steel container at the bottom of the garden and staying out in it all day. (7)

  • Sleeping in a tent in the garden with friends. (7)

  • Going out in the garden at night with my brother to run barefoot races. I remember feeling how much faster I could run at night! (7)

  • Going to the field near our house on my own and spinning until I fell over. (7)

  • Clearing out the mud and creepy crawlies from a tunnel in the woods so that we could crawl through. (8)

  • Making a base in a stand of rhododendron bushes for an intense game of forty-forty. (8)

  • Loving the sharp hot smell of pine trees on a camping holiday in France. (8)

  • Playing on a rope swing in the woods. (8)

  • Sleeping overnight in the haybarn at my uncle’s farm and getting scared by what I thought was a bat in my hair, which turned out to be a beetle. (9)

  • Riding our bikes on a BMX track near our house and going home bleeding profusely. (9)

  • Going outside in a torrential thunderstorm to dance in the rain. (9)

  • Noticing the delicious watery smell caused by brushing through the tall grasses near the stream on my uncle’s farm. (9)

  • Going sledging in the snow on the common with friends. (10)

  • Cycling to the heath with friends and climbing the adventure playground successfully on our own. (10)

  • Watching a squirrel bury his nuts and digging them up myself later to confuse him. (10)

  • Falling asleep on a lilo on the sea and drifting out past the bay. I woke up and had to swim what felt like miles back. (10)

  • Walking on the heath with a friend and knowing it was the first warm day of summer. (10)

  • Sneaking out at midnight at a sleepover to go hedgehog hunting along the lane armed with letter-openers. We found a hedgehog and my discovery was they run really fast! (11)

  • Swimming in a stream on Dartmoor with my brother and developing a series of daring rock slides which deposited me on top of a dead sheep. (11)

  • Going mud sliding in the creeks of the salt marshes in the summer with a friend. (12)

  • Washing my hair in a waterfall on a Scottish wilderness camp. (12)

  • Surviving a 24hr survival on the same camp, alone on an uninhabited island, having to source my own food and water. I was very hungry. (12)

  • Scrambling over tidal defence boulders on the beach. (12)

  • Going early morning swimming in the sea before breakfast in the summer term. (13)

  • Swimming out of our depth with a friend and having to save her from drowning. (13)

  • Sleeping in a bothy hut with friends in the Peak District. (14)

  • Being allowed to explore a section of a river on our own on a geography field trip. (15)

  • Leaning fully into the wind at the top of a waterfall, which was being blown backwards. (16)

me instilling a wonder of nature (lol) in my infant god-daughter

me instilling a wonder of nature (lol) in my infant god-daughter


I’m sure there are lots of others I’ve missed off, and it is telling to see how the number of experiences declines as I entered adolescence. My time was so much more structured then; trips were school-organised and outings carefully scheduled in between homework and hobbies. And of course I was busy being a grumpy teenager. Actually, I was depressed. Hmmm, I wonder if that correlation might be causation; fewer NICEs = lower mental health? Louv would say so.

I still try to have moments of loose joy in nature now, but it’s harder to feel really free and wondrous as an adult, when even the biscuity smell of gorse and the silken folding of waves on the shore have become known and humdrum. A walk is often time to plan, make lists, think through the day rather than to notice and surrender with abandon. But it’s so lovely when it happens. On holiday last year I was sitting on the front of a speedboat thrumming back to shore and I realised that all of my senses were being intensely stimulated at once. I took the time to body scan and notice the taste of salt on my lips, the prickly heat of sun on my skin, the loud noise of the engine in my ears, the bright light behind my closed eyelids and the briny smell of fish and salt and petrol. I wasn’t exactly un-fettered, being trapped on a boat, but it did make me feel euphoric. And whilst writing this evening, I opened the front door to see the moon and it was so big and yellow I gasped. I’m glad to know I’ve still got it.


So, if you have kids, please, let them have their dreamtime in nature. Let them play and discover their own wildernesses right here at home. Let them discover dirt, get hurt, get lost, just a little. Because that’s the only way they’re going to find themselves.

And for yourself, as we know from Wordsworth, the recollection of positive experiences in nature as a child can lead to a “serene and blessed mood” as an adult. So sit back with a cuppa and recall your way to mental well-being. Certainly beats actually going for a walk in this cold weather!

Please comment below with your own NICEs. I’d love to read them.