Modern life is making children ill... and nature is the cure

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It was back in 2005 that the phrase was first coined.

In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv came to the conclusion that society was suffering from what he called Nature Deficit Disorder.

Our lack of contact with the natural world, he went on, was responsible for diminished use of the senses, short attention spans and increasing rates of physical and emotional illness.

Over the past seven years, Louv’s theory has gathered steam and have recently been embraced by the National Trust.

“Nature Deficit Disorder may not be a recognised medical condition, but it is nevertheless useful shorthand for the situation we currently face,” said the organisation’s outgoing director general Fiona Reynolds.

Children are missing out on the pure joy of connection with the natural world and as adults they lack an understanding of the importance of nature to human society.

“If we do not reverse this trend towards a sedentary, indoor childhood – and soon – we risk storing up social, medical and environmental problems for the future.”

In recent years many have blamed the problem on the rise of technology and have also concluded that it’s less of an issue for middleclass families than those living on the breadline. However, while according to the National Trust, both arguments have merit, it is in fact a much wider issue.

“The problem is more pronounced in low-income urban areas and when asked why they do not go out and explore the natural world, computer games and television are on the list of reasons children offer,” says Reynolds.

“However, this is not the end of the story. While nature does have more competition for the attention of today’s children there is significant evidence that they would really like to spend more time outdoors.

“We must dig deeper and look at issues such as traffic and stranger danger and the resulting modern phenomenon of helicopter parents, who watch and direct their children’s every move.

“The debate has already generated a lot of heat, but in some ways little has been achieved. We may all agree that something needs to be done, but there has been a conspicuous lack of action to reverse the trend and reconnect our children with nature.”

In the wake of the National Trust’s research and countless similar reports, Natural England has now launched its own project, which it hopes will increase access and knowledge of the world around us.

The organisation has set out to map 159 areas across the country, plotting natural features and vegetation, along with existing buildings and settlements. Eventually each will be accompanied by a detailed profile of the area which the public can access through Natural England’s website.

“Making the most of local enthusiasm and expertise is fundamental to looking after England’s landscapes,” says Jim Smyllie, the organisation’s executive director for people, biodiversity and landscape. “The profiles will not only show the natural benefits which each are supports, but will also identify how the landscape can be enhanced in the future.

“It’s hoped that this information will help people shape their vision for the environment and enable local communities to make informed decisions when it comes to planning, developing and conservation.”

Five full profiles, including Humberhead Levels and the Southern Pennines, have so far been completed and it is hoped the rest will be online later this year.

Alongside its work on National Character Areas, Natural England is also targeting schools, many in deprived areas, in the hope of increasing access to the countryside.

“Research has shown that the likelihood of children visiting local green space has fallen, with just 10 per cent of children playing in natural environments compared to 40 per cent of adults when they were young,” says Sue Waite, who is leading the Natural Connections Project.

“The roaming range from children’s homes has also shrunk by 90 per cent in 20 years. This is likely to be contributing to some of the major challenges facing society today from childhood obesity, mental health and the lack of a sense of place and community.

“We have to ensure that this generation does not become the first to grow up with the benefits an appreciation of the natural world can bring.”