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August 2, 2007 | 8 Comments

Dear Garrison,
Recently, I read a newspaper article that described a wired generation of young people who are out of touch with nature. If I recall correctly, a disease name was coined for them. These young ones suffered from "nature deficit disorder."

In thinking about this, I realized that we have neighbors with 2 children ... one in middle school and the other in elementary school. I never see these kids outside. I'm outside a lot ... gardening, mowing, walking our dog 4 miles a day, reading on the deck in the evening, etc. During all this time outside, I never see these kids or any other kids that live in our area. I only see other dog walkers, serious bikers (the spandex crowd) and serious runners ... none of them kids or teens. We live in almost a rural area. You live in a large city (not as big as Minneapolis but still big). What do you see happening i n St. Paul? Do you think "nature deficit disorder" might be a real problem now and in the future?


Marilyn S.
Eau Claire, WI

In St. Paul, Marilyn, I see a lot of empty parks and playgrounds, which seems to bear out your concern. I suppose that kids of working families are in some sort of day care, and that older kids spend a good deal of time online or playing video games, but I don't know about this first hand. My kid loves to be outdoors, shooting baskets in the driveway, swinging, and for three hours a day, or four if she can swing it, she loves to be in a big swimming pool with other kids, paddling around and jibber-jabbering with other little girls and showing off on the diving board. But she has a full-time mother who wouldn't allow her to camp indoors. My hunch is that parents have grown more paranoid over the years and don't feel easy about letting kids run free as you and I ran free when we were kids. I used to play in a wooded ravine with other boys going back to when I was six a nd seven and it was out of our parents' sight and, I think, out of mind too. My mother was worried about drowning and warned us not to go near the river, which we did all the time anyway, but with caution. I don't recall hearing stories about children being abducted or abused by marauding strangers, as we hear nowadays, stories that prey on people's minds and maybe make them over-protective. We can't lock them in a castle tower. Life without risk is not a healthy life.


Yes, I have noticed for years the changes in the way children are reared, ranging from their lack of freedom ( I grew up in a very small town in Ohio, and some of my best memories have to do with rotten eggs and tomatoes, hard green apples, hay mows in summer and frozen creeks in winter) to the misguided inculcation of "self-esteem" and the lack of simple safety precautions when dealing with the physical world--this lastalso indicating an ignorance of the natural world that is saddening....

Yes, parents ARE more paranoid these days, and for good reason. Pick up a paper on occasion and you'll see the abductions. My daughter is 7 and the only way I'll let her play outside is if I or one of the neighbor's parents is watching - constantly. And we live in a quiet suburban neighborhood. But my daughter is very trusting of strangers, and no amount of words will convince her that the friendly man looking for his dog is may be out to harm her. (The Megan's Law noticed inform me that we have many high risk and moderate offenders living in our neighborhood). So she goes out whenever I can find time to be out there with her. But I have things to do that have to be done inside the house, so I can't be out there as often as she wants to be. It's not the kids nor their parents, it's the laws that don't keep the creeps behind bars, and the laws that blame the parents for neglecting their child if something happens to them. Paranoid? Perhaps. Realistic? Yes. You'll see my daughter in the fresh air, in spandex, but only in an organized game with plenty of trusted adults around.

Bozena, you only prove my point. Children need to acquire street smarts, as well as a sensitivity to the natural world ( do YOU know what I mean by that?)and COMMON SENSE. Regards, Jean

It's silly to suggest that any amount of "street smarts," "common sense" or knowledge of the natural world would protect a child from a determined predator-- and who would be willing to risk their child to prove it? I grew up in the country on a small farm, and spent loads of time outside, roaming the pasture and the woods. I did not fall into the river or out of a tree, although I did fly forward off of a sled once and smash my head into a stump, and I was torn up by many a blackberry bush. Anyway. I think it's important to note that I spent that time on our fenced property, and I spent it with two siblings and a dog. I live in the country now, too, and my first child is a year old. Until he is old enough to have not only common sense and street smarts but also the safety that numbers provide, he will not be running around outside unattended.

'Nature deficit disorder' I never heard it put that way and love it. Thanks for bringing the phrase into my lexicon. It encapsulates all at once most of my recent life's effort. I run a store that is chock-a-block full of Fossils, seashells, Minerals, and etc. I often find myself standing with a child, having prolonged and interesting conversations about these and many other things,r.e., Nature, though I must admit, not as often in the last few years as I did 5-6-10 year ago.

Yesterday I worked very hard to get a father to agree to let his 6 year old kid out of the stroller. Seeing the child was very intelligent, I made a contract with him that he could touch anything except the glass and china.
He agreed. I directed him to the friction cars, the kinds you pull back and then let go, and they run. He couldn't get it. Now, I've noticed over the years that what's interesting about friction cars is that they teach a motor skill and a form of logic, and that the age is about 3 or 4 years old. He and I had had a conversation while he was in the stroller about his outfit. I had complimented it and he proceeded to show me his shoes because I missed complimenting him on those.
I then commented that they must be great for running. "No" he said, "I don't run (in them)"

So, the point of all this is simply, that I don't believe it's just a 'nature deficit'that's affecting the children, and I don't believe that this child is one of a kind, but rather an example of many children. 3 years behind in a simple motor skill, and doesn't run in his fancy sports shoes, but he's bright enough to make and keep a contract with me.

Parental fear and worry, pehaps. But, I suspect more, it's connected to a somewhat overwhelming everyday work load on the parents who then find that it is less work in an already overcrowed work day to simpply tie the children up(so to speak)


I'm with you on the dangers of paying too much attention to stories we hear in the media and overprotecting our children. When I was a student at university, there were times when I had to bring my daughters to campus with me. They didn't like to stay cooped up all the time, so I let them go to the student union and play 318 pinball on the machines for a while. Then they liked to go to a garden with Respighi fountains. I told them to stay together, and that way they would be safe. Just a few months ago, my younger daughter confided in me, "You know, Mom, all the time you thought we were together in the park? My sister liked to go over to the grad student's dorm and watch TV while I played in the fountains alone. Nobody ever bothered me, and you never caught on!" People often noted how independent and self-assured my girls were, compared with most teenagers. I think part of that might have been because I trusted them to be on their own.

I grew up in the 50s and 60s and our parents warned us plenty about abduction etc., and it did happen in those days too, probably just as much a it does now, which is to say, not very often -- but with 24-hour cable news we hear about not onl the tragedies that happen where we live but also every single tragedy that happens anywhere. It warps the perception. Still, what parent could forgive him- or herself if it happened to your child? And yet you have to find a way to let go, also.

My kids played outside unsupervised, and rode their bikes, and took the city bus -- gradually expanding their world as they grew. They all say they had more freedom and responsibility than many of their peers, and I think they're better for it.

And an awful lot of the more hideous kinds of child abuse happen at home, at the hands of uncles and stepfathers and such, anyway.

You need to read the book "Last Child in the Woods" by Richard Louv. It is all about the idea of nature deficit disorder and our general over-protection of our kids.

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