It’s a phrase coined by US author Richard Louv in his groundbreaking 2005 book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-deficit Disorder and refers to the collection of physical, mental, emotional and behavioural disorders that can occur, in adults as well as children, as a consequence of a lifestyle that keeps people away from contact with the natural world.
The consequences of a childhood spent indoors, in front of computer screens and away from nature are now being recognised on this side of the Atlantic as well. The National Trust commissioned naturalist, author and TV producer Stephen Moss to gather together all the evidence surrounding the issue of the disconnection of children from nature and the result is the Natural Childhood report, published in March 2012.
The report found that the main barriers to children having access to nature included the culture of health and safety and risk aversion, including the reluctance of parents to let their children play outside. The dramatic growth in alternative, sedentary, pastimes and forms of entertainment and the lack of opportunities a crowded curriculum for schools to provide appropriate education and experiences for children were also to blame.
The consequences of this decline in outdoor activity predictably include physical health problems such as obesity and also mental and emotional health issues such as depression. There is a lot of compelling evidence around the positive impact of access to nature and green spaces on health and the ability to recover from illness – hospital patients who can see trees from their beds have been shown to get better quicker than those with only a blank wall to look at.
Of perhaps greater concern from a business perspective are the consequences of Nature Deficit Disorder for the development of important life skills such as creative visualisation and the ability to assess risks and select appropriate courses of action in complex situations. We read a lot in the media about business leaders complaining that school leavers and graduates cannot do mental arithmetic or write grammatically. Should they instead be concerned about the effect that a lack of exposure to the natural environment in childhood has had on these employees’ planning, problem solving and leadership abilities?
Could it be that the proponents of those much-derided, mud-spattered corporate “team building” activity days were right all along? Possibly not: the report suggests that unstructured experiences that require children to plan ahead and devise their own approaches to different situations are of the greatest value and that organised activities such as outdoor sports do not provide as many benefits, over and above the physical ones, as apparently aimless and unstructured play. Indeed, the author warns of the dangers of over-organising and over-packaging the countryside experience:
‘We should also be wary of the tendency to turn every encounter with nature into some kind of ‘interactive experience’. Nature reserves were once indistinguishable from the wider countryside; today they have so many signs, exhibits and organised activities that many visitors may never actually get to look at the wildlife they have come to see.’
So, whilst regular outdoor activity is certainly good for improving the physical health of your people and increases their ability to handles stress and avoid depression, if you want to ensure that your business contains innovators and problem-solvers, you should be questioning potential new recruits at interview less about their GCSE, A-level and Higher Education achievements and more about how much time they have spent bird-watching, pond-dipping and just messing about outdoors.
More about the Nature Deficit Disorder
“Last Child in the Woods” shows how our children have become increasingly alienated and distant from nature, why this matters, and what we can do to make a difference. It is unsentimental, rigorous and utterly original. Camping in the garden, riding bikes through the woods, climbing trees, collecting bugs, picking wildflowers, running through piles of autumn leaves…These are the things childhood memories are made of. But for a whole generation of today’s children the pleasures of a free-range childhood are missing, and their indoor habits contribute to epidemic obesity, attention-deficit disorder, isolation and childhood depression.
Peter Tyldesley is a Chartered Surveyor and former Director of Countryside & Land Management at the Brecon Beacons National Park Authority. He currently runs the Bradgate Park & Swithland Wood Charity, which owns and manages Bradgate Park in Leicestershire. As well as running the 500-hectare estate as a visitor attraction, the Charity’s aims include educating the public in the appreciation and care of the environment. Peter is a trained coach and mentor with a passion for re-connecting people with the natural world.