Guest post by Doris Settles

“What could our lives and our children’s lives be like if our days and nights were as immersed in nature as they are in technology?”—Richard Louv

I spent my childhood catching crawdads in the creek behind our house, harvesting tomatoes on my grandparents’ farm, tending flowers in my grandmother’s back yard, riding my bike aimlessly around the neighborhood, and  playing softball or kick-the-can in a nearby vacant lot. My early years were spent primarily outside in a small town in Central Kentucky. My children’s were too—only not as much. This next generation spent even less time outside.

More and more of us are spending longer periods of time indoors with our routers. Richard Louv diagnosed this situation as Nature Deficiency Disorder in 2005 with his book No Child Left Inside, and directly links the lack of nature in the lives of the wired generations to disturbing childhood trends, including rises in obesity, attention disorders, violent behavior, depression, and suicide.

Our increasingly litigious society has manufactured “safe play spaces.” Tighter work/school schedules mean we drive more than walk. Children have moved from unstructured play to highly structured “team” play. And there is a growing sense of Biophobia, a fear of inherent danger in natural settings. At a recent Home Owner’s Association meeting about applying for a city grant to replant the entrance with natives, a neighbor stated, “We’ve got way too much wildlife and bugs already!”

Noted wildlife artist and conservationist Robert Bateman observes, “if you can’t name things, how can you love them? And if you don’t love them, then you’re not going to care a hoot about protecting them or voting for issues that would protect them.”

Things may be changing. The recent pandemic shutdown has had a very positive effect on these trends. Events have moved outdoors to reduce virus transmission. Schedules have opened up providing greater opportunity for outdoor activity. In a 2020 survey from Gallup, nearly half of all U.S. adults said they’d prefer to live in a small town or rural area. That’s a nine percent increase over 2018.

But it’s all about the children, for they will forge our futures. Numerous studies have identified environmentally-integrated learning (especially the use of outdoor classrooms) as beneficial to academic achievement and student engagement, among other factors. Children experience the natural world in different ways as they mature. From 2–7, young children are developing empathy for the the plants and animals that surround them. Caring for and respecting plants and wildlife boundaries through petting zoos, pets, and growing a garden develops that empathy and understanding. Interestingly, studies of children younger than 6 done by Acuff and Patterson reveal that as many as 90% of their dreams are about animals. This is the age that we need to encourage live animal contact and physical gardening activities where possible.

At this age, early interactions with pets and personal gardens encourage empathy to other living beings and responsibility for all living things.

Children 8–12 are in the “bonding with the earth stage” of development. Wild and semi-wild areas of the surrounding community are the stage for crucial explorations. This is the age for hunting and gathering, searching for treasures, following where streams lead, and creating imaginary worlds in imaginary places.

At 13–18, teens develop their senses of self and place and have greater potential to experience their role in their society and see measurable outcomes from their efforts. Engagement in school environmental clubs, gardening organizations, wildlife and nature organizations such as Sierra Club, Junior Master Gardeners and the like encourages these feelings of potential.

Even for adults, there are still ways we can short-circuit the route our lives have taken. Once a week, take a technology sabbatical—just pick a day and don’t connect with technology. Go outside, take a walk, or  take to the woods for some quiet forest bathing. Turn off the tech an hour before you go to bed, and don’t sleep with your phone or ipad next to your pillow.

Nature Deficit Disorder is a curable condition, but it takes conscious action to administer the remedy.

Avid gardener Doris Settles lives in Lexington, Kentucky, and is the author of five books. The latest, Leira Clara’s Flowers, is a picture book about a little girl who learns to love gardening from her grandmother. As an early adopter of technology, Settles has spent over a decade working with the Kentucky Attorney General’s office developing and implementing internet safety and cyber bullying programming for schools, educators, and mental health professionals.

Editor’s note: The photos in this post are from the Fairy House Festival, held yearly at Artpark in Lewiston, NY.