I first read about Nature Deficit Disorder shortly after my second son was born in 2005. I was living amid an urban circus along I-95 in the D.C. corridor. My sons were babies and not yet able to decide how we spent their time. Sleeping was our singular priority. I read about Richard Louv’s book, “Last Child in the Woods” as I wondered if I would ever get out of the house with two boys under two. Louv coined “Nature Deficit Disorder” in response to concepts he uncovered as a reporter – he’s not a scientist or a doctor. He makes it clear that his idea is “not [a] medical diagnosis, but… a way to describe the price we pay for alienation from the natural world.” Seven years ago Louv wormed his way into my sleep-starved brain. I started hauling my kids outside every day. I pushed my stroller around the Chesapeake Bay in every season and dumped my life-jacketed toddler in the bay at the Piney Point Light House. We played in the dirt and ate grass. I was determined to keep my kids outside.
I hadn’t thought much about Louv’s theories again until this summer. My boys are grade-schoolers now. We get to spend our summers together – lazing about, bickering about chores and bedtimes, running through the sprinklers, and eating watermelon. We left the city when they were still toddlers. Their Wyoming backyard is huge, full of holes perfect for forts and bug collecting. They have the run of the block and are happy to spend their days outside biking and running with the other neighborhood kids. I think Louv would approve.
But this year it is really hot. Our grasslands are burning up and we are growing used to 100 degree days. Summer came early to the mountain west and it drove my family inside to the cool basement – to the T.V. While I’m not willing to stick my kids with an NDD label, there is little doubt that our idyllic summer afternoons are changed by the boob tube. The bickering seems to intensify and there is now a well-worn path to the pantry from the T.V. cupboard in ManLand.
And so like we often do in the summer, we unplugged and drove up the mountain. It is always cooler at 8,000 feet. On a good day a breeze blows through the trees outside my husband’s family cabin. We need sweatshirts and a fire in the evening and the kids run themselves tired every night. It’s a cliché, but life does slow down on the mountain. We sit. We read. We hike. We fish. And sleep is once again a priority.
Richard Louv continues to write about the human connection to nature. His latest book calls on adults to cultivate time outdoors. His claims are big, almost crazy. He cites studies that suggest that “time spent in nature can stimulate intelligence and creativity, and can be powerful therapy for the toxic stress in our lives, and as prevention for such maladies as obesity, myopia, and depression.”
My family is outside because we want to be outside. We go to the mountains to escape the heat and the smoke settling in our valleys. We like to be dirty and to eat trout fresh from the stream. We like to hike until we are tired and zip into a sleeping bag at dark. We spend our free time in the mountains because we are Westerners and we cannot separate ourselves from the giant landscape around us. Louv’s claims seem huge, but my kids do have more energy on the mountain. Maybe it is just the cool air, but it seems there is a chance that being outside is magic. It seems possible that we all need to be outdoors, doesn’t it?