Is Nature a Part of the Past? ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ and a Declining Connection to the Outdoors

The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small-scale, in our own gardens. If only 10 percent of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter.” 

~Bill Mollison, Founder of Permaculture

Who are our gardeners and small-scale farmers that will produce for us all in the near future? Surely they must be the up and coming generations of children and young people. Surely we have made connection to nature, environmental stewardship, gardening and farming a priority by modelling such behavior and instilling a deep empathy for the planet – by electing politicians whose policies and economic strategy directly reflect this priority.

According to a 2012 report on ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ by the National Trust (UK) and the ParticipACTION 2015 Report Card (Canada), our future generations of children and young people no longer go outside to play. They have limited knowledge of where much of our food comes from or how to grow it. According to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, published in 2005:

“For a new generation, nature is more abstraction than reality. Increasingly, nature is something to watch, to consume, to wear – to ignore.” 

To  be clear, this is no armchair critique of modernity and technology or a comment on parenting. Parents are scolded, ‘shoulded’ and shamed far too much. It is about the current state of our meager coexistence with nature. We care for the things we are connected to and easily ignore those we are not.



The National Trust (UK) report presented evidence for “Nature Deficit Disorder‘. It is not found in any diagnostic manual. Rather, it is a descriptive term for the phenomenon of severely limiting children’s ability to play outdoors.  They discuss the physical, mental, educational, economic and environmental consequences of not allowing children to make this crucial connection with nature. This report is an eye-opening read about the state children in Britain and a must read.

“Nature Deficit Disorder describes the human cost of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illness.” ~Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods

A variety of reasons for this phenomenon are discussed in the report.  In the UK, children spend an average of 2.5 hours in front of a screen 7 days a week. In North America, children ages 2-5 years of age spend an average of 32 hours in front of a screen per week – 4.5 hours per day. Children ages 6-11 years spend about 28 hours per week in front of a screen. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Simply typing ‘kids playing outside’ into a search engine gives a bird’s-eye view into the current state of outdoor play.  One particular question on a parent blog caught my eye: “Do anyone else’s kids HATE to play outside?


The National Trust report argues that Nature Deficit Disorder is a larger issue that affects all of society, rich or poor.  So why are kids not playing outside?

  • nature has strong competition from television and video games
  • increased traffic
  • ‘stranger danger’
  • ‘helicopter parents’ – parents who watch and direct their children’s every move, denying them the freedom they themselves enjoyed when they were growing up
  • education system
  • well-meaning protective house arrest

What are the consequences of this eroded ability to freely play outdoors according to the Report?

  • physical health problems
  • mental health problems
  • declining emotional resilience
  • declining ability to assess risk

Everyone agrees that something must be done and yet, in the UK and in North America, very little has actually been achieved. No coordinated action to reverse the trends and reconnect children with nature once again.


On the bright side, some things are changing. For starters, Canada is changing its Food Guidelines to make them more realistic and flexible. Health Canada is expected to address foods containing sodium, trans fats, sugar, food colors as well as marketing to children. This is no doubt going to be long process.

One of the potentially promising policies to come out of this change is a national school lunch program which is estimated to cost up to $2 Billion Canadian Dollars. Wouldn’t it be wonderful and much more economical if each school grew their own food – either outside or 365 days a year in a shipping container? Just think of the tax dollars saved in the short-term (seeds are cheaper than produce) and long-term (on health care). Just think of the life skills children would stand to learn and the natural connection to nature that could be forged.


Here is a list of ideas and resources to seed empathy and help children connect to nature so that they can be our growers, producers, and environmental caregivers in the future:

  1. Read up – Richard Louv has written several thought-provoking books on the subject of Nature Deficit Disorder including his latest, Vitamin N: 500 ways to enrich the health and happiness of your family & community. He is very thoughtful, informative and optimistic about our ability to connect children to nature in a meaningful way.
  2. Read This – An Open Letter (2016) to the Honourable Jane Philpott, Minister of Health (Canada), from outlining very specific actions the government needs to undertake regarding health and food security for all Canadians
  3. Get Involved – Children & Nature Network
  4. Get Involved – Child & Nature Alliance of Canada (based in Victoria, BC)
  5. Attend a Conference – Children & Nature International Conference April 18 to 21, 2017 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
  6. Educate – Forest and Nature School in Canada Guide
  7. Put in Your Two Bits – Contribute to the consultation process on the Canadian Food Guide
  8. #OptOut – Get outside on Black Friday
  9. Watch – Claire Warden is an educational consultant from Scotland

10. Watch – Richard Louv & David Suzuki on the Definition of Nature





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