All You Have to Do Is Act Naturally

Richard Louv says overscheduled kids have a
Richard Louv says overscheduled kids have a "nature-deficit disorder." (By Robert Burroughs)
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Sunday, April 20, 2008

When was the last time you built a treehouse or studied a worm slithering along? How about the last time you embarked on a make-believe adventure in your yard or hung from a tree branch, daydreaming about what you'll be when you grow up?

If it's been a while, Richard Louv would like to change that. Louv, an author and nature lover, says kids don't spend enough time outside. As a result, they lose out on the benefits of nature.

He calls this condition "nature-deficit disorder" and has made it the subject of his newest book, "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder."

Today's kids learn about planet Earth in terms of the harm people do to it, instead of the fun and enjoyment they can get from it, Louv says. They might learn about the Amazon rainforest, he writes, but not about the woods in their own neighborhoods.

When Louv was growing up in Missouri, the woods behind his house were his personal space. He felt as if he owned them. "I found something there. I found a sense of peace and imagination I found nowhere else," he says.

He would like you to experience those same feelings by being outdoors.

There are some great health benefits. Studies show that spending time outside can increase attention span and relieve stress. Playing outdoors without any specific purpose -- letting your imagination go while exploring your surroundings -- will help your physical and mental health, Louv says.

Children who play outside will become attached to nature, Louv says, and as adults will be more likely to care about what happens to it.

But the best thing about spending time outside, Louv says, is that it makes you feel good-- happier and more energetic.

So why aren't more kids going outside?

Many are overscheduled, Louv says, and rush from one organized activity to another -- piano lessons, soccer practice, ballet. And the lure of video games and electronic media such as TV and the Internet is strong. According to one study, kids 8 to 18 spend an average of 6 1/2 hours each day using or watching some type of electronic device.

In addition, many parents are focused on their children's homework and grades, which they see as key to getting into a good college down the road.

With these competing commitments, there is little or no time for going outside and imagining that you are a giant bug, a racing airplane or an exotic animal hunting for prey.

So, you have to make time. Turn off the computer. Put down the Wii remote. Set aside the homework for a bit (it will still be there later) and head outside.

Like Louv, you might find your own special place in nature.

-- Moira E. McLaughlin

© 2008 The Washington Post Company