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Do Our Kids Have Nature-Deficit Disorder - The Evidence Grows

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ASCD Magazine


Educational Leadership



December 2009/January 2010 | Volume 67 | Number 4

Health and Learning Pages 24-30

Richard Louv


Bringing children to the natural world—or bringing nature to them—is not a panacea, nor is is the only way for parents and teachers to ignite curiosity and wonder or to help children focus. However, researchers are assembling a growing body of evidence that strongly suggests the importance of nature to children's health and their ability to learn.  Environmental educators and groups such as Project WILD, Project Learning Tree, and proponents of natural schoolyard habitats have worked for decades to introduce children to nature. Some educators have emphasized this approach in the context of classroom learning; others have focused on getting students outside. Efforts to engage students in and through the natural environment go by many names, including community-oriented schooling, bioregional education, nature studies, experiential education, and place-based or environment-based education. But the basic goal is this: to use the surrounding community, including nature, as the preferred classroom.

Researcher and educator David Sobel (2008) says that we should consider place-based education as "one of the knights in shining armor." Students in such programs typically outperform their peers in traditional classrooms. Sponsored by many state departments of education, a 1998 study documented the enhanced school achievement of youth who experience curriculums in which the environment is the principal organizer (Lieberman & Hoody, 1998). More recently, studies in California and across the United States showed that schools that used outdoor classrooms and other forms of nature-based experiential education saw significant student gains in social studies, science, language arts, and math. Another study found that students in outdoor science programs improved their science test scores by 27 percent (American Institutes for Research, 2005).


Unfortunately, the relationship among nature experience, learning, and health is a new frontier. Many of the available studies describe correlations rather than cause and effect. We need to do additional longitudinal research, but as Howard Frumkin, who heads the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says, "We know enough to act."

Some of the most intriguing studies are being conducted by the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, where researchers have discovered that children as young as 5 showed a significant reduction in the symptoms of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder when they engaged with nature (Kuo & Taylor, 2004). Recent studies have also suggested a connection between the decline in outdoor activities and the dramatic rise in both childhood vitamin D deficiency (Huh & Gordon, 2008) and myopia (Rose et al., 2008).

One interesting study looked at the effect of neighborhood greenness on inner-city children's weight over time (Science Daily, 2008). Researchers reported an association between higher neighborhood greenness and slower increases in children's body mass over a two-year period, regardless of residential density. This underscores the need for urban design to provide a greener, healthier environment, even in the most densely populated neighborhoods. Surely such a design can also improve children's readiness to learn—and their sense of wonder.

Ask Dr. Susan