Nature Deficit Disorder is a term coined by Richard Louv in his book Last Child In the Woods. Mr. Louv writes about how children are spending less time outdoors and this results in a wide range of behavioral problems. Hear Richard Louv interviewed on NPR.
When my children exhibit behavioral problems, I often deal with the problem by sending them outside. I learned this essential parenting skill from my mother who would routinely throw us girls outside and tell us she didn't want to see us until lunch (or dinner as the case may be). Some of my fondest memories of being a child are spending time outside, although much of it is fogged over by severe allergies.
The big oak tree that once held a treehouse. Only some old footholds are left.
I am fortunate to live on a large, relatively wild piece of property where there are lots of areas to explore. There's a creek, mature oak trees, a hill to slide down, room to throw rocks, a place to play basketball. Twenty years ago, long before we built our house on this property, the neighborhood children built a treehouse in one of the large oak trees. There was even a rope to swing on. We had to remove the few remaining boards and the frayed and decaying rope when we moved in, but the fact that there was once a treehouse there has fascinated my boys for the last few years. They stare up at this large and daunting tree, imagining how cool it would be to have their own space up there. They have tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to climb the tree. Every once in a while, with team work and sheer will one of them manages to shimmy up part way, but this tree is not an easy one to climb. About a year ago they made a ladder out of scrap wood to help get up in the tree. They found a piece of chain and a rope and installed them to repel up the tree. Recently, the idea of a zip line between this tree and another large oak nearby has captured their interest. There has been planning, exploring, climbing, surveying going on. These trees are on a steep slope so the other day, they decided to make a sort of path/stairway to more easily get to the trees in question. They used the only tool they could find at the moment, a hammer, to hack at the earth. They did make a path that looks pretty cool. Plus, it kept them outdoors and busy for hours. All good, right? No nature deficit disorder around here!
The pathway up the hill from one tree to the other. It was created with a hammer.
My children went to a preschool that emphasizes outdoor education and play. When I see them working on this kind of outside activities I often think back to their preschool experiences and how they helped shape the way my boys play. Unfortunately my middle son, who is in 5th grade and almost 11 years old, forgot one very important lesson he learned in preschool.
Skip forward two days from the path-creating activity. I am watching my sons play in a Little League game, my middle son is pitching and doing great. The game ends, he comes off the field, walks directly over to me, and says in a slightly panicked voice, "Mom I think I have poison oak." This does not surprise me, our property is full of poison oak. At dinner after the game I see that he is visibly uncomfortable. When we get home, he undresses and I see that his body is one red swelling rash and that rash is everywhere. Yes, EVERYWHERE. He's a boy; he puts his hands down his pants on a regular basis.
The upper oak tree, with the homemade ladder in position.
Holy shit, he doesn't have Nature Deficit, he has Nature Overexposure.
As we talk about where he could possibly have gotten such a nasty case of poison oak, he admits he has forgotten what poison oak looks like. He learned this in preschool! He knows better than to be in poison oak with shorts and a t-shirt on! Then it dawns on him. Maybe that small oak tree that was in the way of the path they were building, the one he chopped down with the hammer, was actually a poison oak bush. Judging by the way he looked, I had to agree that was certainly a likely senario.
This is poison oak. Leaves of three: let it be! Looks like oak leaves but more rounded instead of pointy, and there are no barbs. My son said, "Oh yeah, the one I cut down and pulled out looked like that. Only way bigger."
After missing school, a trip to the doctor, a lot of medication, and a fair amount of suffering, I think he has learned something. Know what poison oak looks like, and think twice about putting your hands down your pants when you've been playing outside.