Before I became a classroom teacher, I spent most of my time outdoors. For a while, I was spending more than 100 days each year sleeping outside, often waking with the sunrise and working with adult clients or younger students in the forests or on the beaches in Washington State.Sometimes I forget what an adjustment it was to spend all day inside. These days, being inside more than out feels normal, but there are some serious indications that, scientifically speaking, spending too much time inside could really be harming my students and me. Could we all be suffering from “nature deficit disorder”?
Richard Louv (2005) wrote an interesting book called Last Child in the Woods in which he makes a convincing case for why young people need more time outside. He points out that we are prescribing more and more ADHD medication to kids, and childhood obesity is rising, and asks whether these and other challenges kids face are related to spending less time outdoors. He calls the problem “nature deficit disorder.” Natural spaces, he claims, provide open-ended chances to play, create, and invent — exactly the kind of activities that, when we don’t get them, are liable to make us inattentive, restless, and maybe even miserable.
It isn’t just young people, though, who benefit from being around nature. Louv also discusses research done by psychologists at the University of Michigan comparing office workers who did or did not have a view of trees and bushes out their windows. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that they found workers who could see leafy green growing things to be happier and less frustrated than workers who only saw concrete and glass. Swedish researchers have found similar positive effects for people who took forty-minute breaks to walk in a natural park area. When those workers returned, they were able to pay better attention and felt less anger than co-workers who had spent their break walking the city streets.
Researchers in Denmark (Hahn IA, et al. 2011) found a slight indication that working outdoors could help prevent seasonal depression, but their results weren’t particularly strong. Nevertheless, I agree with the Danes that this is a subject worth studying further — especially if it gets me outside on the WCC campus with my classes more.
Hann, I.A., Grynderup, M.B., Dalsgaard, S.B., Thomsen, J.F., Hansen, A.M., Kærgaard, A., et al. (2011 Sept.) Does outdoor work during the winter season protect against depression and mood difficulties?. Scandinavian Journal of Work Environmental Health. 37(5):446-9.
Louv, R. (2005) Last Child in the Woods. New York: Workman Publishing.