Is ‘Attention-Deficit’ at least partly due to ‘Nature Deficit’?

Over the past few weeks we’ve looked at some alternative approaches to dealing with ADD/ADHD. (Alternative, that is, to the wild rush to medicate that seems to be so prevalent within the medical community at the moment) The ‘approach’ I want to focus on today may not seem like a formal approach at first, perhaps because it simply has to do with the rediscovery of something that previous generations would have seen as a foundational part of childhood.
I think it is fair to say that we are currently living through the biggest ever change in the way of childhood is experienced. If one asked every generation of children, before the present one, its members would have indicated that time spent outdoors was a very important part of daily life. This is simply no longer the case.  The world described by Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn (or even that of the, much more recent, cartoon characters Calvin and Hobbes) where the majority of play time was spent out of doors must seem strange and unfamiliar to most modern children.
There are many reasons for this profound shift. A significant contributing factor is the perception that we are living in a world that is much more dangerous than the one encountered by our forebears. Many parents respond to this by keeping their kids indoors as far as possible. (Although to think that this will automatically keep your children safe is a fallacy, as the growing tide of Internet initiated abductions confirms) I do not think, however, that safety is the primary reason behind the current reconfiguration of childhood (previous generations of parents also experienced the world as a pretty scary place). The main reason, in my opinion (and this is confirmed by reams of research), is the rapid growth of home-based entertainment systems.
Most modern North American children have access to a vast array of gadgets and gizmos that can open up totally new worlds to them. They can, from the comfort of their own home, chat with friends halfway across the world, conquer virtual kingdoms and draw up musical playlists that reflect their personality. None of this is a bad thing as such, but the net effect is that fewer and fewer children feel the need or urge to explore their immediate surroundings. The results are, to say the least, depressing. The writer Michelle Howard wrote a poignant piece about a piece of land where generations of children from her hometown congregated to share their dreams and their lives. She noted sadly that the paths to this ‘place of meeting’ was overgrown and that the last hearts carved into the trees in order to signify eternal love and devotion dated from years and years ago.
It is easy, when one describes changes like this, to collapse into a kind of pointless nostalgia where the past is elevated to a mythical country where everything was perfect. This is obviously not my intention. I do think, however, that we as a society should be very worried about the experiment in social engineering that we have embarked upon. It would be simplistic to say that the rise in lifestyle related illnesses among young people (e.g. obesity, heart disease and even psychological disorders) is all due to lack of outdoor activity. It would, however, be equally simplistic to deny that any such link exists. This principle also applies when it comes to ADD/ADHD.
Recent studies about the effects of nature on ADD/ADHD symptoms have yielded surprising results. Consider the following:

  • A wide-ranging survey asking parents about the effects of different settings on the ADHD symptoms of their children consistently showed that these symptoms were less severe in green settings than indoors.
  • An even more surprising insight can be found in the results of an experiment where children with ADD/ADHD were taken for a walk in different outdoor settings (a downtown area, a neighbourhood and a park). The positive influence of this activity on the ADD/ADHD symptoms was directly proportional to the amount of interaction with nature! (With the downtown area scoring lowest and the park the highest)

Could it be that something in our natural make-up predisposes us to paying more attention and feeling more alive in natural settings? There are certainly many people who believe that this is exactly the case. One of them is Richard Loev author of a groundbreaking book called Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. (It should be noted that the title could be a little misleading. Loev does not attribute all cases of ADD/ADHD to a lack of contact with nature, nor does he teach that contact with nature is the only thing that this required to overcome the condition). Loev’s work has led to the growth of a movement called ‘No Child Left Inside’. Although not exclusively focussed on the treatment of ADD/ADHD the principles and methods advocated by this movement could prove invaluable to those struggling with the condition. At its most basic the message is: Make sure that your child has sufficient ‘green time’! Please check back next week for a more detailed and practical summary.