Is ‘nature deficit disorder’ the right rallying cry?

Rosa in a riverThe term ‘nature deficit disorder’ – as used by the National Trust in its recent report – has come in  for criticism, in a Guardian article, and in a post by playwork academic Wendy Russell on Play England’s Love Outdoor Play website. I share some of the concerns raised. But I think too much semantics is being made of the phrase. The critique also takes too little account of what the children and nature movement is actually saying and doing.

Any successful campaign or movement needs its rallying cries or slogans. But this is not the end of the story. No campaign can be summed up in 3 words, or for that matter 140 characters. To engage properly with it, we need to look more broadly at its leaders, its organisations, and most importantly their actions and consequences.

Unlike some other labels – conduct disorder, or ADHD – I see no sign that the phrase ‘nature deficit disorder’ has led to the medicalisation of children. I see no evidence that psychologists are diagnosing it, nor that parents are reporting symptoms to their GPs. Indeed far from medicalising children, I see a movement that is bringing into sharp focus the role of the environment, institutions, culture and wider society in shaping their lives.

It is true that the phrase, and the movement, highlight a loss in children’s experience. That is not the same has using a deficit model of childhood. We cannot get away from the fact that it is we adults who shape children’s lives, and that some of what we do does not serve them (or us) well, now or in the future. If we think children’s lives are not good enough, it is we who need to intervene. The idea that we owe children something does not need to be tied to the idea that they are passive recipients of our actions.

Wendy rightly criticizes the trend, especially in the US, for all debates about children to be seen through the lens of individual children’s development and progress. But then she says “the development that is most prized is academic achievement.” It is hard to justify this claim. For instance, Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods (which of course first introduced the phrase ‘nature deficit disorder’) devotes just one chapter to it, out of five that explore why nature matters. The National Trust report lists education (not just academic progress, note) as one of four broad benefits of contact with nature. This Daily Mail piece by the report’s author Stephen Moss does not even mention academic learning – but it does mourn the loss of a free-range childhood.

In my experience, academic progress is far from top of the list of reasons why parents, educators and others are concerned about nature. The adults I speak to are much more troubled by what they see as a loss of everyday freedom and meaningful engagement in children’s lives.

I agree that it is wrong to see technology as the bad guy – and I have said as much – but I think that this is a more minor issue, compared to children’s loss of contact with nature and the outdoors. This change is profound, and needs attention and action. It has straightforwardly left children worse off. What is more, it is highly likely to be storing up longer-term problems for them, for society and for the planet. The phrase ‘nature deficit disorder’ is a powerful metaphorical label for this problem. It has been demonstrably successful in getting adults to take more seriously children’s freedom to play and get around.

As for Wendy’s alternative strapline of ‘free range childhood’ –  personally, I am very comfortable with this. Indeed I used it myself in 2009, on the web pages of a national newspaper. But why do I have to choose?

15 responses to “Is ‘nature deficit disorder’ the right rallying cry?

  1. Very interesting. ‘Free range childhood’ is a more positive term than NDD anyway!

  2. I like your comments, Tim. Whilst I don’t object as strongly as Wendy I would much prefer to talk of “Nature’s benefits” or “Credits”- more positive. I don’t particularly like NDD- this was picked up by radio and press- and the criticism of the slogan detracted from all the sound evidence we are putting together to support the benefits of play, adventure and contact with Nature.

  3. NDD is a clever and knowing meme, carefully crafted, much more than just wordplay, Wendy.,248/

    This pitch-perfect spoof raises the satirical game, and far from damaging Louv’s meme, actually reinforces it:

    If we can laugh at our tormentors they will wither away. YTD supports NDD because it helps more people to get the joke, even people who haven’t done the research.

  4. I think it’s very easy to get into the semantics game and waste a lot of time which could be spent on other matters. If you don’t like a term then don’t use it.

    I’m a little puzzled by the alternative to NDD as “Free Range Childhood” because the latter term misses the point about the need for children spend time in natural spaces and have contact with nature. My understanding is that this is the key message of “Last Child in the Woods”

    Saying that I’m surprised that the National Trust decided to go with the NDD metaphor … however look at the huge publicity this report has generated. Would this have happened if another term/metaphor had been used?

    • Well said.

      It’s only tedious play-related folk like me who might prefer analysing why something works to actually doing something, and I have to remind myself sometimes that the key thing is the impact not the phraseology.

      I’m not surprised with the media response to the NT’s use of NDD: it’s a perfectly crafted meme – journos get it immediately, they must love the playfulness and satiricality of it as it plays off ADD.

      Having said that, the ‘Power Rangers’ thing on the NT website is cringetastic: Captain Elbow Patch – special power: droning on about minibeasts and killing biophilic curiosity.

      As Piaget said (I paraphrase) – whenever we teach something to a child we destroy their opportunity to discover it.

      • appletonpermaculture

        Perhaps this debate might not be so necessary if everybody just… you know… got out and played in nature a bit more? Lack of exposure to nature and free play doesn’t just affect kids!

  5. I’m pleased that my original blog and Tim’s response to it here has generated so much debate. I’d like to stress that the point of the original blog was not to criticise the work being done, by the NT or any other group (although I do have a few issues about approaches, one of which Plexity highlights eloquently here). The whole point of the piece was to explore how seemingly harmless metaphors help to produce and reproduce a whole language and discourse that feeds back into actions and relationships. Many have said it doesn’t matter what we call it as long as the actions are right. I beg to differ – we can’t separate the two. Far from NDD being ‘a good joke’, it is born of, and plays into, particular fears about childhood that obscure differences between children and also children’s own capacity to sort things out for themselves and generally be OK.
    NDD has been a very powerful metaphor in the call to action precisely because of its capacity to speak to contemporary panics. Whilst some use the term carefully, in the metaphorical sense it was intended, others exploit its power to feed a particular notion (one, incidentally, that each generation of adults has had about children since time immemorial, and particularly when it comes to new technology) that childhood is in crisis and that a number of professional interventions are therefore required in order to ‘save’ it. As the metaphor takes hold it will give rise to a whole vocabulary within the same medical genre, producing and reproducing the discourse until it becomes a part of practice rather than merely a clever promo meme.
    Whilst there is evidence to show that a ‘dose’ of nature has many benefits, including restoring attention or reducing stress, merely looking at a tree outside the window is not going to address childhood obesity. One of the problems is, as I stated in my blog, that issues such childhood, nature, environmental awareness, play, physical activity and independent mobility become conflated in discussions about evidence of a problem in order to stoke the fires of panics about childhood and maintain adults’ power in being the sole provider of remedies. Evidence often cited also conflates empirical research with perceptual survey, adding in a dollop of time confusion (many still cite the classic ‘One False Move’ study that was published 22 years ago in 1990) together with a lack of differentiation across social stratifications such as geography, class, gender, ethnicity and disability (even though these studies do exist). For example, how does access to nature intersect with class (a deeply unfashionable concept)? Or obesity or ADHD?
    The issues are complex and much of it is about children’s own agency and their capacity to sort things out for themselves if the conditions are right. It is the conditions rather than the children that we should be researching and acting upon. Some of this will involve specific projects aiding access to natural places but much of it shouldn’t.
    My blog came about following a tweet from Cath Prisk (Director of Play England) calling for research into NDD and its effects on children. Rather than researching a metaphor, we need to take notice of and build upon up-to-date research that takes account of children’s lived experiences beyond responding to questionnaires, and that recognises the heterogeneity of children’s everyday lives and the impact of environmental factors in supporting independent mobility including access to ‘nature’.

  6. Pingback: Is ‘nature deficit disorder’ the right rallying cry? | Deep Nature Connection |

  7. To quote myself, and explain more clearly:
    “It’s only tedious play-related folk like me who might prefer analysing why something works to actually doing something, and I have to remind myself sometimes that the key thing is the impact not the phraseology.”

    I, for one, am more interested in changing the world than describing it in academic ‘discourse’.

  8. Pingback: To impact on policy, we need both skylarks and canaries. « Policy for Play

  9. Pingback: Last child in the street? | Rethinking Childhood

  10. Last child in the sea?

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