The 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?