Minnesota Parent-Kids & Nature Deficit





As a parent, you have to love this TV promo….you finally get the kids outdoors, in the ice fishing shack….and the fish don’t bite. What gives? Let the carnage begin. But this story (that airs Jan. 19th, 2020…be sure to watch-reporter, Bill Sherck) made me think of a nature deficit article I wrote for MN. Parent Magazine….Even though things don’t go as planned…we STILL have to make an effort to get those kids outside!

(MN. Parent Magazine)  – My son has a fort. It’s wedged between two evergreens in our backyard, and houses such treasures as slabs of wood, and an old green army tarp hung by bungee cords for a wall.  And while I sometimes sigh loudly at the amount of items that find their way into my son’s fort, I leave it alone. A few years ago my Father told me that a boys fort in nature is his sanctuary and refuge. “Treat it as such,” he warned.

I would never argue that point, as my past childhood memories are steeped in the great outdoors. When I think about it, many of the most cherished memories all involve either a vacation up north or my own fort nestled in a thicket. I want my son to have those memories, too. But I worry the experience won’t be the same. And I’m not the only parent thinking this. There seems to be a growing disconnect between our kids and nature.

According to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods and the Nature Principle, it’s a phenomenon – and not a good one. It was Louv who first came up with “Nature deficit disorder” when his Last Child in the Woods book came out in 2005. His hypothesis is basically that humans, especially children, are spending less time outdoors.

Why is this happening? The reasons are several, and a few, obvious. One of the reasons I relate to – good old “stranger danger”. It’s the reason I’m sneaking peeks in the backyard to make sure my son isn’t snatched out of his nature sanctuary. Or as Louv so eloquently puts it in his book – the “Bogeyman syndrome”. “Fear is the most potent force that prevents parents from allowing their children the freedom they themselves enjoyed when they were young,” explained Louv, “Fear is the emotion that separates a developing child from the full, essential benefits of nature. Fear of traffic, of crime, of stranger-danger – and of nature itself.” My boundaries growing up included the entire town. Admittedly, my son’s boundaries are tighter. In a 2002 survey by TNS Intersearch for American Demographics Magazine, 56% of parents in the U.S. said that by the time they were 10 years old they were allowed to walk or bike to school – but only 36% of those same parents said their own kids should be allowed to do the same.

But we aren’t just afraid of the “Bogeyman” in the form of a kidnapper. Nature itself can be the Bogeyman.  It can be tough for us parents to loosen the leash, especially with being bombarded by bad news via the media.  But keeping things, including nature, in perspective is always a good rule of thumb. “We may fear the outdoors, but kids generally face more dangers in their own home,” explained Louv.

The loss of wild surroundings is another factor. In more and more cities and suburban neighborhoods, it can be tough to find green. But green can be found – it just might require some looking. And it’s worth it – a team study by researchers in Sweden, Australia and the U.S., found that when children played in an environment dominated by play structures rather than natural elements, the kids established social hierarchy through physical competence. But just offering a grassy area with a few shrubs, and the kids engaged in more fantasy play, and their social standing became based less on physical abilities and more on language and creativity skills. And a bonus: open play also provided greater opportunities for boys and girls to play together in egalitarian ways.

Even if you find a park or nature preserve, kids are seeing more restricted access. “Do not walk off the trail” one sign recently blared at me at neighborhood park. Everyone understands that the natural environment must be protected, but Louv questions the cost of that protection in some instances, and the direct impact it has on the kid’s relationship with nature. Even environmentalists and educators, he points out, say “look but don’t touch”.  Sometimes that’s the only way to learn, especially for kids.

And a third obvious cause, of course, is the increased draw to spend time inside, aka: screen time, including computer, video games and television. The average American child spends 44 hours a week with some form of electronic media. Can you imagine what that number will be 10 years from now?

The effects of this are sobering.  Our kids have a limited respect for their natural surroundings. Louv points out that this will be an even bigger problem a few years down the road. “An increasing pace in the last three decades, approximately, of a rapid disengagement between children and direct experiences in nature…has profound implications, not only for the health of future generations but for the health of the Earth itself.”

Research has shown that people who care about the Earth when they are adults spent time in the natural world as children. GreenHeart Education stresses that we owe it to our students and kids to give them unmediated time in Nature, so that, as one Native elder explained, “the land will remember them” – so they will feel grounded and have a sense of “home” that they care about.

Another effect of nature deficit may be the development of attention disorders. Louv suggests that going outside and being in the quiet and calm can help kids. “It’s a problem because kids who don’t get nature-time seem more prone to anxiety, depression and attention-deficit problems.”  As a Mother of an ADHD son, this research is worth watching. Some tips include encouraging your child to play in outdoor green spaces, study or play in rooms with views of nature, or plant and care for gardens and trees at your place of residence. Louv explains that although the impact of nature experiences on attention disorders and on wider aspects of child health is in its infancy and easily challenged, it’s not to be brushed over. “Yes, more research is needed, but we do not have to wait for it. If, as a growing body of evidence recommends, contact with nature is as important to children as good nutrition and adequate sleep, then current trends in children’s access to nature need to be addressed,” said Louv.

Childhood obesity is another growing problem, and about 9 million children (ages 6 – 11) are overweight or obese. (The Institute of Medicine) It’s time for kids to move more, which means getting up off the couches and heading outside and away from screen-time. Period. Blogger Marc Bekoff of Psychology Today, said it may be an up-hill battle for parents, but it’s time to get kids away from their couches, computers, desks and other electronic devices. “We need to rewild our children before it’s too late,” he stressed.

While my generation may have been the first to experience Atari and MTV, we also still played kick the can, fished in creeks, and had more free-roaming boundaries outside. It’s time for parents and Mother Nature to work together. While some good works are already taking root, such as environment-based education movement, a simple-living movement, and schoolyard greening, there’s always more work to be done for the cause.

With luck, our kids will realize their sense of purpose in this cause. After all, I can only hope that, someday, my son will want his own children to have an outdoor fort. A refuge, a sanctuary. Army tarp and all.

Side Bar:

Some fun ideas to get things going with the cause!

Got dirt? A truckload of dirt costs about the same as a video game, so how about buying a load and throwing in some plastic buckets and shovels?

Plant some native plants, or maintain a birdbath. Invite some native flora and fauna in your kid’s life.

Revive some old family traditions. Collect lightning bugs at dusk, and release them at dawn. Collect feathers or leaves. How about crawdadding? (tie a piece of bacon on a string, and drop it into a creek or pond. Wait until a crawdad tugs)

Encourage kids to go camping just in the backyard. But them a tent or help them make a canvas tepee and leave it up all summer. (Join the NWF’s Great American Backyard Campout – www.nwf.org)

Tell your kids stories about your special childhood places in nature, then help them find their own. Encourage kids to build a fort, hut or tree house.

Combine tech with nature and go digital –with nature photography that is. Digi cameras save money on film, and are decreasingly expensive.

Go on a moth walk. It sounds weird, but it’s worth it. Mix (in a blender) overripe fruit or wine, and blend in honey, sugar or molasses. Go outside at sunset and spread the goop on a few trees or untreated wood. Go back when it’s dark, flashlight in hand, and see what you’ve lured. With luck, you’ll probably find moths, ants, earwigs and other bugs.

It’s Minnesota, so in the winters build an igloo or snow cave, or go sledding, snow tubing, or snowshoeing. Stay outside!

Fun Outdoor quotes to think about:

“Not everything that counts can be counted. And not everything that can be counted counts.” – A sign over Albert Einstein’s office at Princeton University.

“It takes a universe to make a child, both in outer form and inner spirit. It takes a universe to educate a child, a universe to fulfill a child.” – Thomas Berry



Reality Check-#5 things no one tells you about the first 3 months of parenting

The other night, I caught myself shuffling sleepily into my son’s bedroom. I listened for his breathing, sounded normal. I tucked in his blankets around him. Paranoid new Mommy?  No on the “new mommy” part…maybe on the paranoid part. My son is in high school for God’s sake, so this little ritual is un-needed. I rarely do it, however I’ve had babies on the brain.  Perhaps the reason is, that some of my friends and colleagues, who are now pregnant, keep asking me for any wisdom to throw their way about Motherhood. I’m too old to have more…so now I’ve moved into the “giving wisdom” stage. If you’re a mother, you’re always going to get the “what’s it really like those first few months” questions from Moms to be. What is it really like, anyway? Do we answer that honestly, Mothers? If our children are older, do our memories of those first few months grow fuzzy with time…or do we block them out on occasion? If we’re new Mothers, do we sugar coat the exhaustion and put on a happy face? I got together a few mothers who were perfectly at ease putting down the “rose colored glasses”, and sharing their wisdoms on those first few months….some nuggets of wisdom if you will, that might come in handy to know before you actually have the baby. Some are new mothers who are living through it now, and some are looking back a few years, but have forgotten none of the colorful details.  Put away the Dr. Spock book, for now. The first months ARE wonderful…but it ain’t all roses, ladies.

1. There are times that it won’t feel worth it

“For me, it was a long (and that’s an understatement) first 9 to 10 months. What is most surprising is that my friends had many opportunities to tell me; that loving your baby is immediate, automatic and very powerful. LIKING them…um…at times…not so much. It’s harsh, but it’s real for a lot of new mothers.  I do not apologize for it and neither should you. The piercing cries you cannot fix, the funny bumps on their face leaving you wondering if your own breast milk, coming from your bleeding, cracked nipples, is making your offspring have an allergic reaction of some sort. No one told me I would drive to the Dr.’s office more than once hoping something is actually wrong with my child so that I know why he has red bumps, a diaper rash, spits up a lot and cries more than he sleeps…all to be told, ‘looks great! Keep doing what your doing!’” – Christie Cuttell (mother of three, Cottage Grove)

  1. Breastfeeding is not always a piece of cake

“I don’t think you can ever take classes on breastfeeding to prepare you for something that’s not always in your control. My first son just wouldn’t eat. We had nurses and lactation specialist grabbing my boobs, trying to force him to eat and there wasn’t that loving bond you and your baby are supposed to experience.  When I finally got the blessing from my sister that ‘it was ok to use formula,’, I was like THANK GOD someone actually said it so I didn’t feel guilty in making the decision. I felt like a horrible mother because it wasn’t the “natural” thing to do, and there’s so much pressure about breast milk being best. We all want to do what’s best, but it doesn’t always work that way…so we shouldn’t feel like a bad mother for not being able to.” Sonja Haataja-Day (mother of two from Menahga)

  1. Trust your gut over all the experts

“Trust your gut. You can read all the books in the world and still not be prepared. Do not let the wisdom from the experts stop you from trusting your natural instincts and doing something contrary to what you’ve read or heard.” Sarah Frank (mother of a 3-month old, Waconia, MN.)

  1. Embrace all your emotions…you don’t have to try to be mother of the year every second. It’s not possible. ‘Enjoy EVERY minute’ people may say to you? It’s not true-no one can enjoy EVERY minute of parenting. It’s just plain hard sometimes. Allow yourself to be crabby and tired. Yes, you’ll experience a new level of exhaustion and sleep deprivation that hits you like a ton of bricks…but you’ll also find that your tougher than you think. You can operate on 1-2 hours of sleep and still change a diaper. Try not to snap when you hear people say “enjoy this stage, it goes so fast!”…because when your knee deep in it and exhausted, it does NOT go fast. It crawls. You’re allowed to feel all those emotions and feelings, and it’s OK that some won’t feel that great. Pat yourself on the back. You’ll do great. – Kelly Jo McDonnell. (Mother of one, Lino Lakes)


5. You will feel a new level of anxiety you’ve never felt before

“Anxiety meet Kelly…Kelly, meet anxiety. Nothing introduces you to the heart pounding, sweaty palms, sick to your stomach feeling of anxiety like parenting. You are in charge of a tiny little life…and that’s certainly a big job. We had a rough first year with my daughter, who was admitted to Children’s Hospital twice. I learned that year what anxiety and panic really feel like.”   – Kelly Plummer (Mother of two – Forest Lake)

Perhaps Cuttell hit the nail on the head, referring to why we Mother’s don’t always divulge all the details.  “At age 39 now, I know why you did it,” she mused, “That is why I do not hold a grudge. You knew parts of it, a lot of it….sucked. You knew the dandelion moments were well worth it, and mostly you knew, “hey we had to figure it out, let her, she ain’t special’.  We all have to tread our own path.”


A sad young woman is standing in a kitchen with a spoon in her hand