Nature Deficit?

Nature Deficit Blog

MN.Parent/Mpls. Magazine/MN. Bound-NBC

Writer: Kelly Jo McDonnell     


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 –

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.

camp-68.jpg“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








Empty Nest Prepping

There’s a little, empty bird nest under my deck. It’s not always this way…in the spring it’s bustling with little baby robins, constantly peeping for food. Mom robin bird is obviously (and understandably) crabby, constantly squawking and dipping and diving to the nest. But now…it’s quiet. Empty. Made me think about my own nest, and an article I wrote some years ago when my son was actually a kid for PRIME Magazine. He had just gotten his training wheels off his bike. Now he’s a Junior in High School, and the only wheels he’s interested in are the one’s on his car.

Now my empty nest vision is much closer than it was when I wrote this first article. And you know what? It’s OK. I always remember what my Dad used to say…”Mother Nature has it figured out. Pay Attention.” Now, not saying that Mother Nature has all the correct answers with HUMAN parenting…but I think she’s got it figured it out in most.

My job is to get my little robin bird ready to leave the nest. Both physically and financially (if possible, on the money one). He’s learning, slowly but surely, how to cook on his own, do his own laundry, do chores, hold down jobs in the summer and during the holiday season while he plays a sport, and more. OK, I’ve been an epic failure on the lesson of cleaning his own room and making his own bed. I’ve hounded him for all the years of his life on this one…doesn’t seem to be helping. Just a pre-warning to his freshman year college room mate. Some battle’s you win…some you don’t.

I always make sure he knows he’s loved. He can always come to “visit” the nest, but I know the visits will get far and few between as his life moves forward. And again, it’s OK. That’s what’s supposed to happen. I don’t see the baby robin birds coming to hound mama robin bird at her nest…in fact, I think Mama bird is long gone, enjoying and traveling. On to a different scene, perhaps.

So….let’s see if I can practice what I preached a few years ago…How graceful will I be with my empty nest? Time will tell. But I can already see Hayden taking off in his car to go places…not often does he look back. Nor should he. I’ve taught him to look forward at all times, if possible. Even though it squeezes my heart every time.

Grace, Mom…grace.


Grace & the Empty Nest

Cover Story: Publication: PRIME Magazine (Mar/April)

Writer: Kelly Jo McDonnell

My son had training wheels on his bike for a long time. Longer than most, I would say. The reasons vary – perhaps I was too soft, and would keep my hand on the back of his bike too often. I’m a single Mother, and on occasion I carry the “Mother Hen” role a bit far. Or that he just seemed to be perfectly happy with them on, so I left them on, long after the neighborhood boys took theirs off. He would adamantly deny that he was ready to take them off, even when I raised them up so they weren’t really even touching the pavement. When I tried to take them off, he insisted that I hold on to the back of the bike. He didn’t think he could ride it without my hand holding it up.

But on Mother’s Day in 2008, that all changed. It’s a very specific memory, since something in my heart “dinged”. A ding that meant I’d be feeling this again, but in a different circumstance. We were heading out on a bike ride, myself, my son Hayden, and my long-time partner Cy. Cy announced to Hayden that he would be riding his bike without the training wheels; he proclaimed this as he was taking them off his little bike. I still remember Hayden looking at me with complete fear and uncertainty in his eyes. “You hold on to me, Mommy?” he pleaded. I figured perhaps it was time for me to release my grip. But I really didn’t want to. “You can do it,” I reassured, and climbed onto my bike next to him.

My baby climbed onto his bike, and stared down the driveway. I expected a wipe out, or at least a stagger getting started and trying to turn out of the driveway, so I braced myself. Without looking back at me, he started pumping his pedals and away he rolled….successfully. Down the driveway, then he turned and continued down the road. It was there he stopped and put his foot down, looked back and exclaimed to me “Did you see me! I did it all by myself!” And away he went down the road, not waiting for his Mother to catch up. As I watched him go, I couldn’t help but get a glimpse of things 10 plus years down the road. My little Hayden was well on his way to growing up, and when he left for college and left me with my empty nest, he probably won’t look back then either. And deep down, I don’t want him to. But it makes the heart sting just the same. I knew I would have to accept that Hayden would someday ride off into his own future. Then what?   How would I handle that? With grace and composure? Not sure.

Other friends of mine, most of them baby-boomers, are dealing with this issue currently, the dreaded “empty nest”.  I notice that some have euphoria, like a newfound freedom. And some seem completely lost and are downright lonesome.  And of course, I gleaned the most from my parental birds, who seemed to soar after me and my siblings left the nest back in the 1980’s. According to research by Del Webb, 26% of baby boomers say they feel like newlyweds when their kids were gone. 58% said they are or were ready for the kids to head out of the nest.  The older the Boomers become the more ready they are to clear the nest.  After researching both books and friends, I’ve come up with a few gems that I’m going to keep in mind when my time comes.

First, and the most important in my book, is to keep the magic of “Challenge” in your life. Keep doing your routine in you nest as nothing happened will reveal parenting holes. What the heck else would you like to do? Learn Yoga? Learn how to make sushi? Get a tattoo – there are a lot of opportunities out there, you only have to hop out of the nest to find them. I was confused when my 70-something Mother decided to take up kayaking just last summer. “You have a bad back!” I blurted out. “Gotta have a challenge, honey” was her answer.

Second, keep things interesting, especially yourself. I’m amazed at my Mother and Father who are always trying new things, including kayaking and fly-fishing.    Whether it’s a hip new TV show, or the latest news, or a weird fashion fad, they keep up on it. While they have life-long friends, they also keep “younger” friends. She and my Father are interesting to talk to, and everyone likes their company, no matter the age. They don’t hole themselves up in the house I grew up in. Far from it. Seems like I can never catch them at the nest…their always on the road looking for a new adventure. And keeping it interesting.

Third, don’t let the technology at your fingertips allow you to “hover” over your birds once they’re out of the nest. There are many options today for staying in touch with our kids – texting, email, chat, skype, or just calling them on their cell phones. I have one baby-boomer friend who seems to keep constant dibs on her daughter while she’s in college. I think it’s her full-time job. While we’ll always worry about our kids, it will send the wrong message if we seem to be nagging them all the time…via technology. Use it here and there, as it used to be “in the old days”.  Being a hover parent isn’t good in the nest, or out of it.

And lastly, just like when your children were small, remember the little things. It’s those tiny moments that keep us going. It doesn’t have to be; “Now let’s sell the house, shave our heads bald and join the circus!” Take a look back, and see what really mattered once. Look good enough, and you’ll see it. What adventures do you want to have? They can be little adventures, not huge ones. Were you once an inspiring writer before family-life got too busy? What were your passionate about at one time? Perhaps that flame never extinguished…it’s still there waiting for you.  A small, tiny gem, but a gem just the same.

It will be interesting to see if I will handle myself gracefully with my own empty nest. I hope to. Until then, I continue to watch my growing son head out on his bike, spending more and more time with his friends. His training wheels still hang in my garage, but he doesn’t need them anymore. On occasion he’ll wave to me as I watch from the door, but mostly he rides away full throttle without a single look back.










Balance Awareness Week..who cares? Nowadays…me.

There’s national days for everything nowadays…there’s even a National Bloody Mary day …and a National Hangover Day, go figure.  But there’s an awareness week coming up that I do give a hoot about…at least I do now. If you’d asked me last year if I had heard of “Balance Awareness Week” from Sept. 15th-Sept. 21st…I would have cocked my head like an owl. Who? What?

But if you’d ask me today…I’m aware. Fully, 100% aware, unfortunately. The kind of awareness that only comes when you’re personally suffering from a disease, or have someone close to you suffer.

National Balance Awareness Week’s goal is to raise awareness for those folks who have difficulty maintaining balance due to vestibular disorders. Meniere’s Disease is one of these disorders…a bad one. No cure. And lo and behold, that’s the one I got diagnosed with this past spring. And yes, I had to google it. Who can remember that name, anyway? Meniere’s? It’s hard to spell…..

Any vestibular disorder sucks. Period. To add insult to injury, people can’t tell you have it. It’s an invisible disease. Always there, but never acknowledged.  Well, until you have a bad vertigo episode. And if you have one in public, then everyone knows. At least, they  suspect maybe you’ve been drinking too much.  And that’s how I explain it to people when they ask what it feels like. Remember those fun bed spins after a long night of partying in the 1980’s? And what happens after the spins? That’s what it feels like. Sometimes everyday. And without the fun beforehand.

I’ve been lucky. All my vertigo episodes were at home. And I was by myself. Nothing like getting in touch with oneself while sitting in the bathroom all night feeling nauseous. Worshiping the porcelain Gods, we used to call it. (Except again, without the fun beforehand)

Like many, I keep my daily routine as normal as I can. I’m on a low sodium diet. Can only have #1 cup of coffee a day…Tragic. (and no caffeine after that cup). I still work out (although some yoga poses are out of the question now), I still bike, walk, do weights,  kayak, and yes, still swim. Although I have to be mindful at all times of being “thrown off”. My balance is comprised now -it just is. And will always be. My inner ear fluid doesn’t work like it’s supposed to. And the bonus with Meniere’s is, you usually lose your hearing in at least one ear-it’s already happened with my right. But hey, I wear aids that bounce the hearing to the other normal ear, so that’s something. Some have it both ears, so I’m grateful. Still vain as hell, though. I matched the aids to my hair so you can’t see them. Hey…baby steps. large_A-balancing-act

I’m so fired up about finding more about this disease, that I started a podcast called The Meniere’s Puzzle Podcast (it’s on spotify, breaker, radio public, google podcasts, and pocketcasts) Still waiting for the giant itunes/apple to pick it up…all in good time. Hopefully this will help me and the listeners put some of the pieces together.

So…this year, I’ll be sharing some stories and listening to other’s during Balance Awareness Week. After all, there’s 69 million of us that suffer somehow from some vestibular-something-or-other. We’ll band together. Hey….perhaps that will help us all stay upright.



Messy desk = Creative Mind? I hope so….

It is said that a messy desk can encourage creative thinking….Well, then my son must be another Picasso. Seriously. (the picture below was snapped this morning)

I do try and be “open” to creative flow and thinking. I’m a writer myself…and take the creative vibe very seriously. But I also have a stern, Swedish organization gene from my Mother (thank God), which makes clutter and dis-organization make me sweat. A little mess is OK…pic below is something else. In fact, below makes me think of my late father, who was a legend in his own right…Hall of Fame Iowa Girls B.B. Coach, Teacher, Outdoorsman…but by God, he did have a messy desk and den. That was legendary, too. Although he’s been gone 7 years now…Hayden remembers him well and fondly.

When asked to clean it up, my almost 17-year-old son informed me that Grandpa used to have a messy desk. And he always got a lot done.

Well played, Kid. Well played.