Is your tween/teen suffering from nature deficit disorder?

In his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, author Richard Louv coined the term NDD in an attempt to describe what is happening to children of the 21st century.

by Vanessa Chamberlain — 

The signs and symptoms of nature deficit disorder (NDD) sound like checklists you have heard for other common diagnoses such as ADD/ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder), ODD (oppositional defiant disorder), LFT (low frustration-tolerance) and manic-depressive disorder (bipolar). In his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, author Richard Louv coined the term NDD in an attempt to describe what is happening to children of the 21st century.

Signs and symptoms of NDD

  • Inability to concentrate, think critically and solve problems
  • Apathy, fatigue, depression
  • Lack of common sense
  • Inability to complete tasks — easily frustrated
  • Oppositional, defiant, aggressive, impulsive behavior
  • Lack of attention span
  • • Lack of empathy and concern for the well-being of others, animals or the environment
  • Negative disposition, mood swings and temper tantrums
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Addictive tendencies
  • Weight issues, lack of muscle tone
  • Physical complaints (head, stomach, back aches, etc.)
  • Poor academic performance
  • Aversion to quiet

Louv states that NDD is “the human costs of alienation from nature, among them diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.” The number of children labeled with psychiatric diagnoses is unprecedented today. Either something happened in the 1960s and ’70s to affect our entire gene pool, or childhood advocates have a point — our children are disconnected from meaning and purpose.

Meaning and purpose are cultivated through our relationships — to ourselves, to others and to the world as a whole. Nowhere are these relationships more readily nurtured than in nature. Louv states that “nature is morally messy.” Those parenting today may remember all the life lessons learned in the freedom of the outdoors — no adult or corporate agenda dictated the moral menu of the day, but rather, the child had an intimate experience with life.

The push for children — especially tweens from the ages of 8 to 12 and teens — to live indoors is fueled by a cultural environment that is inimical to childhood. Large corporations are making billions of dollars on our plugged-in children. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, our 8 to 18 year-olds spend an average of 7.38 hours per day ingesting entertainment media. For all this “entertainment,” our tweens and teens are among the most depressed populations in the world.

Recent concerns over what our children are learning from the media have overshadowed an even more critical point: what they are not learning. Given 7.38 hours per day, what value, moral and life-skill lessons are going untaught in lieu of making sure the children are entertained? Good old-fashioned work, meaningful involvement and a connection to the greater whole all build self-esteem. How can our tweens and teens feel good about themselves when they are passive consumers and product end-users the majority of their waking time?

Louv’s NDD is not an official diagnosis, although his implication is that it should be. The majority of our tweens and teens are so disconnected from nature that they do not know the names of the plants in their own front yards, nor do they know the cycles of the moon or the reason for the change of seasons.

As a result of this disconnection from nature, they may experience low self-esteem and show signs and symptoms from the checklist in the box. All too often they are regarded as having some psychiatric disorder and are prescribed medication, when all along they are simply displaying signs of being disconnected from life. Reconnecting them to nature is the responsibility of all of us. The cure for NDD is simple: Unplug and go outside. Mother Nature is infinite in her wisdom — free therapy, free medicine, free-dom.

While optimal time outdoors is spent in our rural or wilderness areas, it is still possible to incorporate nature into our city lives:

  1. Create a family garden in your backyard. Plan and shop for the garden together; invite your children’s friends over to help plant, harvest, cook and eat.
  2. Eat your meals outside. Talk about what you see — identify the trees and plants, and listen for birds or wildlife.
  3. Visit one of the many local hiking areas. Stop to take in the sights, smells and even tastes that the desert offers.
  4. Go for walks around your neighborhood at night. Look at the moon; take in the local plant and animal life.
  5. Involve your tween/teen in outdoor work. This includes landscaping, planting, composting and beautifying.
  6. Get involved in your tween/teen’s school. Ask about daily outdoor time and their environmental/sustainability education curriculum. If you are not satisfied, ask how you might help.
  7. Join local nature-based organizations. Take your tween/teen and their friends to the various events offered throughout the year by Be Outdoors Arizona, the Valley Permaculture Alliance, the Cultural Wellness & Family Enrichment Center and SlowFood Phoenix.
  8. Follow the “No Child Left Inside” movement. Create opportunities for your tween/teen and their friends to hang out outside. Whether utilizing your yard, apartment complex or a neighborhood park, you can help them plan and execute barbeques, water volleyball, ball games and sleep-outs under the stars.


Vanessa Chamberlain is the director of the Cultural Wellness and Family Enrichment Center and Wild World Education., or 602-432-3707.

Reprinted from AZNetNews, Volume 30, Number 4, Aug/Sept. 2011.

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