A Cure for Depression, ADHD and Childhood Obesity: Get Outside!
> 12/2/2005 9:13:17 AM

Author and child advocacy expert Richard Louv says that many of the ills that plague today’s youth can be solved by one simple lifestyle change: get the hell off the couch and get outside.

This is the message of Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.  Published in April by Algonquin Books, Last Child examines the way in which the relationship between growing children and “the out-of-doors” has changed and the possible effects of this change.

While there isn’t much clinical research regarding Louv’s hypothesis, some of the things that he discusses are easy to see.  These statistics from the Surgeon General regarding childhood obesity paint a ghastly picture in and of themselves.  But when combined with rising numbers of diagnoses of ADHD and depression in children, one must begin to question whether the changing nature of today’s society, and its offshoot of separating our children from nature, is indeed having terrible negative effects.

Experience Life magazine ran a story on Louv in its September issue, and included a lengthy excerpt from his book that focused on the link between nature-deficit disorder and ADHD.

“Our brains are set up for an agrarian, nature-oriented existence that came into focus five thousand years ago,” says Michael Gurian, a family therapist and best-selling author of The Good Son (Tarcher, 1999) and The Wonder of Boys (Putnam, 1997). “Neurologically, human beings haven’t caught up with today’s overstimulating environment. The brain is strong and flexible, so 70 to 80 percent of kids adapt fairly well. But the rest don’t. Getting kids out in nature can make a difference. We know this anecdotally, though we can’t prove it yet.”

Some studies, however, do suggest that nature may be useful as a therapy for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and that it may be successfully used with, or in some cases instead of, medications or behavioral therapies. As a result, some researchers now recommend that parents and educators make experiences with nature — especially green places — more available to children with ADHD. Such experiences, they suggest, may support these children’s attentional functioning and minimize their symptoms.


While we still don’t fully understand the causes of ADHD, there is mounting evidence that it has at least some ties to specific types of childhood experiences, including television viewing. The first study to link television watching to ADHD was published in April 2004 in the journal Pediatrics. Researchers at Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle determined that each hour of TV watched per day by preschoolers increases by 10 percent the likelihood that they will develop concentration problems and other symptoms of attention-deficit disorders (ADDs) by age 7.

This information is disturbing. But television is only one small part of the much larger environmental and cultural change that has taken place in our lifetime, including the very rapid move from a rural culture to a highly urbanized one.

For most of human history, families had every reason — and every opportunity — to encourage their children toward work, learning and play that was steeped in nature. This was where life skills and strengths were developed; this was where the most fun and action could be had. Today, due to a variety of intersecting factors — the disappearance of open spaces, the rise of electronic entertainments, the emergence of safety concerns, the introduction of longer school hours and busy, two-wage-earner family lifestyles — our kids’ access to (and motivation toward) nature-based outdoor experience is in much shorter supply.


Even the most extensive research is unlikely to capture the full benefits of direct experience with nature within a person’s lifetime. As the sign over Albert Einstein’s office at Princeton University read, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

Clearly, more research is needed to lend deeper insight into the data already gathered, but we don’t have to wait for more research to act on our parental instincts and common sense.

As Taylor and Kuo argue, “given the pattern of statistically reliable findings all pointing the same direction and persisting across different subpopulations of children, different settings and in spite of design weaknesses,” it is fast becoming a matter of logical efficiency “to accept the fact that nature does promote healthy child development.”

For more on Louv and Last Child in the Woods, check out:

NPR's interview with the author.

Richard Louv's website.

ADHD doc, Russell A. Barkley's website.

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