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Are you suffering from nature deficit disorder?


Run free: John Buckley swapped the city lights for the great outdoors three times a week. Photo: ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan

Run free: John Buckley swapped the city lights for the great outdoors three times a week. Photo: ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan

Run free: John Buckley swapped the city lights for the great outdoors three times a week. Photo: ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan

Everyone loves a good nature programme. In fact, just last month it was revealed that BBC's Countryfile, a gentle paced and gloriously visual show celebrating all that the great outdoors has to offer, garnered a whopping 8.7 million live viewers - more than any other programme that week.

Oh yes, we love watching wildlife, but the problem seems to be leaving the sofa and immersing ourselves in the real thing.

It's been more than a decade since author Richard Louv wrote his best-selling book, Last Child in the Woods, and introduced the world to the concept of 'Nature Deficit Disorder'.

His phrase referred to the growing trend of human alienation from nature resulting in "diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional illness."

Put simply, he stated that humans aren't meant to be surrounded by concrete and metal all day. Moving from home to car to office or school and back again isn't healthy - we need time in the wild.

Now Louv has a new book coming out to tell us how to do that. Vitamin N: The Essential Guide To A Nature-Rich Life focuses on 500 ways people can boost their engagement with nature.

"Awareness has grown," says Louv. "But we need to move more quickly into an action mode, both at the family and the community level."

As far as he's concerned, we shouldn't be glossing over the crucial link between time outdoors and well-being, particularly when it comes to children.

New evidence strongly suggests that interaction with the natural world increases our ability to think clearly, heighten the senses when it comes to perception and increase creativity.

"Several studies show that children who play in natural settings have reduced symptoms of attention deficit disorder, are more cooperative and inclusive in their play and more likely to create their own games than those who play on flat turf or asphalt playgrounds," reveals Louv.

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"Without independent play, the critical cognitive skill called executive function is at risk, which at its core deals with our ability to exert self-control and to control and direct emotional and behaviour… A child's executive function, as it turns out, is a better predictor of success in school than IQ."

He recently visited a nature-based elementary school in a lower income region of America and found that the school was showing more academic improvement than any other school in the county.

His findings join a growing number of voices championing the serious business of outdoor play. The issue formed the core topic at last month's Early Childhood Ireland conference, where it was revealed that, in some instances, prisoners are more likely to get the recommended hour of outdoor time, than children.

Part of the problem is what Early Childhood Ireland's Dr Carmel Brennan refers to as the 'schoolification' of children's lives, that places a greater value on exam results over creative play.

We've also become more squeamish about the muck and dirt of outdoor fun with play now a sterile, clean and organised indoor activity.

"But we can't bubblewrap our children hoping they'll never fall or hurt themselves," urges Dr Brennan. "If they don't fall down, how can they learn to get back up, or better still, learn to balance better the next time?

"Risky outdoor play is a key part of learning, and children do it by degrees with adults standing back and supervising, rather than rushing in."

Insisting a child doesn't poke in the dirt, bring their stick home or rushing them to the destination rather than allowing time for exploration sends out the message that natural play is 'bad' and not to be integrated into our lives, when in reality it is essential for development and enrichment.

There are signs that the importance of this is dawning. The Heritage Council has just completed a major study with UCC Law Department on children's access to the outdoors with one recommendation being the need to work towards a national policy that promotes and facilitates outdoor play.

But one big barrier is our reliance on technology for entertainment.

"Technology is not the enemy," says Louv. "But the lack of balance in our schools and lives I believe can be lethal. The more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we need."

Much of Louv's focus is on children, but time outdoors affects everyone's wellbeing.

Dublin office worker John Buckley reckons spending less time on the cobbles of Temple Bar and more time running forest and mountain trails has helped tackle any nature deficit disorder he might have been facing.

"I found spending too long in the heart of the city was a bit restricting," he says.

"I moved out of the city centre a year ago to be closer to the Dublin Mountains and now spend two or three days a week running through Ticknock and along the Dublin Mountains Way.

"It's a freeing feeling from the city that I feel is an inherent need in everyone," he explains.

"We may be socialised to dwell in urban areas but the nature in us screams out for a bit of the wild.

"Like many, mental difficulties have been present at times.

"And in the past three years my relationship with nature and being able to immerse myself in trails, with no cars, no coffee shops, no road works or commuter hustle and bustle, has added such happiness and serenity to my life, and also helping to keep my health in balance.

"I still spend Monday to Friday in a job I love and a city that adds so much to my life, but having six or seven hours a week in nature is life-changing and reaffirming as a human being. I don't know who or what I'd be without it."

Dublin-based counselling psychotherapist, David Staunton of Walk Inniu, is a strong proponent of ecotherapy, using the restorative power of the outdoors alongside traditional counselling methods.

"As human beings, we've evolved to be in close communion with other humans and non-human nature. If we deny ourselves this connection and spend too much time indoors, it may well result in increased levels of anxiety, fear, low mood and feelings of isolation," he explains.

"In offering counselling psychotherapy outdoors in healthy natural green spaces, nature becomes a co-therapist in the process, supporting the client with regulating their feelings and emotion."

He cites Roger Ulrich's 1984 study, that found post-operative patients who enjoyed a view of trees outdoors recovered better than those left gazing at a brick wall, as illustrative of the bearing nature can have on well-being.

"I sometimes ask people 'where is your nearest tree?' and it's surprising how many don't know the answer," he says. "Much of our urban public space is unpleasant to be in. We didn't evolve to breathe the exhaust fumes of cars."

Plenty of organisations are attempting to redress the balance between urban living and access to the great outdoors.

Get Ireland Walking is an initiative from Sport Ireland and supported by Healthy Ireland and Mountaineering Ireland that is currently rolling out 80 walking groups across the country, with the intention of encouraging people outdoors and being active.

"Walking outdoors has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety and studies suggest that walking outdoors can have better benefits to mental health than other forms of exercise," explains Michelle Hardie Murphy from Get Ireland Walking.

"Improvements in self-reported general health, sleep, recovery from illness, cognitive function and psychological well-being are among the countless benefits of spending time outdoors."

The new groups join the 330 existing community walking groups registered with the organisation.

"Even in densely urban settings, nature can often be found nearby," says Louv. "Access isn't the issue but we need to make outdoor time a priority and schedule nature time."

If you've enough time in the day to watch a show about nature, then you've enough time to get out there and enjoy it first-hand.

Step outside that door: How to get an 'outside' fix

• Invest in wellies and rain coats. "There's no such thing as bad weather for play, just bad clothes," says Carmel from Early Childhood Ireland. "And don't avoid dirt and muck, clothes can be washed, but those memories won't be washed away."

• You don't have to drive to the coast or buy expensive kit - too often planning and procrastination gets in the way of action. Just step outside your door.

• Leave technology at home. "Ask yourself if you really need yet another digital image of a sunset, flower or rabbit," says David Staunton of Walk Inniu. "Leave tweeting to the birds, not your phone."

• Be mindful, feel the breeze on your face, the heat of the sun and present to the nature around you to get the most out of it.

• "Schedule Nature time," says Richard Louv. "I suggest over-scheduled families make outdoor time a priority."

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