Nature deficit disorder is a thing and it’s disturbing

by Micky Rathbun for the Gazette

November 30, 2017

Original article published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

I learned of a disturbing new syndrome last week at a benefit for the Hitchcock Center for the Environment in Amherst: nature deficit disorder. OK, it’s not a medically recognized term, but it’s very real.

Consider these statistics:

Top view header image with child laying down on the floor watching a movie on his tablet instead of playing with his toy cars — Getty Images/iStockphoto

44 percent of children under 1 year of age use a mobile device every day.

By age 2, that percentage has climbed to 77 percent.

By age 4, 74 percent of children have their own mobile devices.

The average child spends between four and seven minutes outside each day.

The average child spends seven or more hours per day in front of a screen.

You may ask why this matters. Of course, there’s plenty of data showing that kids who spend most of their waking hours sitting on their bums watching a screen tend to be less healthy than those who spend more time outdoors exploring the natural world. But apart from physical health, if you’re concerned about the health of our planet, these figures should alarm you.

Nature play benefits children in many ways. Studies have shown that getting outdoors enhances a young person’s creativity and problem solving. Let’s say you’re taking a walk in the woods with your kids. You accidentally roll over a rotten log, revealing a world of insects living happily beneath it. Your kids might ask, why is that log crumbling? What are these insects and why are they here? What do they eat? What eats them? Could we create such an environment in our back yard? Learning about the web of life makes children more attuned to the natural world around them. They become curious. And they care about plants and animals.

As children grow into adulthood, they begin to make choices that affect the natural world. Things like the energy efficiency of appliances they buy, how they heat their homes, and where their food comes from. The more they know about the environment, the greater the likelihood that they will make decisions that factor in sustainability and stewardship of the natural world.

We are extremely fortunate to have the Hitchcock Center for the Environment as a resource for environmental education. Fourteen months ago, the center moved from its original, much smaller site to its present 9,000-square-foot, net-zero-energy building. The building itself is a valuable teaching tool: it creates its own solar energy, harvests and recycles its own water, uses composting toilets and is constructed with responsibly sourced, nontoxic materials. The building is designed to show visitors how its systems work.

In addition to its natural history and living building exhibits, the center has four live animal exhibits — an eastern box turtle, a painted turtle, a corn snake and a native fish aquarium. It also has a lending library full of children’s science and nature books, games, puzzles, puppets, DVDs, family activity packs. Outside, there are picnic areas, nature trails and gardens to explore.

Since moving, the Hitchcock Center has been able to expand its programming significantly. “The new building has been a game-changer for us,” said Hitchcock Center director Julie Johnson. Its K-12 school program brought in children from 45 schools during the first year, many from poorer, underserved towns. The center also has been able to train 360 teachers.

In addition to the school visits, the center brought in 8,000 more kids through programs including Second Saturdays Science Series, which invites children and their families to come learn about things like slime, dinosaurs and living safely with black bears.

But the Hitchcock Center is not just for kids. It also offers lectures and activities for the community-at-large, including monarch butterfly tagging, bird watching and tree identification.

You don’t need to participate in a program to enjoy the Hitchcock Center. Visitors are welcome to come explore on their own. Check the website for hours.

When my sons were much younger, we often visited the Hitchcock Center in its former location. They called it the “Hedgehog Center.” They loved the taxidermied raptors and the active beehive with glass walls. They chatted with naturalist Ted Watt, who happened to be a former chemistry student of my father-in-law’s. The boys are grown up and living elsewhere, but they’re coming home for the holidays. I can’t wait to show them the new and improved Hedgehog Center. I know they’ll be thrilled.

Mickey Rathbun can be reached at

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