Life on the Outside

UnCommon Ground - Life on the Outside

Pediatrician Suzanne Bruckel Monaghan ’75 has been watching the slow creep in her office: a generation of children growing increasingly unhealthy—attached to devices, lacking proper exercise, exhibiting decreased attention spans and increased behavioral issues. Her diagnosis? Nature deficit disorder. It’s not a medical diagnosis—at least, not yet—but Monaghan has seen enough evidence that she spent 30 consecutive days bicycling 3,000 miles between her home in Inman, S.C., and Stinson Beach, Calif., to raise awareness of the issue in September 2015. We talked to her about the trip, the disorder, and what parents can do to prevent it.

Why do we need nature?

From infancy on, we need quiet time; we need exploring time; we need learning time. Children learn a tremendous amount from having free time to explore on their own. It’s important that their early days are spent outside connecting to nature and that the activities are self-directed and not organized. Nature affords an environment without bounds and with lots of sensory input. Sometimes it’s fun just digging in the dirt or lying on your back and watching the clouds go by.

Too often, infants and young children have very early screen exposure—TVs, computers, iPads. These forms of media create a virtual world, not a real world that a child can connect to. Technology has negative effects on parenting, too. So often I see parents on their cellphones while their children are trying to get their attention, to no avail. I fear that parents don’t realize how removed they are from their infants or developing children. It’s having deleterious effects on intercommunication skills and causing behavioral issues.

When did you first hear about nature deficit disorder?

An author named Richard Louv coined the term in his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods. It’s a social term, not a medical diagnosis. Yet it is probably the most important issue facing the development of healthy children in our time.

Is this newly emerging? Why isn’t it more well known?

Most of our society has nature deficit disorder, but I think its growth has been gradual over the last several decades. The introduction of the TV came first, then computers, mobile phones, iPads, and more. Our lives have become increasingly unbalanced. It’s important for all doctors who care for children to recognize this fact and its deleterious impact on the lives of our children. So often, children get to school and have difficulty focusing because in the classroom, they are not constantly entertained. In addition, they have difficulty with interpersonal skills because they are devoid of experiencing them when they interact with screens.

What effect did you hope your ride would have?

My hope was that I could raise awareness in our country. I also like to be a good example to the children about getting out in nature, where you not only challenge yourself physically, but also enjoy being immersed in the world around you. Best case scenario, I am hopeful that the American Academy of Pediatrics will take this issue to the top of the list of critical childhood issues that must be addressed urgently. It only makes sense to me that if young children are addicted to screens, that will only increase the likelihood that they will have other addictions in their precious lifetimes.

Published May 2016