At a gathering of the Children and Nature Network in 2009, Janet Ady of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service held aloft an outsized pharmacy bottle. It contained, reports Richard Louv in Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life, a prescription to be used “daily, outdoors in nature”. The following year, Louv raised the same bottle before the American Academy of Pediatrics and suggested doctors consider prescribing “vitamin N” – “N” for nature – as an antidote to ‘nature-deficit disorder’ (NDD).
The notion of NDD was coined by Louv himself in his best-selling book Last Child In The Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. NDD, he wrote, “describes 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 arguments of Last Child In The Woods rest on a body of research demonstrating the benefits of contact with nature. In 1983, architecture professor Roger Ulrich showed that aesthetic and emotional experiences are the most important benefits of a natural environment, and six years later, psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan outlined the restorative qualities of nature. A cascade of important papers followed, many of which can be found in The Biophilia Hypothesis, edited by ecologist Stephen Kellert and biologist E.O. Wilson. Recent research at the University of Illinois shows that children with attention deficits concentrate better after a walk in the park, just one example of many similar projects.
Louv’s perspective is important and should be taken seriously. There can be no doubt about the importance of connecting kids, and ourselves, to the natural world. But we should be a little cautious about the notion of NDD. In medicine, a ‘disorder’ is commonly understood as the kind of illness that disrupts normal physical or mental functions. Louv has repeatedly stated that NDD is “by no means a medical diagnosis”, but the use of the term ‘disorder’ makes it easy to assume that it might be and the concept has been taken up by a wide range of practitioners from pediatric nurses to teachers.
It’s interesting to note therefore that, as far as I can see, there’s no mention of NDD in Vitamin N. It was probably a good idea to drop that problematic theory, and the author certainly doesn’t need it because Vitamin N has enough meat in it to be a very useful book without supporting evidence. With ‘500 ways to enrich the health and happiness of your family and community’, it’s the kind of book you keep on the shelf for dipping into when looking for a project, or just a day out. I’ll certainly use it with my own grandkids.
But what about technology? Does it have a role in Vitamin N? I’m pleased to say that it does.
The Technobiophilic Perspective
In 2013 I wrote this about The Nature Principle, Louv’s adult-focused follow-up to Last Child in the Woods, in which which he states that ‘a reconnection to the natural world is fundamental to human health, well-being, spirit, and survival.’
Louv does not take an anti-technology stance, although he does admit to being concerned that ‘Our culture’s faith in technological immersion seems to have no limits, and we drift ever deeper into a sea of circuitry.’ But he makes some very useful suggestions for harnessing social media and other technologies to support projects like family nature clubs, where neighbourhood families come together to design monthly adventure schedules and in at least one case even design their own smartphone app. // The Nature Principle is recommended as a book which is informative, practical and not dismissive of our love of technology. In many ways, his message can be summed up quite simply. It is just: go outside.
The spirit of Vitamin N is no different. I love, for example, his suggestion of using a contact microphone to listen to the heartbeat of a tree:
Place a contact microphone, one that picks up vibrations directly from physical objects instead of air, in the hollow of a tree and notice the different sounds. Help your children check their tree’s ‘heartbeat’ from time to time. (p42)
There are many other technology-related activities both indoors and outdoors, such as watching wildlife on a webcam and identifying birds using a smartphone app. (The index isn’t great, but browse through the book and note the projects that attract you.)
From a technobiophilic perspective, I think Louv has got it about right. However, it’s possible that many of his readers choose to ignore that aspect and focus instead on the old-fashioned and somewhat sentimental side of nature advocacy. This approach, which researcher Elizabeth Dickinson has called a ‘when I was young’ discourse, can be relentlessly tech-phobic at times, and of course the press loves an anti-technology story, so it’s a relief that in Vitamin N Richard Louv resists the temptation to pander to it. Use this book to upgrade your family’s technature balance.