Educators actively fighting “nature deficit disorder”

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By the age of five, the average child will have watched just as many hours of television as the class time it takes to earn a college degree.

Is place-based education the next big educational concept? The philosophy is gaining popularity not only in the Great Lakes region but across the country. Photo: Sam Inglot

“In essence, a five-year old has the equivalent of a college degree in television watching,” said Tom Occhipinti. “The youngest generation today is not getting outdoors at all, they’ve got too much indoors to keep them busy.”

Occhipinti is the environmental education coordinator for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. His program produces environment-related teaching materials for educators across the state.

Television, computers and video games keep kids inside at an unhealthy rate, Occhipinti said. Studies have linked the lack of outdoor activities to problems such as obesity.

To address what is sometimes referred to as Nature Deficit Disorder, Occhipinti and others develop teaching supplements that integrate more outdoor education or “place-based education” into schools.

Getting more kids to spend more time outside is a state, regional and national effort, he said.

Place-based education is all about reestablishing kids’ connection with the outdoors, said Mark Stephens, a hub coordinator for the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative.

The initiative established in 2007 has eight regional “hubs” around Michigan. It partners with K-12 schools and community members to expand environmental education and stewardship through hands-on projects. Funding comes from the Great Lakes Fishery Trust, an organization that provides funding to non-profits and educators to preserve Great Lakes fishery resources.

Stephens coordinates the GRAND Learning Network hub. The name stands for Grand River and nature discovery and it focuses on the Grand River watershed region.

The hubs work with people and groups to get kids outside, working on projects that they’ll not only learn from but that will also benefit the community and develop their appreciation for the outdoors.

The program starts in kindergarten. It’s important to get kids outdoors early so they can develop an appreciation for it, Stephens said. The early start leads to civic-minded students and increased time outdoors.

Students have done everything from build wood duck boxes for local zoos, participated stream velocity management projects and have cleaned up riverbanks and neighborhood storm drains. These cross-curricular projects are intertwined with core education subjects like math and social studies.

Kids are going outside not just to play but to learn and improve the community while at the same time indirectly addressing Nature Deficit Disorder, said Mary Whitmore the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative developer and coordinator.

Both Stephens and Occhipinti said there are health benefits to place-based education as well.

Outdoor education tends to be more dynamic, giving kids an opportunity to move around more, which confronts the issue of obesity, Stephens said. Hyperactive students tend to be calmer when they’re learning outside.

The results of program has influenced some teachers who now start every school day with a short trip outside, he said.

A 2003 study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign concluded that activities held outdoors reduce attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms in children.

The study, A Potential Natural Treatment for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Evidence From a National Study, found the results to be consistent across age, gender, location, income and diagnoses.

At the national level, the No Child Left Inside Coalition, comprised of more than business, health, youth, environmental and educational groups, is pushing for legislation that would allocate more federal funding toward environmental and place-based education.

The coalition has dozens of members throughout every state in the Great Lakes Region.

Even though there are numerous groups pushing place-based education, Whitmore said David Sobel, who helped develop the educational concept, said the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative is leading the nation in the endeavor.

Speaking to the praise received by Sobel, “There are no other states that do what we do,” Stephens said. “We’re trying to change the culture of schools and it’s really catching on and gaining steam.”

6 thoughts on “Educators actively fighting “nature deficit disorder”

  1. The problem is in West Michigan, where everybody used to go down to the pier to catch Perch, (seemed like the whole town was there) now requires a large boat and high costs, to catch the managed for fish (salmon)most kids can’t handle anyway.
    If you tell a kid, they’re catching fish between 150 to 210 feet, he’ll say where’s that? Lets go there! All most can afford or have no wish to do, is stand on the beach and point out there! That’s the problem, nature for sale, if you wish to partake.

  2. I come from a generation two generations or so before today’s kids. I spent much of my childhood outdoors. The generation that followed me, however, spent much less time outdoors, and it’s that generation who have are directly responsible for what their kids do. My father and I spent a lot of time outside together, and that most likely made me comfortable there, and as I got older I wanted to explore there more on my own. Now it seems that being outdoors with a kid involves watching him or her play organized sports.
    Nature deficit disorder in kids today can be dealt with most easily by their parents. Take them to the woods. Let them go there on there own or with other kids at an appropriate age (get past the current security paranoia we have in this country – reasonable levels of risk are beneficial). Don’t blame TV. I watched TV as a kid, but my parents usually only let me watch it at night or on Sat. AMs, but I also spent time outdoors. As a parent today you can also blame yourself for not insisting on living in areas with green spaces bigger than small city or suburban parks.

  3. This is so on target with holistic education!! Teaching the whole child – students use multiple senses, use a variety of intelligences, brain activity is heightened by constant and challenging circumstances and they are truly learning life-long skills! My experience with site-based learning has been nothing short of excellent! Students (even those with special challenges) are engaged and processing at a higher level of thinking than in a relatively static classroom environment. Thanks Great Lakes Stewardship Initative and Grand Learning Network for your work and support to teachers and students!

  4. Thanks for the article. We are doing some really cool things with schools in Mid-Michigan. You can visit our site at or “like” our Facebook page at Keep in mind that we would not be able to do what we do without incredible teachers and partners, with the financial assistance of the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative, and of course the kids who are all about getting outdoors to learn their schoolwork!

  5. Nature deficit disorder is a terrible affliction. Look what it’s done to most of our politicians.

  6. You can get any kid hooked on nature just some them some. Too bad some people are trying control how we are allowed to “use” nature.

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