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Book Excerpt: 'Vitamin N' by Richard Louv

Doctors are increasingly prescribing nature play


In 2009, Janet Ady of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stood before a crowd of grassroots leaders gathered from across the nation by the nonprofit Children & Nature Network. She held up an oversized pharmacy bottle whose label read:

DIRECTIONS: Use daily, outdoors in nature. Go on a nature walk, watch birds, and observe trees. Practice respectful outdoor behavior in solitude or take with friends and family. REFILLS: Unlimited. Expires: Never.

Here was a deceptively simple treatment for improving physical and mental health for all ages, for stimulating learning, creativity, and a sense of being fully alive; definitely not a panacea, but an appropriate elixir in the age of nature-deficit disorder.

In 2010, I was invited to give the plenary keynote to the annual national conference of the American Academy of Pediatrics. I held up Janet’s medicine bottle and suggested to the doctors that they consider prescribing “vitamin N”—N for nature—as an antidote to nature-deficit disorder, which is not a medical diagnosis but a metaphor for the price paid, particularly by children, for our societal disconnect from the natural world.

A growing body of scientific research indicates that experiences in the natural world may reduce the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, serve as a buffer to depression and anxiety, help prevent or reduce obesity and myopia, boost the immune system, and offer many other psychological and physical benefits. Time spent in nature may also improve social bonding and reduce social violence, stimulate learning and creativity, strengthen the conservation ethic, and even help raise standardized test scores.

Pediatricians, in particular, are moving quickly on this front.

Many of the pediatric professionals there that day were more than ready to start prescribing or recommending nature time for their patients. Dr. Daphne Miller, a general practitioner in Noe Valley, California, had already begun to write nature prescriptions as part of the burgeoning field of integrated medicine. “It’s another tool in our toolbox,” she says. In Washington, D.C., Dr. Robert Zarr now writes “park prescriptions.”

As parents and everyday people, what can we do? We can ask our physicians and other health professionals to promote the health benefits of getting outdoors to our own families and communities. We can enlist grandparents and seniors to help us connect our children to nature. And we can encourage schools to incorporate natural learning environments in their curricula. Here in San Diego, we can experience all the natural wonders of the most biodiverse county in the U.S., and advocate for the preservation of its natural open spaces.

Of course, time spent in nature won’t cure everything that ails us, but it does offer some special properties. In 2013, Dean of the UC Riverside School of Medicine G. Richard Olds made this point, at an event focused on children and nature: Few medications or prescriptions work both as prevention and as therapy.

The most fundamental health benefit of spending time in nature is that it gets us off the couch and moving. Diet and genetics contribute to obesity, but so does simple inactivity—and prolonged sitting may be a killer even if we don’t put on the pounds. We now know that sitting is the new smoking.

As a result of this unsettling news, standing desks and treadmill desks have enjoyed a fadlike popularity recently. And though they address the immediate problem of chronic sitting, they’re only part of the solution to the pandemic of inactivity. For a more cost-effective body, mind, and soul treatment, get some green exercise. It’s a lot more fun.

Richard Louv is the author of Vitamin N, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, and The Nature Principle: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age. He is also the co-founder of the Children & Nature Network. Louv resides with his wife in Scripps Ranch.

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