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And yes, it means exactly what it looks like it means.
Nature-Deficit Disorder is not a clinically diagnosed disease. It is, however, a rather clever name for a disturbing trend towards "denatured childhood" and the alarming affects that can result from such a condition.
The phrase was coined by Richard Louv in his fascinating book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.
Louv points out that today's children no longer spend long summer afternoons running through the woods, playing in fields, or camping under the stars. Instead, they are at home playing video games, watching movies, surfing the web, or engaging in other indoor activities.
I've witnessed this myself when I go home to my parent's house for Christmas and am surprised every year by the absolute dearth of kids playing in the street with their new toys. Christmas morning is a ghost town--outdoors, at least. If I peer through the neighbor's windows, however, I can see all the kids huddled around TVs or computer screens, bug-eyed and brain dead. Frankly, I find it very depressing.
So what's the harm in spending less and less time outdoors in nature?
Louv argues that the exposure to nature is necessary for cognitive development and without a heavy dosage of it, children are more prone to suffer from depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, stress, and, of course, obesity.
Although Louv is not a doctor, he sites a substantial body of research supporting links between positive immersion in nature and a child's increased cognitive development.
He takes the argument a step further by blaming decreased nature exposure on worried parents who no longer allow their kids to run loose. Playtime is not only structured and supervised these days, but playgrounds and parks have been completely bled of any natural elements for fear of lawsuits, thus creating an artificial environment that might be outdoors, but it sure isn't natural.
It will be a long time, if ever, we see Nature-Deficit Disorder appear in the pages of the DSM, psychology's A-Z of psychiatric diagnoses. I doubt that such a condition will ever be proven conclusively, and yet exposing children to the great outdoors just feels right to me, like it's the natural thing to do.