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These resources can help educators address nature deficit disorder and give students a sense of appreciation for the outdoors and climate change.

What is nature deficit disorder?

These resources can help educators address nature deficit disorder and give students a sense of appreciation for the outdoors

This year marked the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day celebrations all over North America, as well as around the world. The origin of Earth Day links back to the works of Gaylord Nelson and Rachel Carson and their work and dedication to the Earth’s environment. They were able to stand by their values because they felt the direct connection with nature, the outdoors and an approach towards environmental education that brought people together from all walks of life.

Currently, we are in a precarious situation. On one hand, we have Greta Thunberg, an environmental activist in her teens, taking a stand in the global arena. On the other, we have a rising number of K-12 students who say they feel they are losing their connection to nature.

Related content: How STEM learning invigorates classrooms

What is nature deficit disorder?

In an interview, Richard Louv explains that “nature-deficit disorder” is not a medical diagnosis, but a useful term to describe what many believe are the human costs of alienation from nature.

● Diminished use of the senses
● Attention difficulties
● Higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses
● A rising rate of myopia
● Child and adult obesity
● Vitamin D deficiency, and other maladies

In his many talks, papers, and presentations he speaks of ways this nature deficit disorder can be reversed pointing towards the direction of involving children and adults alike to embrace the outdoors.

If we want our future generations to be stewards of Mother Earth, we need to purposefully help make connections to nature. Some may argue environmental literacy could potentially be a way to reach that goal–if so, how would it work?

Outdoor education may be visualized as a tree with two branches: a) outdoor adventure-based learning, and b) environmental education-based learning helping to make a connection to the place.

Current research supports that making the connection to nature as early as possible, beginning in early childhood education, and providing environmental experiences starting in the preschool years, can build a solid foundation for lifelong pro-environment attitudes and beliefs.

What is outdoor education?

It is often said that there are many avatars of outdoor education. However, the simplistic description would be: “Outdoor education is education ‘in,’ ‘about,’ and ‘for’ the out-of-doors.”

Among the many ways outdoor education can be perceived include:

● Environmental education refers to education about the total environment, including population growth, pollution, resource use and misuse, urban and rural planning, and modern technology with its demands upon natural resources. Environmental education is all-encompassing, while outdoor education is seen by some to relate to natural resources and not to include the wide sense of the world environment. Many people, however, think of outdoor education in its broadest sense and prefer the term outdoor/environmental education.

● Conservation education refers to wise use of natural resources. It is not usually concerned with preservation, recreation, or human relations and as such is more narrow than outdoor education.

● Resident outdoor school is the process of taking children to a residential camp during school time for a period of usually 3 to 5 days for the purpose of extending the curriculum through learning in the outdoors. This process was originally called camping education.

● Outdoor education means a broad spectrum of outdoor activities participated in during leisure time purely for pleasure or some other intrinsic value.

● Outdoor pursuits refer to non-mechanized, outdoor recreation activities done in areas remote from the amenities of telephone, emergency help, and urban comforts.

● Adventure education refers to activities into which are purposely built elements perceived by the participants as being dangerous.

● Experiential education refers to learning by doing or experience. Something to note here is that several experiential education activities are synonymous with adventure activities and outdoor pursuits; however, experiential education can also mean any form of pragmatic educational experience.

● Environmental interpretation is a term usually associated with visitor centers administered by national parks or forest service centers.

● Nature education and nature recreation are learning or leisure activities related to natural resources.

Are nature-based, place-based environmental educations all the same?

This is open to interpretation, as each one would be unique based on the location. A nature based environmental education program in the Tetons in Wyoming would vary greatly with one by the shores of Lake Superior.

However, they both would share elements that would qualify them for nature/place-based or environmental education. So does that mean if someone is not in that location they cannot participate in such programs? Of course they can. This is the beauty of place-based education.

When and how can we introduce outdoor education or nature-based education?

A caregiver in any capacity can choose to make a connection to outdoor education or nature-based education. It is all about exposing students to nature-based experiences during early childhood.

Whether one is helping them learn about phenology as they go about their nature walks in rural or urban areas, it is always possible to observe and help children make connections. They can learn about weather patterns, survival, adaptation, and many other concepts if one is willing to spend the time to help them see those.

Project Learning Tree’s resource Environmental Experiences for Early Childhood is a good starting point to introduce nature based education during early childhood.

Are there benefits to student success if they participate in outdoor education?

If it is not apparent as yet, of course there are benefits to student success that have positive outcomes for test scores as well as in various other areas of the whole child’s development.

Investing in and rethinking about outdoor education/place-based/ nature education can definitely make a bigger impact in improving overall cognitive, mental, and physical well-being of K-12 students.

A compilation of research, reports, and studies shares measurable outcomes that were directly linked to participation in outdoor education from places in Norway, Canada, and the United States.

Opportunities and resources

Other resources for PreK-12 can be found here:
Resources from Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education WCEE
Wisconsin’s K-12 Forestry Education Program LEAF
Project Learning Tree PLT
Environmental Education Activities for Teacher Educators

One can hope that exposing children to nature, through place-based and environmental education, will build a strong connection for them to create foundation for future stewards of Mother Nature.

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