Nature Deficit Disorder: How the Outdoors can Change Your Life
I will not take credit for the title of this article; for those of you unaware, there was a book by Richard Louv published in 2005 called “Last Child in the Woods” which talks about Nature Deficit Disorder and how it’s affecting society today. In the past half-century, we have been largely removed from nature and all the benefits it provides. Henry David Thoreau made this discovery as he was writing Walden.
“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”
I was fortunate enough to attend Lakefield College School, a school built on Lake Katchewanooka, which is about 2 hours northeast of Toronto. The school placed a huge emphasis on education of the whole person, and the underlying basis for this was a curriculum heavily invested in the outdoors. Instead of running laps for gym class, I went canoeing, snowshoeing, camping, cross-country skiing, and even got to experience a high ropes course. These experiences trained students not only in the physical rigours of these activities, but they also helped to develop numerous soft skills including leadership, teamwork, and pushing your comfort zone.
As a child, I was terrified of amusement park rides. I was incredibly risk-averse, and preferred to play it safe with the bulk of my activity choices. I didn’t play any contact sports and I avoided operating any motorized toys like snowmobiles or ATVs.
My experience in outdoor education changed that. I soon had the supportive pressure from classmates to climb one step higher, reach a little bit further, or go a little bit faster. I went from being afraid of heights to tackling climbing walls for fun. I went from being afraid of roller coasters to throwing myself headfirst into whitewater canoeing.
The outdoors doesn’t need to be exhilarating; for many, the meditative experience of a walk in the woods provides the tonic of which Thoreau spoke. In a world where we are surrounded by stressful distractions, exposure to nature may hold the key to our anxiety.
Here are 7 reasons how the outdoors can change your life for the better:
1) The outdoors challenges you to be better. A lot of the skills you learn in the outdoors will be new experiences to you, so it reinforces that sense of effort and learning you experienced way back when you were little. It reinforces that you should never stop learning, and how enjoyable it is to learn new skills. One of these new skills may just become a new passion of yours.
2) The outdoors provides the opportunity for experiences, which are the best way to learn and to encourage personal growth. Instead of spending your money entirely on possessions, why not invest a little in a canoe, or camping equipment, or a trip to hike the Adirondack Mountains? Much research has been done on the benefit of purchasing experiences versus purchasing products, and the untamed, raw nature of many outdoor experiences has a lot more staying power than a new TV or new car ever will. A new car or new TV also can’t change who you are for the better.
3) The outdoors introduces novel risk on an increasingly safe and predictable world. This is why we are so obsessed with news stories of death and destruction. This is why TV shows and movies who have protagonists that are messed up or “bad” are so popular (Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, and The Walking Dead, to name a few). We need an escape from our dull world, but unfortunately, the TV only gives us a temporary sense of that since we didn’t experience these events first hand. Get outside and experience some real risk for yourself. Scrape your knee climbing a tree. Jam your thumb hammering down your tent pegs. Get covered in mud when you’re spelunking. To quote the Miss Frizzle: “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!”
4) The outdoors teaches independence. Many people my age are still incredibly reliant on their parents or other friends for basic things in life. They can’t read a map, they can’t cook, and they can’t do basic functional tasks. When I see this, all I think back to is everything I learned when I was camping with my parents as a child, or when I went camping with groups at Lakefield. Yes, I had parents or teachers around in case something went horribly wrong, but for the most part, the honus was on us to take care of ourselves. If you didn’t, there was that sense of risk and danger that helped balance things out and keep you focused. The best way to learn is by doing it for yourself, and nothing teaches that better than the outdoors does.
5) The outdoors introduces how a novel appreciation for nature can transcend barriers. I did an undergraduate degree in biology, but some of the people I know with the greatest passion for outdoors have no scientific background whatsoever. Don’t think that you have to be a science nerd in order to gain an appreciation for nature. I’m by no means a hippie, but I will always preach that a simple appreciation for how to identify different species of plants and animals, how they interact, and what impact we can have on them will go a long way and serve you well throughout your life. It could even save your life one day; you never know.
6) The outdoors can fashion you into a totally new person with the soft skills it teaches. Leadership, respect, responsibility, openness to new experiences; indeed all of these can help you become a better person. I wouldn’t be the same person today without these skills and values. I was a very shy and quiet kid in high school; now I’m the exact opposite. I love taking the lead with groups now, where I would never have been comfortable with any such thing before grade 11. You also have to respect the different values and opinions of your group when faced with difficult decisions that could potentially endanger someone in the outdoors, and these can be extrapolated to decisions you will have to make in the workforce one day. Many great leaders attribute their time in the outdoors to shaping their character.
7) The outdoors unites you with many like-minded people and offers you common ground on which to connect. Some of the more “outdoorsy” teachers I knew at Lakefield often brought their spouses along on trips, who were quite outdoorsy themselves. Relationships are built and strengthened upon shared experiences and philosophies, and if the outdoors is your thing, you’ll probably be happier with someone who shares that viewpoint. You both appreciate a challenge, you aren’t afraid to get messy, and you’re open to new things. This isn’t limited to relationships, either. Outdoorsy trips are a great place to meet like-minded people.
As more and more students are pursuing post-secondary education, their futures will usually lead them to settle in an urban area. This is causing a major disconnect from the outdoors and all of the benefits it offers. Instead of getting wrapped up in the trivial matters of city living, why not commit to improving your life and start investing more of your time pursuing outdoors-related ventures?
I am by no means advocating that you have to become the next Bear Grylls, but instead of doing something boring and predictable, make your life a little more exciting by experiencing something in the great outdoors. Your life will be better because of it. Make sure you come back with a few bumps and scrapes, too; no one said it had to be glamourous.