Psychology Students Explore ‘Nature Deficit’ in Children

March 20, 2012

For years, through its graduate-level Environment Based Learning (EBL) curriculum, Mary Baldwin University has endorsed the concept of returning to nature to engage youngsters who have been raised in a wired world. Psychology students are also exploring the so-called “nature deficit disorder,” and recently attended a lecture by the bestselling author who coined the term.

“My friends and I played outside all the time. It is hard to believe that children do not go outside to play every day like my friends and I used to do,” said Emily McElveen, a sophomore from Staunton.

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McElveen — a sociology major who hopes to teach first grade — and more than 25 classmates in Child Psychology 210 traveled to Charlottesville last week to hear Richard Louv, who wrote the national bestseller, Last Child in the Woods, and more recently, The Nature Principle.

“The talk was very eye-opening. It truly made me realize how disconnected from nature children are in today’s society,” McElveen said. “Louv kept the audience laughing with his humor throughout the presentation.”

Taught by Assistant Professor of Psychology Heather Macalister, the child psych class examines cognitive, socio-emotional, language, and gender development from infancy through late childhood from different theoretical perspectives. Students consider environmental and biological influences on children’s behavior and discuss implications for parents, teachers, and others who work with children.

McElveen recommends the child psychology class to anyone interested in teaching or one day becoming a parent. Assigned reading in the class includes In Defense of Childhood, which echoes many of the sentiments in Louv’s work. McElveen said the book’s author, Chris Mercogliano, makes a compelling argument that children are losing the ability to simply “be kids.”

“[Children] used to be able to express themselves and play outside every day,” McElveen said. “Now, kids would rather sit inside their house watching television, which does not stimulate imagination. Children are losing their childhood and their creativity.”

According to Louise Freeman, chair of the psychology department at Mary Baldwin, being able to dive deeper into one aspect of child psychology highlights advantages of studying developmental psychology at Mary Baldwin .

“Unlike a lot of places where you would try to cover conception to death in a single lifespan development course, we focus on three distinct phases of development: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood,” Freeman said.” This allows each phase to be examined in much more depth, so that students learn not only the classical theories of people like Piaget and Erikson but more modern concepts like Louv’s ‘nature-deficit disorder.’ It is a real privilege to be able to offer these opportunities to our students.”

After the Louv lecture, students gathered at Freeman’s house to share personal stories about their own childhoods and discuss technological influence on society and, McElveen added, “what our future might be like if we keep relying on technology to do everything for us in life.”

According to Freeman, at several times during his presentation, Louv spoke highly of the work performed by Mary Baldwin Associate Professor of Education Tamra Willis, director of the EBL program. Willis helped organize the sold-out Louv discussion at the Paramount Theater.

One of the first programs of its kind in the country, EBL at Mary Baldwin teaches educators how to integrate an inquiry-based outdoor education model into their curricula and how to help their students develop critical thinking skills, become better problem solvers, and gain an appreciation for their surroundings.

“We didn’t know any different,” McElveen said. “When it snowed, all of the kids came out to play in the church parking lot at the end of the neighborhood. We would build things with sticks or just play with a ball. We could always find something fun to do outside. “