Facing up to Nature Deficit Disorder

I am a Nature Geek, also known as a Bird Nerd. It is part of my identity, and something I am proud to embrace. It hasn’t always been this way however.

It was ok when I was very young, we all made daisy chains, or picked up feathers and pinecones and conkers, but that all changed at senior school. Suddenly, nature wasn’t ‘cool’. As a teenager I simply had no interest in the music, video games, computers, celebrities, drugs, parties, gossip, graphic novels, or anything else my friends were obsessed by, and I struggled to understand why and how my peers were so disinterested in and oblivious to, the world surrounding them. How could their eyes work so differently, so much more inwardly than my own, so that they simply didn’t notice the living things that fluttered and blossomed beneath their very noses? If they did notice, then the result was usually destructive, or else, one of complete indifference. I once came across a group of students encircling a disorientated slowworm on the pavement. “Let’s stamp on it!’ an unidentified voice called from the back of the group. I barged in and moved the creature to the safety of nearby undergrowth, and left without a word. I was as lucky as the slowworm to get out of that situation.

The common perception of children, especially teenagers, is of intense screen obsession, rarely ranging far outdoors, and little or no understanding of nature or the environment. Because they don’t know about it, they can’t love it, and therefore can’t care about it. These attitudes were conceived multiple generations back when nature became seen as an inconvenience, in the way, of no value. My grandparents’ generation continued the intensive mechanisation of farmland and the spread of development. Hedgerows were ripped out, motorways laid, and the names of housing estate streets became the only remaining clues to the former character of the land that disappeared under the layers of concrete. The ‘long haired hippies’ that fought for balance and for the value of nature were regarded as ridiculous, out-of-date, holding back society. My parents’ generation either believed that this was positive progress, or could see no way to reverse the trends, but either way turned away and closed their eyes. Thus, the next generation, were nurtured blind to natures wonder.

The symptoms of this disconnection (thought to possibly include obesity, attention/learning and behavioural problems, allergies and illness, poor mental health…) were eventually diagnosed by an enlightened minority and labelled with the term Nature Deficit Disorder. Conferences have been held, campaigns run, and many people have talked bout the problem. And talked. And talked. Meanwhile, like any epidemic, NDD has evolved, developed, and increased its resistance. I am now in my mid 20’s and reaching the age where many of my school friends and peers are having children. Some of those very earliest cases of NDD identified may even be not far from approaching early grandparent-hood. We have now reached a stage of double or even triple-generation disconnection from nature.

So how can we reach these disconnected children? Those who, unlike myself and a core sub-population of young people, have lost that link to the world of which we are part?

How about a GCSE in Natural history – making nature part of the national curriculum? This is what many people are suggesting.

Some primary school children are lucky, and have a certain amount of nature and biology included in their early years learning, but this soon dries up. Why not continue this education into pre-adulthood schooling? Personally, I’d have loved the opportunity of taking a Natural History GCSE; I’d never have missed a single lesson. Although to be honest, judging by the lack of interest in nature shown by not only my peers but also my teachers, I would probably have ended up teaching the lesson myself! And maybe that is where the strongest flaw lies in this idea. How often have you come across someone who was put off a particular subject by the way it was taught at school? Maybe you found this yourself? “I always hated French at school, just couldn’t get on with languages.” “Ugh, maths was so repetitive and dreadful, I found it so boring. Can’t remember a single thing we were taught now anyway.” “Do you remember Mr/Mrs X? They were awful!”
I achieved a ‘C’ grade in my History GCSE, a reasonable grade but lower than projected, and one of my lowest. Intrinsically, history is a favourite subject, but my teacher had an unfortunate effect of generating a yawn from me, the moment they took a breath to speak. So what I mean to say is, that if we have a GCSE in Natural History, it needs to be taught really well and meaningfully or it could put students off the topic for life.

Also, the last thing I and the majority of my friends wanted to do outside of school, was anything connected with the things we were studying all week long inside school (that’s why we always left our homework until the last minute, Mum!).

Maybe this all sounds rather negative. A GCSE in Natural History could well be a ground-breaking idea. It would certainly have the much needed effect of helping to ‘normalising nature’. If it was a subject that any student could take, and it became part of everyday education, perhaps this would reduce to stigma surrounding an interest in nature. Many young people through groups such as A Focus On Nature and Next Generation Birders have come forward recently to talk about the bullying they experienced at school as a result of ‘admitting’ to being a birdwatcher, bug hunter or plant nerd. They all recall being seen as ‘odd’, ‘different’ or ‘weird’. I experienced the same attitudes, but what surprised me most were the attitudes of the adults.

When I finished my GCSE’s I decided to go to land-based college to study a vocational qualification in conservation. My decision was questioned more than once and I was even told outright by one teacher that I was ‘too clever’ and should stay and do academic A-levels instead. This was sadly, a deep-seated approach. In fact, my school had formerly offered its own vocational qualification in ‘rural studies’ (this ceased the year I started the school), but I would never have had the opportunity to take part.

I was a bright, A-grade student (I achieved 7 A’s, 2 B’s & 2C’s in my GCSEs, although this could well have been higher if I had spent less time either trying to count the thrushes on the playing field, watching the wagtails strut around the car park, or studying the behaviour of the foxes that ventured out of the woods onto the hillside that rose behind the maths block.) ‘Rural Studies’ was only offered to the non-academic students, and primarily those who struggled with behavioural problems or were considered difficult to handle in a classroom situation. Once the qualification was stopped, these same students were sent instead to the local land-based college, almost as if to get them out of the way. And so the ridiculous concept and general belief system was cultured within the students and in some extent the staff that this type of subject and qualification was somehow for the ‘naughty and stupid students’ only, not for ‘normal’ people, and was certainly not ‘cool’.

I hope things have changed in the 8 or so years since I left school. Perhaps this push for a GCSE in Natural History and for increased environmental education in schools is a good sign. Scheme such as Project Wild Thing and Every Child Wild are certainly encouraging. I know it is possible to engage and reconnect those lost boys and girls. It has to be possible: nature needs them and they, and we, need nature.


If you would like to read more about the concept of Nature Deficit Disorder, or about the benefits of connection with nature on our childrens health, wellbeing and learning, simply do a quick search online. There are many articles to browse, try these as a starting point:

Natural Childhood Report, National Trust

Connecting With Nature, RSPB

Every Child Outdoors, RSPB

Research Library, Children & Nature Network


If you feel that a GCSE in Natural History, and increased environmental/nature education in schools could be a good idea, you can sign the petition here.


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