A Pediatrician Recommends the Nature Prescription

It’s late afternoon in the late spring, school’s been out for an hour or so.  I can’t really say for sure ‘cause I’ve totally lost track of time.  I’m knee deep in the muddy creek, eyes scanning for crayfish.  There it is!  Caught one, put in the bucket. We’re also “building a dam,” as we liked to say.  Gathering the perfect shape and size sticks and stones to hold back the mighty river!  Success was when the water slowed at our a-beaver-would-be-proud construction and diverted around the edges.  We never could stop that flow completely despite elaborate architectural debates and plans.  My buddies and I are doing what we do after school pretty much every day, all afternoon until the sun started to work its way down, and we knew it was time to head up the hill for dinner. I’m only a few hundred yards from home but I might as well be anywhere.

When I first read “Last Child in the Woods,” this memory came flooding back in full color and sound.  This was my childhood, as I’ve heard from so many people my age and older.

As I reminisced, I also grew increasingly worried for my children and their generation, because I’m seeing every day the price they are paying for living in a world that doesn’t recognize the true value of nature and free play.

I am a father, but I’m also a pediatrician with a busy primary care practice.  And I am witnessing the slow and steady destruction of our children’s emotional and physical wellbeing.

Kids are being diagnosed with anxiety, depression, ADHD, irritable bowel syndrome and migraine headaches at all time high rates.  Whatever labels we want to use, the message is clear – our children are suffering from stress.

While I’ve written previously about our medical systems’ ineffective and (at times) dangerous “one ill-one pill” approach, my point here is about prevention.

Getting kids back into nature is a key part of the solution to keeping kids healthy and truly creating wellness. A mounting number of research studies highlight the positive impact of free outdoor play on children’s emotional and physical health.

I like that and it makes us feel good. It also helps to fund projects when people demand proof. But do we really need randomized controlled trials (RCTs) to prove that spending time in nature is good for us and for our children?

In medical school, doctors are taught that RCTs are the gold standard to prove the worth of medical interventions. But what if the intervention is not a drug dosed exactly the same for every person for the same condition? What if the “treatment” — or better yet, the “prevention” — is something so multifaceted as nature? The more complex our challenges, the more complex the solutions.

This whole person philosophy, embedded in holistic health practice, is critical to solving the chronic health woes of our time, both in research and in practice.

And it is why doctors alone will never solve any of our current major health issues. If we continue to ignore common sense and place our children in increasingly stressful environments without teaching them the crucial coping skills and providing them with the opportunities for safe, unstructured free time in natural settings, we will continue to watch painfully as they deteriorate in mind and body.

We must be willing, as a health care profession, to leave our silos and work together with those colleagues in education, government, and environmental planning who value nature as a key to optimal health. It will only be through this commitment and investment that we will save our children and our future.

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