From the Blog

Battling Nature Deficit Disorder

YMCA Camp Bernie was one of the first camps in the country to offer Outdoor Education programming to schools. Just this year, Camp Bernie served nearly 8,000 students in Outdoor Education.


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Recently, I was contacted by a Rutgers graduate student doing a study on the impact of Nature Deficit Disorder on inner-city kids. As we spoke, and I passed on some of our statistics, she finally let on that she had attended Camp Bernie as a 6th grader with her school many years ago and that experience had a significant impact on her life. While it was great to hear, it didn’t surprise me. 


YMCA Camp Bernie was one of the first camps in the country to offer Outdoor Education programming to schools. Just this year, Camp Bernie served nearly 8,000 students in Outdoor Education. In fact, the CEO of the Ridgewood YMCA Association and my own mother-in-law both came here as 6th graders in 1962!


What does surprise me is how much harder it is now for schools to start doing Outdoor Education trips like these. Some school districts in New Jersey make these trips nearly impossible by pulling funding (an “easy” big thing to cut) and even preventing schools from taking overnight trips of any kind. Outdoor trips are seen as “too risky” with too many ways to get hurt and too many things that could go wrong.


This is exactly the heart of the issue surrounding the philosophy of Nature Deficit Disorder. This is not a medical term, but a social trend describing "the human costs of alienation from nature, among them diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional illness," according to Richard Louv, author of The Last Child in the Woods, a book that coined and brought light to NDD.


Society inadvertently teaches children to fear the outdoors, where there's traffic, nature and strangers, and feel safest inside (where, unfortunately, air quality can be 10 times worse, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). By 1990, according to one study, the radius of play around a house for a nine-year-old had shrunk to one-ninth of what it was 20 years earlier. Louv pointed to a recent UCLA report showing that American kids now spend virtually no time in their own yards. According to Louv, we're raising the very first generation of Americans to grow up disconnected with nature, and this broken relationship is making kids overweight, depressed and distracted.


As a child, I remember walking out the front door in the morning, meeting up with friends, running amok in the neighborhood and not heading back home until I hear the distinct sound of my mom’s whistle signaling dinner time. Did we even eat lunch? I’m sure we all gathered at someone’s house for sandwiches or macaroni & cheese.


The day was full of climbing trees, flying kites, and splashing around catching frogs in a stream. From nature and lifecycles to the properties of physics, I learned so much in the course of the day, without even realizing. My cuts and bruises served as reminders of poor decisions made and lessons learned.


That time was valuable in teaching me social skills, too. Playing kickball in the street didn’t just teach me to move to the side every so often for a car to pass; it taught me how to interact with those around me. Disputes between friends were settled amidst ourselves. Problems arose and we discovered solutions on our own. 


By Julie Jester, Camp Bernie Senior Program Director


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