Meg St-Esprit McKivigan
Early on in the pandemic, she noticed short tempers and anxiety in her 6- and 8-year old children that she attributed to a lack of time outdoors. Shore decided to take her family to a friend’s home with a large yard in a Chicago suburb for several weeks. Once her children had space to move outdoors, she said they seemed calmer, more regulated, and happier. When they returned to their condo, they seemed to regress, she said. They plan to stay with friends who have a yard in a St. Louis suburb for the summer. “I started to worry about the long-term impact on them,” she said. “In the city, they hold their breath when anyone walks by us. In the suburbs, they were able to relax. They were completely different human beings with a yard.”
Ming Kuo, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Illinois who studies urban greening, said parents, like Shore, have described how their children are “completely different” when they have access to green space. Dr. Kuo’s research has shown that access to green space decreases aggression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder symptoms, and boosts the immune system. But she also was quick to point out an unequal access to green spaces across socioeconomic and racial lines.
“Overall, wealthier areas are much greener with more street trees, more lawns and gardens, and more parks. It also varies by race because of segregationist housing policies,” Dr. Kuo said.
Rebecca Hershberg, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in early childhood social-emotional development and mental health, hopes parents will hold on to some of the lessons they’ve learned during the pandemic about the need for unstructured time and nature as states begin to lift restrictions.
“We now know, not just intellectually but based on recent lived experience, that not all activities are created equal when it comes to enhancing our children’s mood and behavior. Prioritizing time in nature, exercise, and even some unstructured downtime is analogous to prioritizing our children’s mental health, which is more important now than ever.”
In the meantime, Louv, the journalist and author who conceived of the concept nature-deficit disorder, created a list of ways that families could connect with the natural world, including some that don’t require having green space, like setting up a “world-watching window.”
In an interview, he recalled the excitement that many people experienced when they saw nature through windows in cities with shelter-in-place orders. “As we sequestered at home, many of us were fascinated by the apparent return of wild animals to our cities and neighborhoods. Some wildlife did come deeper into cities. But many of these animals were already there, hiding in plain sight.”