Contextualizing urban childhoods

The scholar and journalist Richard Louv, co-founder of the Children & Nature Network, created the term Nature Deficit Disorder to describe the current disconnection between children and nature, and its negative impacts on children’s and the planet’s health and well-being. The context presented here explains some aspects of this phenomenon and justifies the existence of Alana’s Children and Nature program.


Contemporary society is predominantly urban. The majority of children are born and grow up within urban contexts. In Brazil, 84% of the population lives in cities (IBGE, 2010) and 47% do not feel safe in the city in which they live (IBGE, 2010).


The current growth model of cities and its disputes over the use and allocation of open spaces compromises the offer and access to natural areas, which are being replaced by construction and open spaces covered with cement. Therefore, children experience few opportunities to be in public or private nature spaces, be it in houses, apartment buildings, schools, public gardens or parks. As a result, there is less soil, grass, ants, sticks and leaves for children to play with.


Confinement is also a result of the fact that people and nature are losing space to motor vehicles. In 2017, there was one car for every 4.8 Brazilians (Sindipeças, 2018). The street is no longer a space in which children can play and walk freely.


Depending on the social, economic and territorial context, the experience of the city, school and family can vary. This is also true for how much a child interacts with public green spaces. There are a variety of childhoods and, therefore, a variety of ways to experience encounters with others and with nature.

Due to a lack of safety in various socioeconomic contexts, families prioritize keeping children confined to private and indoor spaces. Although this attitude represents a form of caring, the fact is that it keeps children away from public areas and open spaces. Therefore, they have few opportunities to play independently without guidance and gradually develop an autonomous experience of the city, characterized by mobility and freedom of movement.


São Paulo has only 2.6m2 of green space per person. The international recommended standard is 12m2. The overall average is already considered low by some experts, but certain neighborhoods in the city’s center and its outskirts are even more gray. Despite having the largest forested area in the city, the neighborhood of Parelheiros, for example, has only 0.29m2 of gardens and parks per inhabitant (Agência Estado, 2012).



A wide range of studies link the lack of opportunities to learn and play in nature to an increase in the prevalence of health problems among children and adolescents, such as obesity, hyperactivity, low motor skills, weak physical abilities, nearsightedness, heart disease, and metabolic syndrome (Alana and the Brazilian Pediatrics Society, 2019).


One out of every three Brazilian children are overweight or considered obese (IBGE, 2010).

Outdoor activities reduce the risk of nearsightedness in children (Ophthalmology, 2008).

Children take fewer medication, be it for calming down or exciting them.



Humanity is facing increasing challenges in relation to its well-being and the Earth’s survival. The current model of economic development is leading to the collapse of natural environments, which are essential to every form of life on the planet.

Among the strategies we have for dealing with this challenge, it is increasingly clear that we have to rely on the feeling of belonging between humans and nature. After all, we can only care for and preserve the things we love. Childhood is a unique period in which we can develop this essential bond for the survival of the human species and the Earth (Children & Nature Network, 2019).


To many adults, being in nature is equal to danger. Our fear keeps children from playing outdoors, developing their own judgement skills while enjoying freedom and autonomy to explore and take risks. Without experiencing beneficial risk, the child does not exercise their instinct to move forward, to go beyond what they already know, discovering new ways of using their body, and dealing with success and failure.




A common trend in all childhoods: children increasingly inhabit the digital environment. When we lose the street and public spaces as areas for interaction among peers, and end up needing something to control the child’s impulse for movement and expansion, the use of digital devices increases.

Within the context of the attention economy and digital intoxication, boys and girls have fewer opportunities to develop a repertoire related to actions in the real world, through exploration and discovery guided by the body in motion or through contemplation. Without this repertoire, it becomes difficult to develop self-control mechanisms to modulate the use of technology and the connection to the natural world in a healthy and productive way.

85% of children and teenagers between 9 and 17 years old use the internet, and 93% of these access the internet on cell phones, a device whose use is increasingly normal in this age group (TIC KIDS ONLINE, 2017).


The daily routine in a city is a race against time. Families, including children, have to count their minutes in order to complete every task of daily life. Even with the best intentions, it is a challenge to find the free time to go out and play.




Children are being driven to consume earlier and earlier. With an overexposure to advertising, they become convinced that they must have a certain toy or video game or the latest fashions. Meanwhile, adults believe that they must consume or invest a lot of resources in order to offer meaningful experiences to their children. The nearby nature, the one within reach on the sidewalk, square or neighboring lot, offers what the child really desires in their body and soul: the space and resources to be the author of their own play.