THE WHOLE CHILD: A Pediatrician Recommends the Nature Prescription

About the Author

Lawrence Rosen, MD is an integrative pediatrician and co-author of "Treatment Alternatives for Children" and founder of one of the country’s first “green” pediatric practices, The Whole Child Center, in Oradell, NJ. He serves as Medical Advisor to the Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Center at HackensackUMC, and is a founding member and Past Chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Integrative Medicine.

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.

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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.


Photo above © Angela McKeown.

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More reading:

“‘Vitamin N’ and the American Academy of Pediatrics” by Mary Brown, M.D.

“Sitting is the New Smoking”

 Nature’s Neurons: Do Early Experiences in the Natural World Help Shape Children’s Brain Architecture?

20 Ways to Create a Naturally Restorative Home and Garden

A Field Guide to the New Nature Movement

Children & Nature Network Research and Reports


  1. That’s how I grew up. How else does one develop self confidence and a healthy curiosity? My folks gave me freedom to explore on my own (literally, the Mohave and Panamint Valleys) as soon as I had a pickup truck and was old enough to get a drivers license. The trusted me.

  2. Dr. Rosen,
    Wow – your article is so important. I can;t stop thinking about it as I’m working on a parks and recreation master plan for East Orange’s eight community parks. Nature is conspicuously absent system-wide. The City operates without partners in retrenchment mode. However there is a bright spot: the City recently committed to funding parks and recreation at a higher level. That alone is not enough – partnerships are key. Health care should be a crucial partner. Do you have any thoughts on what I could do in East Orange to move your idea that your described in this article ahead: “the health care profession,… working 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.” I want to make this happen in East Orange and am in a position through this plan to get the ball rolling.
    Thanks- Thanks – Thanks
    Ann Toole
    Toole Recreation Planning
    6081 Honey Hollow Road
    Doylestown, PA 18902

  3. Ann –
    Kudos to you for the work you are doing. You have to get all the players to the table. We did this in NYC for CHE’s Intergenerational Conference on the Environment in June 2012 and it was amazing. Invite the community health leaders, urban planning leaders, government officials, faith group leaders, landscape architects – young and old- and talk it out. Don’t be afraid to be inspirational.

  4. Thank You, Dr. Rosen,
    I read the CHE conference e-book. Is there a report, presentation or materials about connecting children with nature for health and physical activity from any of your sessions? Your description of getting people together for discussions on this topic as amazing.I did meet with the public health staff at the city’s general hospital but they serve only serve adults – five hospitals have closed.So if I could read any materials you might have, that might help get us going.I’m trying to find a medical champion in the city who might work with us.

  5. Love seeing a humble Doctor. Thanks for the article Lawrence.

  6. Thank you Dr. Rosen for your excellent article and work!

    Contact me at dave (at) pachaspajamas dot com if you would like to participate in the Imagination Heals program which brings nature-themed music, stories and activities to children in hospitals. The program is free to hospitals. You can find out more at

  7. Forgot to mention that we are providing albums and books to the SF clinic that is starting a pilot Park Prescriptions program this month.

  8. Children and parents will be delighted to visit website for healthy , happy, environmentally friendly listening. Interactive children’s music and activities encourage healthy eating and growing in our natural world for the whole family! Here you will find interactive and educational children’s music for a focus on nutrition, environment and anit-bullying.

  9. This is important.But the child needs a holistic natural experience.I raised my son as a barefoot kid as well as a naturist,though he was mentally challenged.I often almost permanently let my son explore nature both barefoot and nude,and he loved it.He could not read or write..but the lessons he learnt playing nude in nature and around the house, helped Jim not only developed a balanced view on body..but an appreciation for nature.He became more expressive in art..developed an excellent balance skill,enjoyed exploring different textures in the nude.He had his entire body exposed and sensitised.. And loved rolling down dunes..minor jumps..climbing trees and rocks barefoot and naked..swim and play in mud.He became very calm..disciplined..loving and understanding. Most of his free time was spent natural..and even his school work showed the results.Kids need to holistically experience e nature.My son just seemed to connect with nature..


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