When I was a kid, I remember heading out back to the ravine behind our house. It was only a few steps from the front door, but it might as well been a million miles away, in some godforsaken, unexplored jungle. I’d pretend to be Han Solo, exploring a far off planet, or an archaeologist, digging for clues about ancient years — like the early seventies. My friend Jenna often tells stories about sitting in a tree in her yard, enveloped by branches, equipped with books and sandwiches. In fact, many people I know, when asked to name their favorite place to play as a child, would mention somewhere outdoors.
I wonder about today’s kids. I don’t seem to remember the problem of “childhood obesity” when I was in elementary school. It’s easy to blame McDonalds, I guess, except that I don’t recall McDonald’s ever coming to my house and forcing Big Macs down my throat.
Anyway, Aleks Wukovich pointed me to an article from the latest issue of The Ecologist. Tim Gill, the author, agrees with me about the idea that the great outdoors is often listed as the favorite childhood play place of today’s grown-ups.
Your favourite childhood place to play was out of doors. It was away from adults. And it was a ‘wild’ place – not truly wild perhaps, but unkempt, dirty, and quite possibly a little bit dangerous. How can I be so sure? Because over the years I’ve asked lots of grown-ups this question – parish clerks, senior civil servants, nursery workers, landscape architecture undergraduates, council officials, foresters, politicians, teachers – and they all say the same thing. If you doubt me, just raise the subject at your next coffee break or party and see what comes up.
It seems that, given the chance, human beings in their middle years of childhood love nothing more than a secret hideaway they can make their own: usually a spot carefully chosen to be just out of earshot of a shouting parent.
Tim presents the well-supported fact that playing outside keeps kids thinner. According to the article:
Studies at the University of Illinois’ Human-Environment Research Laboratory on children with Attention-Hyperactivity Deficit Disorder (ADHD) have shown that green outdoor spaces not only foster creative play and improve interactions with adults, they also relieve the symptoms of the disorder.
So why don’t kids play outside as much as they used to? Gill suggests the following reasons:
- A decrease in places to play due to the exponential growth in road traffic and poor town planning.
- Shifts in the make-up and daily rhythms of families and communities.
- A generalised anxiety about all manner of threats that found fertile ground in turn-of-the-millennium families, even though children are statistically safer from harm now than at any point in human history.
Gill goes on to offer a well-developed, multi-faceted solution. It’s definitely worth a read. I am always most interested in the ideas that focus less on blaming other people and waiting for someone else to act, and more on the things we can do ourselves. Says Gill:
We parents also have the power to resist the seductions of consumerism and play our part in restoring to children some of the freedoms we took for granted when we were young. We can say no a little more, switch off the screens and direct our children’s curious eyes to some altogether more expansive vistas. In doing so, we need to face up to our fears and chip away at the free-floating anxiety that can so easily beset us.
Hmm. Maintain a little perspective. Encourage a little curiosity. Have a little faith. That sounds about right.