Friday, July 24, 2009

"How come it was more fun when you were a kid?"

I spent my elementary school years in rural southern Illinois in the 1970s. I was recently trying to remember how old I was when my friends and I were spending entire days in the woods, on our own. My best friend from the time thinks we started around age six, which now seems outrageously young. Certainly by third grade, we’d make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and tie them up in bandanas, which we would tie to the end of sticks and pretend to be hobos, or stranded on a desert island, or any other fantasy that involved not interacting with adults for long stretches of time. The only rule I remember was to be home by dark. Neither of us ever got hurt. I think we really were some of the last kids to grow up the way we did.

Like me, Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, remembers:

I knew every bend in the creek and dip in the beaten dirt paths. I wandered those woods even in my dreams. A kid today can likely tell you about the Amazon rain forest -- but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude, or lay in a field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move.

For me, one of the most memorable quotes in Louv's book was from his son: "Dad, how come it was more fun when you were a kid?" Ouch.

Matt remembers the shift right in the middle of his childhood. He grew up in Columbia, MD, which was designed to get everyone outside -- there are terrific wooded paths connecting neighborhoods to their schools and shopping centers. He started out walking to school with his older sisters on these paths. He still has a hand-drawn map of the creek near his house, made with his friends over many long days of unsupervised exploring. But at some point, the moms started driving all the kids to school. He remembers hearing about kidnappers, and thinking they were enormous spiders, waiting to pounce on kids from under the bridge over the creek.

Don't get me wrong -- parents have a right to worry about their kids. And spending time outdoors is a fantastic thing for parents to do with their kids. But my worry is three-fold: 1) in this ultra-busy town, ultra-busy parents don't have time to be outside with their kids, so the kids stay indoors; 2) kids play and explore differently under close parental supervision; and 3) the combination of these two facts will result in a generation of children that has less fun outdoors.

What are your thoughts? Do you think you had more freedom to play outdoors than kids do now? Was it, as Michael Louv's son asked, more fun when you were a kid? And what can parents do now to give their kids a taste of the freedom that so many of us grew up with -- and inspire them with the same love of being outdoors?