Thursday, March 5, 2009

Last Child in the Woods

When you were a kid, did you have that special place you would go, somewhere in nature, back when kids were allowed to roam free without telling their parents EXACTLY where they were going? A place where you felt you belonged, a place you claimed as your own? A place in the woods? The edge of a creek? A great climbing-tree? A large bush, even, with a hole you could crawl into and hide?

Do you remember how empowered and peaceful you felt hanging out all by yourself or with your friends in nature?

I've been thinking a lot about this lately...

Has it ever occurred to you that we have taken this amazing experience away from our children in just a couple generations? With all the fear of kidnapping and molestation at every turn, we are prohibiting our kids from walking home from school, having free range of the neighborhood or even leaving the front yard, much less giving them the freedom to explore the few wild places left near our homes.

Kids nowadays, I assume because of the media-instilled fear of predators, are no longer allowed to wander through their neighborhoods.

When I was 8, I had free range of a two block radius, including every backyard, and we could also go anytime we wanted to a quarry, a creek and a train track down the road from my house.

The quarry had once been a swimming hole where you could still see a frayed rope dangling from a bar placed there so kids could swing out over the water, let go, and drop in with a splash. In my time, we were told the water was not clean, but it provided lots of stone-skipping fun, and one could walk around it on a path through some trees.

Most kids in my neighborhood used to have to come home when the streetlights came on. One girl's family had a large farm bell on a tall post in their backyard that they would ring if it was time for her to come home, and it could be heard for blocks. Her parents trusted her not to leave the area in which she could hear that bell.

We played alone, in pairs and in packs. In the summer, we played outside from morning until dinner time, and then we often went out again after dinner. We would play "Ghost in the Graveyard" for hours, hopping neighbor's fences and hiding under bushes. We stole the sugar bowls out of our kitchens into which we dipped stalks of wild rhubarb to make them sweeter.

I suspect now, in my old neighborhood, most kids are allowed to play only in their yard (the backyard, of course, as the front has CARS driving by!) unless they get permission to go to another kid's yard, with that other kid's mom's permission, passing the protection of said child from one responsible adult to another. If they want to go down to the end of the road, I am guessing they go with a parent and are not allowed to place pennies on the railroad track, much less throw rocks into passing train cars or cross the tracks and wade in the stream, jumping from rock to rock catching crayfish.

The field there is now a tennis court, and a city-built skate park. The quarry has been filled in and the ring of wild trees around it has been cut down. It's a flat mowed lawn now.

Last week, I had the opportunity to see a lecture given by Richard Louv, the author of the book I am currently reading called, Last Child in the Woods. Louv argues that children are spending less and less time on unstructured play in nature, at a time when it is critical to do so, and their lives and the future of our planet are being severely impacted. When children are outside, it is usually in scheduled, structured team activities, or on playgrounds with soft turf, short slides, and rubber around the chains on the swings.

Children are more obese, less creative, less active, less pro-active, more fearful, less knowledgeable about the natural world than their counterparts were just a couple generations ago: kids who played in their local ravines, caught tadpoles in the stream, and played in their forts in the nearby copse of trees at the end of their streets.

Consider this:
· In 1971, 80% of 7 to 8 year-olds were allowed to walk to school on their own, whereas just 9% could do so in 1990.

· In 1990, only half as many 7 to 11 year olds as in 1971 were allowed to go to places other than school by themselves. What do you suppose it is now, in 2009?

· The age at which children are granted specific freedoms increased—the freedom permitted to a 7 year old in 1971 was permitted to the average 9.5 year old in 1990. It's been two more decades since then.

. Between 1981 and 1997, children’s free playtime dropped by an estimated 25%, and this change appears to be driven by increases in the amount of time children spend in structured activities. Their unstructured play time is mostly spent indoors with some sort of electronic media.

. Students in outdoor science programs improved their science testing scores by 27 percent (American Institutes for Research, 2005)

. Researchers at the University of Illinois have shown that the greener a child’s everyday environment, the more manageable their symptoms of attention-deficit disorder.

Richard Louv made a comment that really struck me during his talk. He said that most every environmentalist and conservationist working for change today had a transcendent experience in nature as a child. In a time, when we really need to change the way we live in order to make a healthier environment, we are prohibiting our children from having any kind of transcendent experience in nature.

If kids don't spend time in nature, they won't have the desire to take care of the environment, except in the abstract sense, and we don't have time for the abstract anymore.

While Louv feels that getting kids back outside at all is great progress, what he is really advocating is getting kids back to wild nature. Not soccer fields, not playgrounds, not landscaped parks, but woods, ravines, rivers, rocks, trails, lakes and beaches.

And he wouldn't mind if some of that time was alone time for the kids who can handle the responsibility.

Louv wants to get a grassroots movement going in America, much like playgroups and book clubs have taken off in the last few years. But he would like this movement to get families out into nature in groups, to make it more fun, more social, and more common. He calls them Family Nature Clubs. He wants groups of friends and neighbors to scoop up the kids, and meet somewhere out in nature on a regular basis, explore and just have fun together.

A light bulb went on for me when I heard this. My family does go out and walk one of San Diego's canyons on occasion, and we hike occasionally when my parents visit. But I had this thought a few months back to get a friend or two and their families out to the woods, at a day use area for a long afternoon of just hanging out, talking and letting the kids play in a natural environment. Climb on some rocks, wade in a creek. Get dirty. Richard Louv got me thinking, "why can't this be a regular thing?" And why just one or two other families?

So, if you are a friend of mine and live locally, don't be surprised if one day in the near future I invite you and your kids out for a day of rest and play at the day use area of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park or one of the other Day Use Parks in our area.

I am picturing everyone bringing sandwiches or campfire/barbecue foods for their own kids, a dish to share with everyone else, some camp chairs for the parents to hang out together. We would come out sometime after breakfast, and get home around dinner time. Lunch will be had in the out of doors. The kids can play, explore and climb, some folks can take a short hike, the adults can get some much needed social time with each other, and a good time will be had by all.

And if we like it... maybe we could do it every few weeks or so.

What do you say? Are you game?

Are there cool natural spaces you can take your kids near home? Like the idea of hanging with your friends and their kids once a month? Want to commit to vacationing someplace where you plop down in nature someplace and stay awhile instead of visiting amusement parks and cities?

Thoughts? Ideas?


Jen said...

Make it an adventure sometimes with a little bit of technology too with Geocaching!!'s addictive!

Snowbird said...

Great post Karen. I never had any qualms about letting you roam the neighborhood. I rarely see kids around there now unless a parent is with them. Sad.

I grew up on a 40 acre farm and I was allowed to go anywhere on that farm by myself or with friends. I could walk through the pine trees, play in the creek, pick berries etc. I'm sure that is where I got my love of wildlife. I never thought about it until your post but it's so sad that kids can't do that anymore.

I hope your friends take you up on your invitation. And, I'm all for several of these days when we come this summer. I loved our hikes when we were there.

Little Black Scrap Cat said...

Boy, is the Phoenix area in "your neighborhood"? Cuz we'll be there!! I am ever so thankful for the summer travels we take to Montana (home for me). Thankful for the time my DD has to play in Glacier Nat'l Park, or any number of places near Kalispell. It is a free and easy time for us. The next best place is Sanibel, where we go in the fall. Easy living, outdoors, water, and, surf... But you know that from your family!!

Yes, I too had free range of a 2-3 block area around our house. All the parents watched all the kids, and it seemed like someone always knew where we were. But we were free!!! Thanks for sharing!! Loved your post!

Anonymous said...

I was there too. Great talk. If you get a group set up you should start a blogsite and just start inviting people to the site and see where it goes from there.

P.S. How funny was the old lady at the end of question time!

Wrath said...

You nailed this, Karen. Great post. I have often thought about this as well. But discussing junkyards and oil refineries probably diminishes the point, doesn't it?

I remember the walk to Lincoln with the shortcut through the bakery as a favorite childhood memory. The smells are still with me.

Our kids have NEVER walked to school.

Shama-Lama Mama said...

Yeah, she was kind of funny... but I felt a little sorry for her. She had so much to share and I think her feelings were hurt. "I have four short examples of what we did! Number ONE..." lol

While its not "nature" per se, I think we were getting the same sense of freedom, of being able to take care of ourselves, of taking risks, at the junkyard. Of course, Mom would have yanked us out of there had she known. Also, going to the grocery store and buying that chocolate pie and eating it in the schoolyard. We couldn't have been older than 10 and 8, more likely 9 and 7.

Yeah, Phoenix is right around the corner! See ya there?

Shama-Lama Mama said...

I actually would LOVE to start doing some geocaching when the twins get older. I am kind of dismayed it has changed from following written clues to the treasure to walking to the exact site with a GPS tracking system. I'd rather have my kids problem solve! Ah well...

Jason said...

What a great post. I'm pretty much solo with the kids on Mondays and Thursdays. Let's get together!

Anonymous said...

Great idea on having family time outdoors, but leave anything that runs on batteries home.

When you were a child, there were no cell phones, iPods, Gameboys, GPSs or lap tops computers. Make it a real back to nature day instead of bringing technology along and still spending more time with the techonology gadgets than with nature.
What's the use if everybody sits on their blanket text messaging or chatting on the cell phone instead of taking in nature or actually talking to a real person on the blanket near them?

Anonymous said...

My husband and I are always commenting that our kids have no idea how lucky they are, as we have 8 acres with woods and wetlands and pond to roam on. Our only rules are that they stay away from the pond (can't swim yet), and stay back from the road. The girls love to get muddy, and they are constantly digging, gathering, exploring, and I generally leave them unsupervised, trusting them to follow the rules. I do a visual check for them every 10-15 minutes, and if they are going to be out of my sight, they let me know where. They have very little interest in the computer, video games or TV when the weather is nice and they can be outside instead. I feel we're giving them a wonderful gift by living where we do, even though they don't realize it yet.

Hawker said...

There is so much more than just this. Not only are we afraid what might happen to our children, the owners of these places are afraid what may happen to them if someone get hurt.

We selfishly hoard the few open spaces which were once more public domain than private. Signs are put up, places are bought and the lawyers make to much money.

I am lucky to own two acres, but around me are hundreds if not thousands of unused acres. I wish I could go walk in them. But each is owned by someone else and I know I am not welcome to roam in them least I be arrested or more likely shot. When I was younger I would have thought nothing of hiking in them because it would have been normal and acceptable. Today it is not. I even had the cops called on me once for walking my own block chatting on the phone. The cop told me someone was worried about a strange person who had the nerve to actually go for a walk, outside even, on his block. The cop saw me, and we both had a nice laugh about how scared people have become of there own kind.

Lets hope there will be a resurgence of people taking back outdoors for the next generation - if there is any outdoors left for them.

Hugs to you.

Shama-Lama Mama said...

We used to (and hope to again) go to a summer gathering in a different forest each year at which people left their cars far off and hiked into the center without any sort of tech toys or amplification. There are guitars and drums and mandolins, violins, and even a PIANO hiked in one year. Yes, getting away from the tech is an important aspect.

Anonymous... WOW I am jealous of the land you have. We are looking casually at houses to buy and I am finding that finding a house with just a tiny bit of wild land is becoming essential to me, not just for the kids but my own sense of peacefulness.

Hawker, you make very good points. The same fear that keeps parents from letting their kids wander and explore is the same fear that keeps folks from allowing gentle walking on the land. It's a sad state of affairs.

It reminds me of a story Richard Louv (the author of Last Child in the Woods) wrote about how he had a small woods near his house that he considered his OWN as a child. He spent years pulling up surveying stakes whenever he found them in his woods, dumped them in a large pile and used them as pirate swords!

Cindy said...

Great post, Karen. And while we have weekly playdates at the neighborhood parks for some outdoor fun, you've inspired me to set up a playdate at a park without a playground. *gasp* Shocking, I know. For our first "non-structure" playground I've kept the guest list to just one other little boy who plays well with my son. I'm thinking some of the other moms might need a little more coaxing. I am so looking forward watching how the boys play with nothing but rocks, dirt and trees. Makes me wish I was just 4 1/2 too. (Hopefully I'll remember my camera so that I can blog about our new "playground".

Like you and so many others, I remember roaming our 4 acres of wooded countryside. Being suburban dwellers now, I mourn that my children will never be able to experience that same freedom. Hopefully this new playdate idea will at least give them a taste of it.

Karin Zirk said...

Saturday from 10 AM until noon we'll be pulling weeds and watering at Rose Creek. Bring the kids and come on down. We'll even have bagels (if Billy doesn't lag).

Natalie said...

**Applause** I've often wondered the same thing myself. This was so well written, and well thought out. I hope the picnics and playtime in the canyons go well, and wish I was down there to join in! xox