In a hauntingly beautiful article in Orion magazine, Richard Louv absolutely nails a great idea: No Child Left Inside.
In January 2005, I attended a meeting of the Quivira Coalition, a New Mexico organization that brings together ranchers and environmentalists to find common ground. The coalition is now working on a plan to promote ranches as the new schoolyards. When my turn came to speak, I told the audience how, when I was a boy, I pulled out all those survey stakes in an attempt to keep the earthmovers at bay. Afterward, a rancher stood up. He was wearing scuffed boots. His aged jeans had never seen acid wash, only dirt and rock. His face was sunburned and creased. His drooping moustache was white, and he wore thick eyeglasses with heavy plastic frames, stained with sweat. “You know that story you told about pulling up stakes?” he said. “I did that when I was a boy, too.”
The crowd laughed. I laughed.And then the man began to cry. Despite his embarrassment, he continued to speak, describing the source of his sudden grief: that he might belong to one of the last generations of Americans to feel that sense of ownership of land and nature. The power of this movement lies in that sense, that special place in our hearts, those woods where the bulldozers cannot reach. Developers and environmentalists, corporate CEOs and college professors, rock stars and ranchers may agree on little else, but they agree on this: no one among us wants to be a member of the last generation to pass on to its children the joy of playing outside in nature.
Often unspoken for a number of reasons, part of the logic for living in the country at the cost of a long and despised commute is the hope of an idyllic "natural" childhood for our children.
Then we buy every version of Play Station when it comes out. Worst of all, we allow wildly off-base risk perceptions to override our logic.
Urban, suburban, and even rural parents cite a number of everyday reasons why their children spend less time in nature than they themselves did, including disappearing access to natural areas, competition from television and computers, dangerous traffic, more homework, and other pressures. Most of all, parents cite fear of stranger-danger. Conditioned by round-the-clock news coverage, they believe in an epidemic of abductions by strangers, despite evidence that the number of child-snatchings (about a hundred a year) has remained roughly the same for two decades, and that the rates of violent crimes against young people have fallen to well below 1975 levels.
I am hopeful nonetheless that alarm over childhood obesity, realization of the failure of force-fed self esteem, and new emphasis on "unstructured time" for children will make ideas like outdoor play areas a higher priority.
[Note: I don't know what it is about that photograph, but it triggered a rush of wonderful memory/emotions the minute I saw it. It was a blessing to grow up outside.]