If you are the type of parent who likes seeing dirty clothes and hands on your kids while they are playing outdoors, you are my kind of person. Admittedly, not being in charge of the laundry at home makes this preference possible, if not significantly easier.
Some of my fondest childhood memories revolve around the many afternoons spent in the woods, which were minutes away from home. We built forts, climbed trees, dug holes, explored the fox holes, played cops and robbers, hide-and-seek, you name it.
There was something irresistible about those forests. The fact that they stimulated our creativity and challenged us to constantly use all of our senses created a feeling of adventure, achievement and freedom. Most importantly, we had great fun. Back then, the kids who stayed indoors were the odd ones.
Walking through Riverside’s picturesque landscapes today, I am often struck by the absence of playing children. Particularly in both commons and the many areas of open greenswards along the Des Plaines River, it seems as if nature in all its beauty is anxiously waiting with an open invitation to be played in. Yet the few kids around are typically not far from the watchful eyes of their parents.
Per information published by Chicago Wilderness, a regional alliance dedicated to protecting nature and enriching life, a recent study found that 6- to 12-year-old American children on average spend 42 hours per week in front of a TV or computer screen, while they spend 30 minutes per week in outdoor activities in the form of unstructured play and exploration.
How did this happen? The main causes appear to be threefold: a confluence of trends that reflect increased risk aversion, the growing importance of the virtual over the natural world and an ever-spreading urbanized environment.
First, concern over children’s safety on streets and in traffic has led to significantly fewer kids going to school on their own. A study conducted in 1990 in the United Kingdom showed dramatic decrease in children’s independent mobility over the period of two decades.
Whereas in 1971, 80 percent of 7- and 8-year-old children in England were allowed to travel to school on their own, in 1990 the figure was only 9 percent. Today, it is even less. Adding to this trend, and fueled by wide-ranging media coverage, are fears over child abductions that impact parents’ readiness to leave children outdoors without supervision.
Second, the impact on young people’s lives by TVs, computers, video games and social networking sites is unprecedented. Given the breathtaking and ever-expanding capabilities of our computers and communication tools, it is easy to see the alluring nature this technology has on our children.
One recent study quotes a child as saying, “I prefer to play indoors, ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”
Third, the rate of development both in the suburbs and cities and loss of open land ever since the 1950s has been staggering. Land that is lost as a habitat for wildlife is also an area lost for unstructured outdoor play for our children.
Whatever shape nature takes, it offers each child an older, larger world separate from parents. The natural world offers children an opportunity to think, dream, touch and play out fantasies about how he or she imagines the world. Nature brings a capacity for wonder and a connection with something real that is endlessly fascinating and largely outside human control.
The Frederick Law Olmsted Society of Riverside is hosting a free Workshop titled Kids and Nature on Wednesday, Aug. 19 at Riverside Township Hall. The workshop addresses what happens when well-meaning nature lovers talk to young kids about big environmental problems.
Under the motto “let us allow children to love the earth before we ask them to save it,” this lively interactive workshop explores what’s OK to say, how to instill environmental good manners, and shows easy ways to help the kids in your life connect with the wilderness in their own backyard.