In a recent documentary titled “Where do the Children Play?,” producers explore the troubling fact that children in North America have much less contact with the natural world than they did a few decades ago. They also have much less time in which to explore the outdoors that they do have contact with.
Unsupervised, open-ended play leads to creativity, leadership development, social growth, physical coordination, resourcefulness and joy. Kids need it to grow up into healthy adults.
Interestingly, when the problem was partitioned up a bit, producers discovered that rural kids have both advantages and disadvantages. They live closer to nature, in homes surrounded by trees, fields and streams. This is an obvious plus, and their younger years are more likely to be spent playing with each other outside.
But as they get older, rural kids can also spend an inordinate amount of time in the car — especially if parents work far away or if structured activities are the norm in the family. Anyone who lives up in Brimson, Finland or Isabella knows the toll that sports and other community activities plays on free time. Outside play is often the first thing to go.
Urban children, perhaps surprisingly, did not fare the worst either. In many urban areas, children walk to school and play together in playgrounds. More green space and less pavement would always help, and some neighborhoods truly are not safe, but these limitations do not stop all families.
Interestingly, affluence can be a detriment to time in nature. Urban families without extra cars, gas money, laptop computers and iPhones can’t drive their kids to school, shuttle them to paid structured activities or provide them with home entertainment centers. By default, poorer children get more unstructured time. Affluent urban parents who focus on building resumes of activities, skills and academia from kindergarten on might think they are providing “every opportunity.”
But their efforts can backfire. Adults who as children were kept inside doing homework and told what to do with structured activities can be sorely deficient in creativity, leadership and social skills. What is easier and cheaper (“Go outside. See you at supper!”) is also better.
Suburban kids appear to be the worst off. Separated into wealthy neighborhoods, trapped on manicured lawns or safety-proof metal playgrounds, and pressured into structured activities from preschool age onward, these kids don’t stand a chance of doing the important job of growing up outside.
When a suburban, affluent neighborhood in lower Michigan won a $200,000 grant, in part for a campaign to get kids walking to school, the results were deeply disappointing: Only six kids, as far as the project manager could tell, regularly walk to school now.
What were the hang-ups? You can probably imagine them because we have them right here in Lake County. The primary one: resistance from parents. They were afraid for their children’s safety despite the fact that both violent crime and sexual crime on minors have been steadily decreasing for decades. They had too many activities to drive their kids to. They were afraid that their kids would “get bored.”
I can only hope that these kids, when they grow up, will see what they missed and do things differently for their children. We need to protect our children’s free, outside time. We need to fight as fiercely for that right as we do for things like “playing time” in sports and “academic opportunities” today.
Why this topic in a climate column? Walking or biking to school takes less fossil fuels than any form of transportation — a significant fact since transportation takes up a whopping 28% of our emission use. (The United States, with only 4.3% of the world’s population, drives 20% of the world’s cars.)
But even more notable is the critical importance of having children today turn into adults of tomorrow who can solve our climate crisis with creativity, leadership and a comfort in the natural world. They can’t regret losing what they don’t miss.
Katya Gordon is a volunteer for the Citizens' Climate Lobby and a Two Harbors resident.