It may be that my generation was the last allowed outside. Born in 1964, the final year of the baby boom, mine was the ultimate generation whose parents either didn’t care about, or were blissfully ignorant of, the real-world’s dangers.
As a 6 year old, I broke my first bone on a jungle-gym that today would violate every tenet of the Geneva conventions. Sharp, metal and covered in rust, it was a geodesic monolith, buried in the school playground, lacerating every kid who dared climb upon it.
Which was all of us.
For my seventh Christmas, my parents bought me a backyard trampoline. As far as I could tell, its purpose was no higher than that of a personal abattoir. Replete with exposed bolts and a brace of jagged springs, the trampoline daily extracted pounds of bloody flesh from both myself and every other kid in the neighborhood.
It was a different time, seen through a different lens of litigation. Consumer items weren’t bespeckled with disclaimers, and most of them had at least one utterly lethal mode (lawn-darts, anyone?). Yet, for reasons that escape us all, most of us survived.
Not only survived, but thrived.
For in addition to the phalanx of deadly toys was another salient characteristic of the age: our parents let us go outside.
I played in the street, as did my friends. Street hockey, riding bikes, everything. When we weren’t on the street, we were out in a field, the woods or even just down at the beach. And the most amazing thing of all, we were unsupervised.
We got stung, we got cut, we sometimes even got hurt pretty badly (see my broken arm, above). But we weren’t discouraged, we weren’t forbidden, and we weren’t chaperoned, outside.
As I wrote in a column last September: “Those children, allowed to roam outside, in an unstructured environment, without adult supervision, and with little to no restrictions, grow up with strong environmental ethics.
“On the other hand, those children whose exposure to nature is either nonexistent, say never leaving the confines of their suburban cul-de-sac, or whose exposure comes only in rigid and formal terms, as in Boy Scouts, do not.“
Or so said a Cornell University study. But my generation didn’t need a study to know what we’d already found out: going outside not only made us healthy, it gave us a healthy relationship with nature.
The criminalization of the outdoors
The situation is very different for today’s generations. Legions of bogeymen, real and imagined, natural and hominid, have driven children from the wild and into the indoors.
Whether it’s fear of being mowed down on the commercial arterial outside the subdivision or of being abducted by the pedophile at the strip mall, the effect has been profound, and devastating. Today’s youth grow up in an artificial cocoon, plugged into consumer electronics, chugging down processed food and never leaving the confines of the family car, or the family recreation room.
Last week I attended a presentation by an expert on the local “foodshed” -- the productive area within the community from which food is, and can, be obtained.
He described some of the challenges in moving toward a more locally oriented food economy. When citing some of the work he’d done with the local school corporation, in terms of designing programs to plant food crops on school lands, he pointed out a particular roadblock that had arisen over the planting certain fruit trees.
The issue? Caution had to be applied when trees likely to attract insects, stinging insects, would be planted on school grounds. Caution, here, meaning prohibition.
The school corporations couldn’t take the risk that, for want of a pear tree from which students could pick a healthy snack, that someone might get stung by a bee pollinating that same tree.
That’s the kind of divorce from nature that I’m talking about.
“Our society is teaching young people to avoid direct experience in nature,” Richard Louv wrote in Last Child in the Woods. “That lesson is delivered in schools, families, even organizations devoted to the outdoors, and codified into the legal and regulatory structures of many of our communities. Our institutions, urban/suburban design, and cultural attitudes unconsciously associate nature with doom -- while disassociating the outdoors from joy and solitude.
“Well-meaning public-school systems, media, and parents are effectively scaring children straight out of the woods and fields. In the patent-or-perish environment of higher education, we see the death of natural history as the more hands-on disciplines, such as zoology, give way to more theoretical and remunerative microbiology and genetic engineering. Rapidly advancing technologies are blurring the lines between humans, other animals, and machines.
“The postmodern notion that reality is only a construct -- that we are what we program -- suggests limitless human possibilities; but as the young spend less and less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow, physiologically and psychologically, and this reduces the richness of human experience.”
Gregory Travis can be reached at email@example.com.