Media Democracy

The End of Childhood

Children who spend more time inside than in the wilderness experience poorer health in adulthood. We must let them roam free.
The End of Childhood

As a kid, I had the good fortune to be hauled along on my dad's annual canoe trip into the wilds of northern Canada. For one or two weeks a year, we navigated river and trail, ran rapids, struggled along back-breaking portages, and on rare, happy occasions caught sight of the local inhabitants: a beaver chewing on a log, a few moose wading in the shallows, the odd wolf or black bear.

In total, I spent no more than a few months in the north, but my imagination, and to some extent my entire childhood, revolved around that brief chunk of time. Those short encounters with true wilderness had a disproportionately powerful effect on me. Each time I returned to suburbia from the wilderness, I replicated the experience as much as I could by exploring the woods that remained on the edge of the small city I grew up in.

A few acres of woodland next to a golf course became my playground – it was a chance for my friends and I to indulge in the sort of rowdy waywardness that has been an integral part of childhood since the cave days. Sadly, most of those trees have since been cut down and replaced by housing developments. Even if they hadn't been, it's unlikely the modern child would be given as much freedom as my friends and I had to explore them.

We are now just beginning to understand that the growing disconnection between kids and the natural world is an increasingly serious social problem. One researcher in the United Kingdom from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Dr. William Bird, has noted a steady increase in the diagnosis of childhood mental illness and in the use of medication to treat it. But he also discovered evidence that simple exposure to nature – anything from unstructured play in a forest to a greening of the view from an urban classroom window – is an effective, non-pharmaceutical means of mitigating mental illness.

"Children undertaking activities in nature appear to improve symptoms of ADHD [Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder] by 30 percent compared to urban outdoor activities and threefold compared to the indoor environment," notes Dr. Bird.

A child using his imagination to play a game in the woods isn't just having fun; he's setting a foundation for future independence, inner strength and an ability to resist stress that will last a lifetime.

We could be encouraging natural play, but instead, we're in the process of forming a new, potentially dystopian culture of childhood. In the United States, Dr. Joe Frost addressed the Association for Childhood Education International Conference on the worsening situation that threatens the nation's children. The combination of increasing poverty and urbanization, the failure of the No Child Left Behind standardization initiative and the destruction of play represents a crisis, Frost argues. Cell phones, text messaging, video games and online chatting are supplanting free time in the fields and forests. Kids today are suffering from what author Richard Louv describes as "nature-deficit" disorder.

It's affecting children everywhere. When the Japanese photographer Keiki Haginoya set out in 1979 to document children at play on the streets of Tokyo, little did he know what lay in store for him. His work became a narrative of decline, showing the rapid loss of play space and the alienation of kids from natural outdoor activities and traditional games. By1996, he reached the depressing conclusion that children's laughter had entirely disappeared from the streets.

The subtle character of this crisis doesn't lend itself to a rapid solution. The simple and obvious idea that nature plays an important role in our mental health hasn't really caught on in the public mind, and is far from a priority for politicians. More and more kids are popping pills, and we're forking out billions of dollars in health care and other costs to deal with the consequences of poor mental health.

Children who survive through adolescence surrounded by gray walls and little time in the wilderness may not necessarily spend the rest of their lives believing that nature is a scary place, but the evidence suggests that their deficit of experience will result in an adulthood of generally higher stress and poorer health. Preserving and encouraging a natural environment is basic wisdom for the twenty-first century. An attractive future for humanity will be one in which all kids have the opportunity to roam, without fear, in an unspoiled land.

-Paul Cooper

38 comments on the article “The End of Childhood”

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Mike Smith

I agree with most of this article. I have always lived in a farming area and when I was a kid, while there were a few kids who acted up in school, there wasn't a lot the illness and mental problems which seem to be in kids today...and no one had ADD. Nowadays, most school don't even have recess, just a half-hour gym period at lunch and even that is so strictly controlled there's no fun in it any more. Many neighbourhoods you don't see kids playing in the front yards much let alone on the side streets. No one knows their neighbours and families are so spread out nowadays grandchildren don't even know their grandparents...and sometimes not even their parents, uncles, and aunts. A lot of children's parks are closed because of someone worried about getting sued by an over-protective parent with a snivelling lawyer. That has to change.

Mike Smith

I agree with most of this article. I have always lived in a farming area and when I was a kid, while there were a few kids who acted up in school, there wasn't a lot the illness and mental problems which seem to be in kids today...and no one had ADD. Nowadays, most school don't even have recess, just a half-hour gym period at lunch and even that is so strictly controlled there's no fun in it any more. Many neighbourhoods you don't see kids playing in the front yards much let alone on the side streets. No one knows their neighbours and families are so spread out nowadays grandchildren don't even know their grandparents...and sometimes not even their parents, uncles, and aunts. A lot of children's parks are closed because of someone worried about getting sued by an over-protective parent with a snivelling lawyer. That has to change.

History Punk

" I have always lived in a farming area and when I was a kid, while there were a few kids who acted up in school, there wasn't a lot the illness and mental problems which seem to be in kids today...and no one had ADD."

Was that because there was none, you don't personally remember any, or because kids with those mental illnesses were triaged out of the system unable to handle them?

History Punk

" I have always lived in a farming area and when I was a kid, while there were a few kids who acted up in school, there wasn't a lot the illness and mental problems which seem to be in kids today...and no one had ADD."

Was that because there was none, you don't personally remember any, or because kids with those mental illnesses were triaged out of the system unable to handle them?

Hann

I miss the green, but I think things will get a little better when the cities start to become more in tune with nature and greenify. The advent of urban farming and gardening will help that too. The point is cities are the only long term sustainable form of human habitation. Humans can never go back to "country living", because all you get is suburbia and sprawl, but the current urban designs are also awash with ineffeciencies and car-centric planning. With the budding fields of biomimicry, new urbanism, and Cité du Futur coming to dominate urban planning, we can expect much greener cities.

XVX for life, R.A.S.H. 'til death.

Hann

I miss the green, but I think things will get a little better when the cities start to become more in tune with nature and greenify. The advent of urban farming and gardening will help that too. The point is cities are the only long term sustainable form of human habitation. Humans can never go back to "country living", because all you get is suburbia and sprawl, but the current urban designs are also awash with ineffeciencies and car-centric planning. With the budding fields of biomimicry, new urbanism, and Cité du Futur coming to dominate urban planning, we can expect much greener cities.

XVX for life, R.A.S.H. 'til death.

greengestalt

What we need is a re-visualization of the "Commune" movement of the 60's and 70's. A way to move "into the country" without it being just a farther drive away suburbia. There's still plenty of "Hippies" old and new around to help with the good and bad.

The main reason most of them broke up was a government "Cointel" program designed to disrupt them. With the change in politics on the horizon, the remnants of that ideology are too busy trying to avoid prosecution for war crimes than to mess with all but the most openly terrorist groups. They had other problems, chiefly a too open attitude towards sex that caused strife later when people started pairing up. But there are still quite a few communes remaining.

A new setup such as that should be a giant house or series of houses. If I make one, I'll do a large geodesic dome with several levels. It will be designed to sustain itself mostly with agriculture from the land around it. Work will be distributed among members. Some might work on the farm, some might maintain the house, some have transport like the "hippie van", some might work outside and contribute money.

Such a group needs a cohesive theme, even a simple one, such as "Do enough to survive and keep the house together and have plenty of leisure time". A few regular meetings and traditions/rituals, enough to make the group one but not enough to be a "Mind control cult". I'm essentially proposing a return to the "Tribe" here, for this setup will work both as a farming community and as an "Urban tribe" based around a bought up building.

For the urban area, an abandoned building could be bought up and renovated. The areas around it would be secured and monitored to keep out the criminal elements. People would then form a tribal hierarchy, based around "Hunting" meaning working jobs and doing things to support the community. This would be more aggressive and difficult than the agrarian model, but the "Rent" would likely be far less than standard apartment dwellers face for the "Profit" would be the upkeep expenses not usury. Likewise, plants on the roof, vine grapes and tomatoes on the walls, and with light pumps and electric lighting a lot of good food could be made inside.

Ever saw that fake Geico commercial "Manster"? About a human sized hamster wheel? Actually such a setup would generate a lot of electricity with several people moving a modest pace. That would be a good way to power at least the lights and keep people healthy should our system start to crash.

greengestalt

What we need is a re-visualization of the "Commune" movement of the 60's and 70's. A way to move "into the country" without it being just a farther drive away suburbia. There's still plenty of "Hippies" old and new around to help with the good and bad.

The main reason most of them broke up was a government "Cointel" program designed to disrupt them. With the change in politics on the horizon, the remnants of that ideology are too busy trying to avoid prosecution for war crimes than to mess with all but the most openly terrorist groups. They had other problems, chiefly a too open attitude towards sex that caused strife later when people started pairing up. But there are still quite a few communes remaining.

A new setup such as that should be a giant house or series of houses. If I make one, I'll do a large geodesic dome with several levels. It will be designed to sustain itself mostly with agriculture from the land around it. Work will be distributed among members. Some might work on the farm, some might maintain the house, some have transport like the "hippie van", some might work outside and contribute money.

Such a group needs a cohesive theme, even a simple one, such as "Do enough to survive and keep the house together and have plenty of leisure time". A few regular meetings and traditions/rituals, enough to make the group one but not enough to be a "Mind control cult". I'm essentially proposing a return to the "Tribe" here, for this setup will work both as a farming community and as an "Urban tribe" based around a bought up building.

For the urban area, an abandoned building could be bought up and renovated. The areas around it would be secured and monitored to keep out the criminal elements. People would then form a tribal hierarchy, based around "Hunting" meaning working jobs and doing things to support the community. This would be more aggressive and difficult than the agrarian model, but the "Rent" would likely be far less than standard apartment dwellers face for the "Profit" would be the upkeep expenses not usury. Likewise, plants on the roof, vine grapes and tomatoes on the walls, and with light pumps and electric lighting a lot of good food could be made inside.

Ever saw that fake Geico commercial "Manster"? About a human sized hamster wheel? Actually such a setup would generate a lot of electricity with several people moving a modest pace. That would be a good way to power at least the lights and keep people healthy should our system start to crash.

David Zimmerman

As a child I spent most of my time out of the house, wandering around the "woods" that surrounded where I lived.

I now realize what a privilege that was and how fortunate for me to experience that. Throughout my life I have always had a compelling desire to explore. I am sure it is a direct result of this childhood activity.

For a variety of reasons my kids cannot do that. Most of all I do not trust where I live to take care of them the way I was taken care of. Life has changed.

Children and youth face too many challenges today. They seemed perpetually short circuited. I think by design. We need to fight to keep them ours.

The culture of consumerism wants to claim them and keep them focused on having unrealistic expectations in life, being spoiled and living in a state of incredible self centeredness i.e. buy and collect more if you want to be happy.

It is harder and harder to emerge from a childlike state and transition into adulthood. I cannot see how over time this will not result in anything but mental illness.

David Zimmerman

As a child I spent most of my time out of the house, wandering around the "woods" that surrounded where I lived.

I now realize what a privilege that was and how fortunate for me to experience that. Throughout my life I have always had a compelling desire to explore. I am sure it is a direct result of this childhood activity.

For a variety of reasons my kids cannot do that. Most of all I do not trust where I live to take care of them the way I was taken care of. Life has changed.

Children and youth face too many challenges today. They seemed perpetually short circuited. I think by design. We need to fight to keep them ours.

The culture of consumerism wants to claim them and keep them focused on having unrealistic expectations in life, being spoiled and living in a state of incredible self centeredness i.e. buy and collect more if you want to be happy.

It is harder and harder to emerge from a childlike state and transition into adulthood. I cannot see how over time this will not result in anything but mental illness.

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