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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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Laban Tall

"We must let them roam free once again"

While I understand what you're getting at, the trouble is that that's exactly what some parents DO do, with the results you see on the streets of most towns and cities.

Our culture has changed almost beyond recognition over the last 60 years. When I was a child most of us boys carried knives, and every newsagent and toyshop had displays of them in the window - I can remember being told by my mother that I couldn't have one until I was nine. Yet the thought of using them as a weapon against another child never occurred to us.

City kids sixty or eighty years back probably had even less exposure to nature than they do now, yet they didn't exhibit the range of pathologies we can find now. While I'd agree that the more time kids spend in the wild the better, I think the cultural changes are more important when it comes to explaining things like increases in "mental illness" .

Laban Tall

"We must let them roam free once again"

While I understand what you're getting at, the trouble is that that's exactly what some parents DO do, with the results you see on the streets of most towns and cities.

Our culture has changed almost beyond recognition over the last 60 years. When I was a child most of us boys carried knives, and every newsagent and toyshop had displays of them in the window - I can remember being told by my mother that I couldn't have one until I was nine. Yet the thought of using them as a weapon against another child never occurred to us.

City kids sixty or eighty years back probably had even less exposure to nature than they do now, yet they didn't exhibit the range of pathologies we can find now. While I'd agree that the more time kids spend in the wild the better, I think the cultural changes are more important when it comes to explaining things like increases in "mental illness" .

Anonymous

I agree nature is fun, but you dont have to visit a national park or a park for that matter. I used to live in an apartment complex when i was 8 and loved going to a tree that was right in front of my complex. I used to watch all the bugs and i climbed on it was a blast. I think just being near anyhting not man made is a way to get close to nature

Anonymous

I agree nature is fun, but you dont have to visit a national park or a park for that matter. I used to live in an apartment complex when i was 8 and loved going to a tree that was right in front of my complex. I used to watch all the bugs and i climbed on it was a blast. I think just being near anyhting not man made is a way to get close to nature

Anonymousnana

I grew up in Detroit when the civil rights marches and riots were going on. I personally was hardly ever out of the city, but we were always outside playing. We didn't watch TV for years at a time, there weren't any electronic devices like there are now. If you wiped out and clocked yourself, nobody got sued over it, you were just laughed at. There were plenty of kids and moms around-- you didn't have to worry about strangers because you were never alone. I look after my grandson every day-- they live across the street- and we play like mad. Playing, not watching is the key to happiness. I tell him,"life is too short to spend it in front of the TV, it isn't real. We must be real." We make cookies and costumes, books and jewelry, ride bikes and garden and for a treat he can watch a cartoon or movie.
It doesn't matter where you live, or how you live. Children need to be taught the skills and joys of humanhood. Life is an unfolding process that they must be able to explore. They won't learn it from the xbox.

Anonymousnana

I grew up in Detroit when the civil rights marches and riots were going on. I personally was hardly ever out of the city, but we were always outside playing. We didn't watch TV for years at a time, there weren't any electronic devices like there are now. If you wiped out and clocked yourself, nobody got sued over it, you were just laughed at. There were plenty of kids and moms around-- you didn't have to worry about strangers because you were never alone. I look after my grandson every day-- they live across the street- and we play like mad. Playing, not watching is the key to happiness. I tell him,"life is too short to spend it in front of the TV, it isn't real. We must be real." We make cookies and costumes, books and jewelry, ride bikes and garden and for a treat he can watch a cartoon or movie.
It doesn't matter where you live, or how you live. Children need to be taught the skills and joys of humanhood. Life is an unfolding process that they must be able to explore. They won't learn it from the xbox.

Anonymous

I think the main thing that we don't foster in children today is their innate curiosity and sense of imagination. The simple act of exploring nature allows children to use these attributes that we admire so much yet drum out of them through school and expectations from society.

Anonymous

I think the main thing that we don't foster in children today is their innate curiosity and sense of imagination. The simple act of exploring nature allows children to use these attributes that we admire so much yet drum out of them through school and expectations from society.

Candy Cook

I frequently travel near areas that I used to roam in the woods. It brings me to tears to see that those wooded areas have been wiped out. The trees cleared and castle sized homes, within spitting distance of each other, built in their place. Our neighborhood is fortunate enough to have wooded areas and even a creek dispersed throughout it. However, try playing in those wooded areas or the creek and angry homeowners will come and shoo you away like an annoying pest. It's really very sad. Even our school wiped out almost every wooded area from it's lot. I don't understand this fear of trees or fear of wooded areas, as I ran free through them all throughout my childhood years. It's depressing to go outdoors in our neighborhood, because I know how many children live here - but, I never see any of them. I'm raising my boys the way I was raised. They are free to run to their friends' homes.. they are free to explore what little wooded land we have.. they are free to experience life without ma and pa standing over them 24 hours a day to point out every little danger or every little mistake. Many parents will think it's stupid to let a 6 year old have the freedom he deserves. I'll be surprised if I don't have a knock on the door one day from some govt agency telling me I'm a bad parent for allowing my boy to be a boy - but, it's the price you pay for giving children the exposure and independence and confidence they so badly need.

Candy Cook

I frequently travel near areas that I used to roam in the woods. It brings me to tears to see that those wooded areas have been wiped out. The trees cleared and castle sized homes, within spitting distance of each other, built in their place. Our neighborhood is fortunate enough to have wooded areas and even a creek dispersed throughout it. However, try playing in those wooded areas or the creek and angry homeowners will come and shoo you away like an annoying pest. It's really very sad. Even our school wiped out almost every wooded area from it's lot. I don't understand this fear of trees or fear of wooded areas, as I ran free through them all throughout my childhood years. It's depressing to go outdoors in our neighborhood, because I know how many children live here - but, I never see any of them. I'm raising my boys the way I was raised. They are free to run to their friends' homes.. they are free to explore what little wooded land we have.. they are free to experience life without ma and pa standing over them 24 hours a day to point out every little danger or every little mistake. Many parents will think it's stupid to let a 6 year old have the freedom he deserves. I'll be surprised if I don't have a knock on the door one day from some govt agency telling me I'm a bad parent for allowing my boy to be a boy - but, it's the price you pay for giving children the exposure and independence and confidence they so badly need.

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