"Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life."
- Mark Twain
As a parent, I fear we have forgotten that for generations, children grew up outside. We rode our bikes around the neighborhood and splashed around in creeks. We ran barefoot in the grass and climbed trees. Childhood was characterized by innocence, imagination, energy, wonder, and laughter. Frankly, the thought of being cooped up inside all day long was unfathomable and tortuous. Truth be known, that was how my dad punished me — I was sent to my room.
Yet today, research shows that the amount of time U.S. children spend outside has declined by 50 percent in the last two decades alone. On average, children currently spend 5.5 hours a day plugged into some kind of electronic device. Worse, yet, both the media and parents are often telling children and youth they should fear others and be afraid to go outdoors. As a result, silently and suddenly, we have a population of young people who may never have seen the stars, heard an owl in the darkness of night, or been surrounded by the miracle of nature versus the "progress" of man. Kids today even define the outdoors differently — for many of them, it's hanging out on a corner or on the hood of a car versus really enjoying the natural world.
Play time is markedly decreasing. According to researchers who monitor how our children are actually spending their time, outdoor activities are on the decline. Even walking is an endangered activity. William Doherty, a University of Minnesota researcher, reports that over the last twenty years, there has been a 25 percent decline in the time children spend playing and a 50 percent decline in time spent in unstructured outdoor activities. While fleeing indoors may not be a "movement" in itself, there is a profound cultural shift occurring. This shift threatens to leave behind an entire generation of the caretakers of this planet — who will fail to recognize the wonder and discovery of the open air and space, the awe and beauty of nature, or the importance of the ecosystem and its relationship to the quality of life.
We seem to all be tethered by invisible wires. I am not sure children today can feel the unspeakable liberation of moving, dancing, and running in open spaces, free of realized or unrealized confinement. Maybe that is the reality of today's world. Maybe it is imperative in order to keep kids safe. Yet, at what cost?
Play has a critical role in helping children transition to adulthood. Nature and play go hand in hand, and together, they have a profound impact on the health and development of children. If we eliminate both, I believe we will witness a new "failure to thrive" syndrome — not in infants but in our adolescents. We may be able to take children out of nature, but we can't change their connection to nature without consequences.
There is mounting evidence that forcing "adulthood" prematurely on children limits opportunities for spontaneity and innocence nurtured in both play and nature. Connections to nature liberate a child to explore and discover the world around them. According to the American Public Health Association, "the retreat indoors for many American children has environmental advocates worried that children who grow up without memories of fishing in a local stream or hiking through idyllic woods might become adults for who conserving the environment isn't a priority." Are we also adding the very essence of childhood to the extinction list as we continually deny children their inalienable right to be children?
Some describe the encroachment of technology as the amputation of real experiences. Others feel the denuding of our natural resources is creating a drought in the authentic world. We all are impacted by the diminishing opportunity to enjoy the natural flow of life, spontaneity, and time for reflection. Yet, the very things that challenge us serve as an opportunity. It is the human spirit that is liberated by nature.
As parents, we can ensure that our children have positive, safe experiences in the outdoors. Relationships, real and primary, replenish us — for they are basic to our survival. Humans seek communities and connections. We must step forward. We must work together to transform barriers of fear into solid bridges of opportunity, hope, and confidence — confidence in the value of nature and experiences such as the camp experience. Ultimately, camp is never about getting away from the real world; it's all about tuning into it.