It’s a common lament these days, especially among older people, that kids today are too focused on screens and structured activities with little or no free playtime. The thought seems to be that many children never get outside unless they are going from building to car and back again. This is disturbing for many reasons, but perhaps we should also ask ourselves if it’s really true.
Since the beginning of time, little ones have loved to be outdoors. They love to get wet and muddy, build things with sticks and learn to throw stones. They adore climbing and jumping, running and twirling, all of which are much more fun under the sun than in the living room.
It’s true that screens grab a lot of attention from young people, especially teens, but to be honest, I see just as many seniors looking at their phones as I do young people. Go to a coffee shop or lunch spot and look at all the old folks checking their texts or Facebook. Many are as good at ignoring the people they’re sitting with as any teenager. Wait, not true for all seniors? Not true for all teens or kids either. Many of them are engaging in outdoor activities and community service events. Often their pictures and sharing of these things encourages their peers to do the same. The world is changing and not all of that is bad.
I work in a place that is currently hosting an art exhibit that is child friendly. School groups, family groups and lots of grandparents have been visiting. Recently I witnessed two separate grandparent and grandchild interactions that reminded me that our ways of interacting with children affects their experience of the world we are trying to impress upon them, whether its about art, nature or anything else.
One grandmother dragged a little boy, who looked about 4, through the front doors. He sat down on the ground and began to cry. “You’re going to love this,” she said. “Look, there’s Batman!” The child began to scream, “No, no, no, no, no! I’m not going. All you ever want to do is look, look, look and I want to do, do, do!” He couldn’t have been more direct about his feelings, but she pulled him up by his hand and led him around the gallery, up the stairs and through the upstairs galleries as well. I could hear his loud complaints the whole time. As they left an hour later, I couldn’t help but think, there’s a kid that is going to hate art galleries for the rest of his life.
A few days later a pair of grandparents arrived 10 minutes before closing with two young grandsons in tow. “We’ll only be a few minutes,” Grandma said. “We’re just going to take a quick peek.” She then told the little ones that they were going on an adventure. They squealed with excitement as they entered the gallery. I could hear them running about while the grandparents followed, pointing out funny or interesting things. They took the elevator up to the second floor, which seemed a very exciting and fun thing for them to do all on its own, and I could hear them laughing and talking as they moved their way through the upstairs. Down they came in the elevator and sure enough, they were at the door in time for closing. “That was so fun!” said the 4-year-old. I asked him what his favorite was, but his younger brother beat him to the punch and yelled, “Batman and WobBobbin!” They all waved as they skipped to the car, stopping to look up at a hawk soaring overhead.
Kids love to experience things. They like to move and touch and taste and wiggle and skip and hop. They don’t mind slowing down to learn things, but they don’t want to listen to a lecture when they could be looking under logs and rocks to see what they can see. It doesn’t mean we can’t answer questions but let them have some fun while they learn. They’ll remember it better and their memory will bring them a smile, not a shudder.
Lots of children are getting outside but to be honest, we grownups are making that harder and harder for them to do. People are afraid of ticks, coyotes, bee stings, thorns, falling down, sharks, jellyfish, sharp branches, skinned knees, cut feet, crab pinches and more, and they’re passing on those fears. More kids are playing in fake, man-made playgrounds than empty lots or the woods behind their houses. This is a loss for all, but especially for the young folks.
If there’s a kid in your life, make sure they get outside with you. Just a walk is good. No lessons, just exploration. If the child in your life just wants to run and jump instead of looking for bugs or flowers, so what? Let them experience nature on their own terms. They can’t learn to love and protect what they don’t know. Eventually they’ll want to know more, but for kids that rarely get outside, first let them just enjoy the fresh air and freedom. It will be good for you, too.