Sunday, February 03, 2008

No Child Left Inside

It happens every night at almost any given hour under every possible weather condition. High pitched laughter and screams punctuate the otherwise quiet night air. The kids across the street break out of their houses for late night play, even on school nights when they really should be in bed. One of the girls has a little dog, so she uses the dog's nightly walk as her excuse. Never quiet, her hollers alert the kids in the other two houses come barreling out to play chase, to ride their bikes, to run around the street. They do this as late as 10:30.

Of course, during the day, they climb trees, play in their new fort, ride bikes, conduct foot races, or, my favorite incident, repeatedly throw a metal pipe (that inexplicably appeared in my yard) down the street to see how far it will roll. My wooly yard is part of their play area and their presence is always welcome. Actually, it reminds me of the utter lack of respect I had for private property when I was their age. (My best hide and seek hiding spot was in some guy's garage. I distinctly recall asking him not to call attention to my presence when he found me crouched in his tool cabinet. We were, after all, in the middle of a game.)

These kids are really charming, thoughtful, well-adjusted. The older ones have a keen eye for the natural world, pointing out hawks, regaling me with tales of our block's raccoon, gathering acorns into piles for the squirrels. Back in May, I wrote about Richard Louv's The Last Child in the Woods which details American children's lack of connection to the outdoors. I don't think he ever visited my street. The neighborhood kids live in a fabulous city, full of green spaces, but their parents have never taken them out to enjoy them. They've never been to the local state park or to any of the nature areas protected by Columbia Parks and Recreation. Never mind to them, they make do. But according to Louv, most kids don't.

I had the fortunate opportunity to sit down and talk to Louv recently. His was a message of hope. Since the publication of his book, several states have started a No Child Left Inside initiative geared towards getting kids out in the natural world. On July 9, the House of Representatives will vote on a NCLI bill that aims to provide funding to schools for environmental education. When No Child Left Behind was passed, funding for field-based science classes and other environmental programs was slashed, keeping kids confined to the classroom to learn more math and reading. This lack of connection to the outdoor world has a direct impact on creativity, which in turn hinders the problem-solving process.

Louv mentioned the new urbanism movement taking place countrywide. Land trust organizations are sprouting up all over the east coast. Cities are trying to build green spaces as part of their development. Despite the positive nature of his discussion, he mentioned two words that have barely crossed my mind as the kids are romping in my yard: nuisance litigation. In Broward Co., Florida, "No running" signs are posted in every school playground. Chalk drawing has been outlawed by some neighborhood associations because it leads to cocaine use. Rose bushes have been prohibited in other neighborhoods because they might injure someone. Louv brought up an interesting point: since most wild areas are in private ownership, they are likely off limits to kids. Times have surely changed from the days when we could follow the creek from my grandparents' property onto their neighbor's.

The kids in my neighborhood, deprived of wild areas due to lack of parental interest, are creative nonetheless. They make up games which generally involve lots of scampering and climbing, games which are probably deemed unsafe in the structured environment of school. They have little to no parental supervision. In fact, before I went back to help them with the fort, they had constructed it with discarded lumber full of nails, all facing inwards, ready to require a tetanus shot.

For other kids in America, Louv points out an irony. The NCLI movement, designed to get kids to appreciate unstructured play in the natural world, is requiring an inordinate amount of multi-agency structure, organization, and funding. Of course, I know 8 little kids who would be very confused if they read a book about kids not wanting to play outside.

I should probably mention to those of you who know me, that no, I am not changing my tune about wanting to have children of my own. They're fun to play with, granted, but I still don't want them. I have enough responsibility.


Erin said...

That really is ironic that there has to be a bill in Congress to encourage kids to be outside (and with such a hilarious name)! I am glad your neighbor kids aren't discouraged by the nasty weather. My kids love to play outside even if it is cold, but I can only last about 10 minutes before I am done supervising and ready to be inside. Lydia's school seems to be pretty encouraging for outdoor discovery. They have a beautiful butterfly garden and every class is supposed to work in the garden to help maintain it. They use it for lots of science exploration and have even gone out their for art class. There are fish and frogs in the pond, birds in their cozy nests in the birdhouse and during monarch season there are caterpillars and then beautiful monarchs. Last spring, Lydia's class helped plant Morning Glorys and green beans that grew up into a big tent structure over the summer. It is the only elementary school around here that I have seen with such a garden. I guess we are just lucky!

Beverly Peters, DC said...

I stumbled upon your blog last month and I love it! As a Missouri Ozarks native, I appreciate your interest in and insight into our beautiful region.

You have really "hit the nail on the head" for me with this post. As a doctor in our region, I often see the unfortunate effects of "structured, properly supervised" children. They are often overweight, ill, and lacking the ability to think independently.

I think we could use a lot more neighbors like you, and schools like Erin's!

Warmest Regards,
Dr. Beverly Peters