The Frederick (Maryland) News-Post published this article over the weekend about the declining numbers of people headed outdoors in Pennsylvania. It’s the same across the nation. The current generation of youngsters may well be the least-active, the heaviest, and the first in decades to experience a decline in life expectancy relative to their recent ancestors. Experts blame TV, video games, “stranger danger”, rising fuel costs, and a lack of safe outdoor places to go out and play.
In my own intown neighborhood, I’m a little reluctant to let my kids do what we did–play on the street. We had sidewalks to escape to, and a well-connected grid of streets so that traffic was dispersed. Sometime in the 1950s, city planners made the self-fulfilling prophecy that no one would ever walk anywhere in the future again, and they quit requiring developers to install sidewalks in residential neighborhoods. They built dangerous 4-lane arterial roads through the hearts of whichever neighborhoods weren’t demolished for freeway construction.
Although I’m a product of the suburbs, there were still plenty of interstitial wild places in the 1970s in the matrix of subdivisions for me to explore for fishing holes and fort locations. Today, the landscape is increasingly privatized, and youngsters are left begging rides to the mall.
As Richard Louv has amply documented in his powerful book Last Child in the Woods (which we’ve recommended before), unstructured play time in the great outdoors is a strong shaper of character, cognition, and physical health. Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation, is quoted in the News-Post piece saying “There’s an important connection between being in the outdoors and being concerned about nature and the environment.” When we socialize a generation to be the ultimate passive consumers of electronic entertainment and industrial food instead of connecting them to God’s Creation, we’ll get a different polity making important decisions about the future of the environment. You can’t love and respect what you don’t know.