Is there any way to lure kids back outside?

This post comes to us from Kenny Felder, a high school teacher and father of four in North Carolina who has been thinking about why our kids are always inside, instead of outside playing. To see the full essay, please go to http://www4.ncsu.edu/unity/lockers/users/f/felder/public/kenny/essays/safety2.html.

 By Kenny Felder

Here is a little science fiction story I made up today.  A group of children spend the entire summer of 2009 playing video games, watching TV, and doing…well, whatever it is that children seem to do for endless hours on Facebook. They never go outside, never interact with any other human being in person, and subsist on Doritos and Coke.

Their concerned parents take away the computers and televisions, thinking their children will find old-fashioned forms of entertainment. The children can’t think of anything to do at all: they stare at the walls and demand their video games back.

The parents decide to create a summer camp. They come up with wholesome activities involving art, sports, music, and nature. The kids aren’t interested. They want their computers.

Now comes the science fiction part. The parents use a time machine to go back and ask help from a bunch of parents and teachers from the 1950s: “Back in your time, kids had fun without 21st-century technology,” say today’s parents. “We want you to help us set up a summer camp so exciting that kids will want to do it.” After consulting and considering, the 1950s parents come back with a detailed plan.

  • Day 1: Woods Scavenger Hunt. The kids are taken into the middle of the woods and sent out on a scavenger hunt in pairs. They are looking for certain kinds of leaves, markings, and so on. The first pair to find everything on the list gets a prize. 
  • Day 2: Downtown Scavenger Hunt. Similar to Day 1, but this time, the things the kids are looking for have been left with shopkeepers, all within a 1-mile radius of the starting point. 
  • Day 3: Lake adventure, with canoeing and swimming. 
  • Day 4: Farming. The kids help out on a real farm, feeding animals and milking cows and riding horses.

…and so on.

The 2009 parents look over the list. “These are great! Exactly the kind of thing we’re looking for. The only problem is, we don’t have enough supervision. We can’t send a parent out with every pair of kids downtown. Our insurance wouldn’t cover interacting with real animals on a farm. How would it be if we had a scavenger hunt on the school playground, and then went to a barn and talked to a farmer about his animals?”

The 1950s parents look confused. “The kids will be bored to tears!”

“Yes, you understand perfectly!” explain the 2009 parents. “They are bored to tears with everything we’ve come up with! We need ideas that are fun and exciting, like your ideas, with just one little detail changed: they need to meet modern standards of liability and insurance. That means no kids in the woods, in town, on the water, or anywhere else where they are not closely supervised by adults at all times.”

The 1950s parents then deliver the punch line of the story. I’m torn here between two possible endings.

1. “Maybe we misunderstood from the beginning. Are we talking about 4-year-olds here?”

2. “Tell us again about these€”what did you call them?€”video games.”

Lenore’s note: Here’s my (lame-ish) punchline:

3. “We have heard of the movement, ‘Free Range Kids.’ Those kids sound like ours. But how are you going to convince others to join them?”

I think (Lenore speaking again) that is Kenny’s question, too. In this age of lawsuits and fear, and especially fear of lawsuits, Free Range Kids will be oddballs until society stops equating “independence” with “liability”  (and, often, “doom.”) How can we start that shift, not just in our own families, but outside them, too? Not that playing videogames is bad. Just that there’s a big, wide world out there for kids to explore and love, same as we did.

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