Ah, summer is upon us.
That means the media are publishing a spate of articles that offer tips to parents on how to make their kids go outside and play - some of the articles encourage parents to let their kids experience a 1970s childhood.
I grew up in the Pittsburgh suburbs in the 1970s, and it truly was a glorious time to be a kid in America. We went on bike hikes deep into the hills, visiting the game reserve in the county park to feed the buffalo (there really were buffalo there!). Or we’d find the steepest hill and race to the bottom.
Some days, we’d play baseball from dawn until dinner. Or we’d go down to the creek and build a dam out of rocks, then catch frogs, crayfish and minnows.
One of my favorite activities was building shacks and forts. With all the new houses going up nearby, we were able to scarf some scrap materials and use our imagination to design and build our own little dreams.
Or we’d dabble in a little mischief. It was a primitive hunting instinct that led us to whip rotten pears at moving cars. Everyone once in a while, a driver would screech to a halt, cuss, then chase after us. We’d escape by running through a dark, 500-foot creek aqueduct that ran under the neighborhood.
The only real rules for kids then were that we were given lots of trust until we messed up, and that we be home for dinner. I still hear my father’s booming voice ricocheting off the hills: “Tom, dinner! Tom, dinner!” Some families used bells or horns to call their kids home.
And summer dinners were grand. My father grilled up chicken or pork chops, while my sisters and I brought the salad, vegetables and potato salad out from the kitchen. My mother made sun tea most days and after several hours exploring the woods, those summer dinners always hit the spot.
After dinner, we’d listen to broadcaster Bob Prince announce the Pirates’ games — “You can kiss it goodbye!” he’d say when Wilver “Willie” Stargell smacked one into the upper deck. And after cleaning up, we’d head on up to the woods. We’d play the games we invented until darkness settled over the hills.
Too few kids are experiencing such activities playing outside these days. Thus, they’re suffering from Nature-Deficit Disorder, a term coined by journalist Richard Louv in his book “Last Child in the Woods.”
Louv spent 10 years traveling around America, interviewing parents, kids, teachers, researchers and others to learn about children’s experiences with nature. His findings: During the last 30 years, our sensationalist media have “scared children straight out of the woods and fields.” Parents are afraid to let kids out of their sight - afraid their kids might get hurt.
Add to that the advent of television, video games and the internet, and the result is this: Kids aren’t getting out much anymore. And because they’re not getting out, they’re withdrawing from nature - the chief place where they use all five of their senses at once.
“We don’t yet know why it happens, but when all five of a child’s senses come alive, a child is at an optimum state of learning,” Louv told me. “Creativity and cognitive functioning go way up.”
The consequences of withdrawing from nature are not good. Kids lose their sense of being rooted in the world. They’re more likely to experience stress, hyperactivity, attention-deficit disorder and other modern maladies.
Thankfully, there is a solution: Allow today’s kids to get a taste of the glorious ‘70s childhood experiences their parents got to enjoy not so long ago.
— Tom Purcell is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist. Send comments to Tom at Tom@TomPurcell.com.