With Labor Day weekend behind us and the unofficial end of summer upon us, I'm reminded of something I rarely see anymore: kids playing outside. Have you noticed? Over the years, there's less and less of it. Why?
I'm not talking about supervised activity, like Little League or soccer. I'm talking about, "Mom, I'm going out to play." Whether it's in the park, the backyard, across the street, they used to go outside and figure it out once they got there.
Where are those kids? No, not skateboarding.
You talk to parents of a certain age and they say, "That's how I grew up!" Every summer, up at the crack of dawn out playing baseball, or army we used to play army.
I used to have little plastic soldiers in all sorts of fighting positions Americans, German, even Japanese soldiers. I can't tell you how many times I re-enacted World War II in my backyard. Or how many times we played kid games like hide-and-seek, ringalevio a variation of hide-and-seek with two teams, runners and chasers rather than one person chasing everyone.
There was punch ball, stickball, football. Back then, you'd choose up sides without regard to political correctness. The best kids always got picked first. If you got picked last you knew why, and nobody's parents complained that their little snowflake wasn't getting the ball thrown to him. On summer nights after dinner, you went out and played some more. Touch football by streetlight. Catching and bottling fireflies.
Today, everything is indoors: video games, Wii, Game Boy, DS, Xbox, iPad, iPod, iPhone, the computer and, of course, the television.
Every year in the early fall, Nickelodeon's cable network goes dark for three hours on a Saturday as part of a program to get kids to go outside. It's called Worldwide Day of Play Oct. 6 this year. They've been doing this since 2004. If it's working at getting kids to go outside, I haven't noticed.
Of course, since the program started kids have lots more gadgets to play with and more TV programming to choose from, which they can also TiVO, so more toys, more TV to watch and more ways to watch it monopolizes their time even further. Some kids watch so much TV, the commercials should address them by name. Is all this contributing to that great national obesity epidemic we keep hearing about?
It's interesting how grown-ups of a certain age can recall spending their childhoods outdoors with little adult supervision, yet fear giving their children that same freedom because of what? Predators, pedophiles, sharp objects?
I'll bet we have no greater number of pedophiles out there as a percentage of the population today than there were 50 years ago. We're just more aware of it, and can more quickly access information to find out about it. Online, you can scan a sex offender registry and become terrified by all those red dots where registered offenders supposedly live.
And of course, we have multiple 24-hour news sources looking for content, with fear their biggest seller. They used to call television the idiot box because of all the sitcoms back in the day. If anything's made TV an idiot box, it's cable news. Panic, fear, melodrama and hyperbole that's their product, and it's made us scared.
Children are no more at risk from being run over or kidnapped than when today's grown-ups were kids.
I'm not saying we should be cavalier about these fears. We want our kids to be safe, but they're a lot safer and smarter than pop culture leads us to believe. Given the tools and guidance, they're capable of developing their own wits, too, when they have the freedom to practice on their own.
When I see kids coddled and sheltered without any sort of freedom to learn about the world and themselves I'm saddened and wonder about their futures. They're going to see everything that isn't routine as frightening and alien, and they'll have little ability to prepare for the accidents, misfortunes and curveballs life throws at all of us.
Last month, I walked into the house and there's my kid bleeding all over the sink. She'd wiped out on the skateboard. Her elbow was a mess.
"Don't even say it," she said.
Why bother? She'd been told countless times to pad up in case of a fall. But her friends got her home and she got the message. Sometimes you just gotta shuddup and let 'em learn the hard way.
Maybe kids don't play outside anymore because parents think their job is to protect their children from the world, rather than prepare their children for the world and perhaps a little bit to prepare the world for their children.