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I recently listened to an episode of the podcast, Mrs. Greens World. Her guests on this particular episode were two gentlemen that I greatly admire and respict. Namely, Jim Richardson (National Geographic Photographer) and Dennis Dimick (National Geographic Editor). I was lazily tuning in and out as one often does when listening to podcasts while commuting, when I heard Jim mention the “Anthropocene Epoch”. Now, when one of my favorite photographers starts dropping geo language, I pay attention. An hour and a half later the following were some of my thoughts.

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This post isn’t about the Anthropocene Epoch. As much as I’d love to dig more into the that, I’m going to focus on something else they discussed in the episode. Jim and Dennis both spoke about growing up on farms, and more generally, being raised in relationship with nature. For Jim it was his family farm in Kansas and for Dennis his parent’s sheep farm in the Willamette Valley of Oregon (I’ll take the latter). Both spoke fondly about spending lots of time in touch with the land. Whether it was farming, gardening, camping or simply playing outside, they spoke with the nostalgia of a parent rummaging through their children’s old baby photos. They spoke though, as if children these days don’t play outside… at all.

While I think that is indeed the growing norm for today’s youth, listening to them made me first, thankful for my own childhood where playing outside was a huge part of growing up and second, reflect on a recent camping trip I took with my older brother, sister-in-law, wife and most importantly, niece. I loved watching my niece Luci for those two days. Ceaselessly it seemed, she was on the run, playing with rocks, sticks, pine-cones and just about anything she could get her hands on. She was constantly making up games. At one point she and I were running ahead of “the army” to deliver a “very important message” to the Queen. I never learned exactly what that message was or why it was so vital that we succeed in delivering it, but there was no doubt that it was of the utmost importance that we find the Queen. Unfortunately for the Queen, PB&Js precluded delivery. All day Luci’s imagination fabricated hostage situations, magic objects, entire story-lines that seemed to flow forth from nothing then just as quickly evolve into something entirely different. It was beautiful. I found myself envying her creativity. How a simple piece of sandstone, in concert with a pine branch, could become the key to not drowning as we floated down the Nile River on my brother’s sleeping pad.

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I think this is precisely the type of behavior that Jim and Dennis suggest is an uncommon commodity these days. In an age of pocket entertainment where industry standards are pivoting to videos that last no longer than 30 seconds (because that’s the average limit of a child’s attention), children aren’t challenged to be creative. According to an article published in the New York Times, the average age that a child receives their first smartphone has trended younger and younger and currently sits around the age of 10.

In their 2018 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, Nijhof et al. focus on long-lasting negative childhood chronic diseases and discuss consequences that are “likely the result of a reduced possibility for play in these children.” They go on to discuss “play” as “multidimensional” and describe the five dimensions of play: “(1) highly active games such as chasing, rough-and-tumble play and play fighting, (2) pretend and socio-dramatic play, (3) language play, (4) social play and games with rules and (5) and construction play”. They argue that healthy play in adolescence, (which includes 10-year-olds, as well as anyone less than 23 years old,) is vital to physical, social/emotional, cognitive and language development. They further posit that stimulating play behavior enhances the adaptability of a child to a “(chronic) stressful condition… thereby strengthening the basis for their future health.” While they don’t discuss it directly, I struggle to see where YouTube and Netflix fit into the equation.

The recognition of the importance of playing and getting outside is not at all a new one, and yet there is no arguing that children today play less, especially outside, than their predecessors. Why is that?

While I don’t have the answer, I do have a wonderful niece that I’ll continue to play with every chance I get, because her health now, her health as an adult and subsequently the health of the society that she grows into depends on it more than we know.