I was recently listening to a podcast, Mrs. Greens World, where her guests were two gentlemen that I greatly respect and admire. Namely Jim Richardson (Nat Geo photographer) and Dennis Dimick (Nat Geo editor). In the episode they discussed the Anthropocene Epoch. And let me just say, when one of my favorite photographers starts dropping geo language, I pay attention. That said, this post isn’t even about the Anthropocene Epoch. As much as I’d love to dig more into the that, I’m going to focus on something else that 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 in OR (I’ll take the latter). Both spoke about spending lots of time in touch with the land via farming, gardening, camping and simply playing outside. They spoke about it, though, as if children these days don’t get play outside… at all. While I think they’re absolutely right with respect to the average child, 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 niece. I loved watching Luci (my niece) run around, play with rocks, and constantly make 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 why it was so important, but there was no doubt that it was of the utmost importance that we find the queen. Unfortunately for the queen, PB&Js happened first.
In their 2018 paper, 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”. While they don’t discuss it directly, I struggle to see where youtube fits 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 won’t pretend to have the answer, I do have a wonderful niece that I’ll continue to play with ever chance that I get, because her health now, her health as an adult and subsequently the health of the society that she grows up into depends on it more than we know.
All day Luci’s imagination fabricated hostage situations, magic objects, entire story-lines that seemed to flow forth from nothing and just as quickly become 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 Thermarest.
I think this is precisely the type of behavior that Jim and Dennis suggest is an uncommon commodity these days. In an age of smartphone entertainment where the entertainment industry is pivoting to videos that last no longer than 30 seconds because thats the average limit of a child’s attention, children aren’t challenged to be creative. According to a NY Times article, the average age that a child gets their first smartphone has trended younger and younger (no surprise) and currently sits at around age 10.