kids should be experts outside

March 21, 2014 § 3 Comments

When I was a kid, I remember being let outside like a wild animal.

My exasperated parents were tired of getting complaints about the noise from the downstairs neighbors, and tired of reprimanding me to no avail. I remember one hot summer day the neighbor stomped up the stairs after I’d completed a bought of sprinting and screaming (as you do at 5 or 6) and saying, “My fan. Is SHAKING. Whatever it is you’re doing,” he said with a sidelong glance at me, “I can not only hear it, but I can SEE it.”

There wasn’t much else they could do.

kidsassmaster, one might say

I was put on a very strict schedule of run-and-swim-around-until-you’re-too-tired-to-make-a-fuss. Come home, go to the pool. Do my homework. Go to the pool again. Let loose around the neighborhood until it was too dark to see. Knock on the door and go to the side of the apartment building where the hose was to to wait for mom. Get hosed off, towel dry. Do Chinese school homework. Go to bed. Weekends were an endless adventure outside – with lunch packed and a bike, I was off until sunset.

I remember pretending to be rescuers in a rainstorm – it was pouring cats and dogs and my friend Alex and I were biking around into giant puddles, through pretend rivers, crashing and splashing. I remember dumpster diving and making forts with random pieces of furniture and wood, reading worn paperbacks in my new living room. Everything was a fort. The palm frond teepee. The bushes with a hidden alcove. The tree house that we started a fire in. There were neighborhood kid rivalries and turf wars, punches thrown and harsh words exchanged. We caught lizards, grasshoppers, crickets, rollie pollies, caterpillars, lightening bugs, and yes, even fire ants once (I was only covered in Benadryl for a week or so). I was always covered in scabs and didn’t really mind except that they were itchy.

When we moved from Florida to Indiana at 8, I got more comfortable, wandered further – the cops knew me because I’d be miles away from home throwing water balloons off a parking structure or picking up change in the parking lot of the small local airport to buy candy from the vending machine. They’d escort me home until the next time. The entire university and town were my playground. I remember getting lost in the woods with some friends, totally terrified, thinking a big stump was the silhouette of a bear and kicking myself for not remembering what kind of bears you should run from and what kind you should play dead at instead. We had an intense fight about whether we should stay put, split up, or stay together and go the same direction. There were always gaggles of kids at the graduate student apartments – like in Florida, the apartments were built around a continuous greenway, with parking on the outside, ringing the play area. We’d take the little kids crab-apple tree climbing and make sure they got home at a reasonable hour.

When we moved to Maryland, I remember being responsible for my sister (ages 11 and 2). We had a giant semi-wooded field behind the apartment. One of the neighbors had two Scottish terriers and there was a playground where we’d play chicken on the monkey bars. I made sure my sister didn’t eat anything that wasn’t grass (it mostly worked) and played tag or cowboys and indians. I figured out how to weave baskets and make bows out of willow trees. We’d run around and shoot at the Canadian geese.

And it was like that, on and on, outside and wandering, managing and creating my own fun and my own reality. Sure, we’d play video games here and there,  build glorious Lego contraptions, and read endlessly in between, but mostly my parents had shit to do, and as long as I did my homework and workbooks, I was free to do what I wanted. In retrospect, it was freedom. It was endless possibility. At the time, it was everything life generally is – fun, terrifying, a remedy to boredom, curiosity, self-consciousness with some kids, bravado with others, wanderlust, etc etc.

I hadn’t thought about it in this light until I read this article in the Atlantic ….

“Is this a junkyard?” asks my 5-year-old son, Gideon, who has come with me to visit. “Not exactly,” I tell him, although it’s inspired by one. The Land is a playground that takes up nearly an acre at the far end of a quiet housing development in North Wales. It’s only two years old but has no marks of newness and could just as well have been here for decades. The ground is muddy in spots and, at one end, slopes down steeply to a creek where a big, faded plastic boat that most people would have thrown away is wedged into the bank. The center of the playground is dominated by a high pile of tires that is growing ever smaller as a redheaded girl and her friend roll them down the hill and into the creek. “Why are you rolling tires into the water?” my son asks. “Because we are,” the girl replies.

It’s still morning, but someone has already started a fire in the tin drum in the corner, perhaps because it’s late fall and wet-cold, or more likely because the kids here love to start fires. Three boys lounge in the only unbroken chairs around it; they are the oldest ones here, so no one complains. One of them turns on the radio—Shaggy is playing (Honey came in and she caught me red-handed, creeping with the girl next door)—as the others feel in their pockets to make sure the candy bars and soda cans are still there. Nearby, a couple of boys are doing mad flips on a stack of filthy mattresses, which makes a fine trampoline. At the other end of the playground, a dozen or so of the younger kids dart in and out of large structures made up of wooden pallets stacked on top of one another. Occasionally a group knocks down a few pallets—just for the fun of it, or to build some new kind of slide or fort or unnamed structure. Come tomorrow and the Land might have a whole new topography. – The Overprotected Kid, Hanna Rosin

As I was writing this post, I thought, “man I wish I had pictures of this stuff from when I was growing up,” but it is a testament to the times that there aren’t any. Our parents weren’t around for it. They were working, getting advanced degrees, hosing us off, feeding us, and making us do our homework. Playing Chinese Checkers or having a tickle war with us if we wanted it, but mostly letting us be. But even they have fallen victim to the culture of paranoia in their suburban single family home. When I was home for the holidays this year, I walked the mile to the coffee shop from our house and my mom freaked out when I wasn’t home before dark. It’s a different world. By the time I moved to San Diego, I had no idea who the neighborhood kids were, the landscape was totally built up & manicured with no room for imagination (even more so now), and we’d have to bike for miles to find a place to call our own.

I was having a conversation the other day about how little I remember of being a kid, but basically everything I do remember is of playing and building and wandering outside – I couldn’t tell you how my classrooms were set-up or what lessons we learned or even what my school buildings looked like. At the time I thought this was kind of sad, to have no recollection of such a large segment of being alive, but now I am thinking that perhaps it is okay to forget the mundane. Perhaps it is a reminder to, as much as you can, live life in a way that will be challenging and memorable (and to give the same chance to your kids).

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