Where the wild kids are
For the record, I don’t think it’s true that kids today don’t play outside anymore. People born in the ’80s said that about ’90s kids, and ’90s kids are now saying that about the children of the ’00s. But I live just steps away from an open basketball court which, as soon as the sun starts to dip, comes alive with the snappy footsteps and delighted shrieks of kids playing habulan, Chinese garter, streetball, and all sorts of outdoor games.
However, as someone before me has remarked, it may be that “[t]hose kids you see playing outside these days can’t afford the internet. It’s a modern indicator of poverty.”
The community I live in isn’t exactly affluent. It’s the kind that has narrow alleyways snaking between houses, and on these alleyways, you’d commonly find children in sando and shorts running about, trying to beat one another to the nearby bananacue vendor. Before this, I grew up in a neighborhood colloquially called Burgos, whose name was almost synonymous to afternoons of patintero and hide-and-seek among bamboo fences and wild banana plants.
Admittedly, if the internet were as accessible back then as it is now, I probably would’ve spent most of my time indoors instead of losing a slipper while crossing a stream or gashing my knee trying to fly a kite. When the world is packaged in a screen and a few clicks, it’s easy to get sucked in. People of my generation—or people who, like me, didn’t have electronic gadgets until they were teens—consider themselves lucky to have been deprived of such convenience.
But what makes us lucky? In some ways, we even had it more difficult before the internet became a thing. School reports, for instance, were a bigger chore: Imagine having to browse several (real) books just to complete a single-page homework. And besides, my generation, too, had its share of indoor entertainment black holes; you could rarely find a kid back then who did not religiously tune in to after-school anime TV shows.
Perhaps what makes us fortunate is not that we didn’t have smartphones and tablets. It’s that despite the lure of the indoors, we were able—and in fact encouraged—to play freely outside. Studies everywhere tell us why this is beneficial for children: It boosts their creativity, mental abilities, social skills, and emotional wellbeing. The list goes on.
We owe this not exactly to any sort of poverty or deprivation of indoor entertainment, but to our parents, who seem to have understood that these benefits couldn’t be collected by just staring at a screen. You could learn everything about trees through nature documentaries and Google searches, but without interacting with them directly—independently or with friends—you miss out on certain developmental values.
Author Richard Louv calls this “nature deficit disorder,” and naturalist Stephen Moss explains it succinctly: “Nature is a tool to get children to experience not just the wider world, but themselves,” he says. Climbing a tree, for instance, is “learning how to take responsibility for yourself, and how—crucially—to measure risk for yourself. Falling out of a tree is a very good lesson in risk and reward.”
Realistically, however, it’s understandable for this generation’s parents to hesitate about letting their young ones roam. There are threats everywhere—crime, disease, traffic accidents. But, just as threats existed in the ’90s and ’80s and ’70s, there can be a balance between child safety and free play today. Finding that balance is essential, not only in raising a child as an individual, but also in raising a generation that is self-reliant, well-adjusted, and conscious of the world around it.
This, I believe, is a function of parenting. It’s not a matter of how many child-oriented apps are available or how kid-friendly gadgets are these days, but how children are encouraged to balance these with first-hand experience of the outdoors.
By all means, let those kids go on Wikipedia adventures and read about rivers and watch YouTube videos of spiders and frogs. But let them also play in the real world, shriek with friends, run off the pavement, fall from a bike. As a millennial who lives just steps away from a lively basketball court, I can attest this is still possible today.
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