There’s a very interesting article on USA Today titled Childhood pastimes are increasingly moving indoors that touches on a topic I’ve had on my mind quite a bit lately as well: the rising trend of kids today preferring indoor rather than outdoor activities.
The fundamental nature of American childhood has changed in a single generation. The unstructured outdoor childhood — days of pick-up baseball games, treehouses and “be home for dinner” — has all but vanished.
Today, childhood is spent mostly indoors, watching television, playing video games and working the Internet. When children do go outside, it tends to be for scheduled events — soccer camp or a fishing derby — held under the watch of adults. In a typical week, 27% of kids ages 9 to 13 play organized baseball, but only 6% play on their own, a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found.
The shift to an indoor childhood has accelerated in the past decade, with huge declines in spontaneous outdoor activities such as bike riding, swimming and touch football, according to separate studies by the National Sporting Goods Association, a trade group, and American Sports Data, a research firm. Bike riding alone is down 31% since 1995.
My daughter, Courtney, will turn 15 this coming August and she’s much like a lot of kids these days in that she spends most of her time at home in her room either reading books or doing stuff on her PC with occasional bouts of TV watching. It’s rare for her to go over to a friend’s house and hang out or do much of anything outside regardless of whether it’s summer vacation or a school week. When she does do these things it usually because I suggested the idea to her. When she first came here to live you couldn’t keep her out of the apartment complex’s pool during the summer months. Last summer she swam in it three or four times I think. So far this year she’s been in it twice despite this being one of the hottest summers in recent memory in Michigan. Her last big outdoors event was this past Tuesday when she took a trip with some family friends down to Cedar Point for the day. We bought a pair of long-range walkie talkies on clearance that have a 6 mile reach so that Courtney can hop on her bike and head over to her friends houses when she feels like it, but she’s only taken advantage of it a couple of times. This is as much because her friends often aren’t available than any lack of initiative on her part, though.
Thinking back to my time as a kid I seem to recall being outside quite a bit and, as a teen her age, I hung out with my friends on a regular basis. The Internet wasn’t what it is today back then, but we were geeky enough to know about it and have access to it. Still, we didn’t have the instant messaging or the webpages that are out there today as much of what you did on the Net back then was entirely text based and email, while it’s quick, isn’t real time communication. I did spend a fair amount of time on the phone, something Courtney doesn’t do regularly, and I did run a BBS system at her age that took up some time in front of my trusty Commodore 64. I do remember having a lot of freedom even before I could drive a car and without the aid of long-range walkie talkies and the like. In the summer it wasn’t unusual for me to bike all the way to the Pontiac Mall—which was a good 15 minute drive from where I lived—to blow some quarters at the Aladdin’s Castle arcade and do some window shopping. Sometimes I did it with a friend and other times I went by myself. That’s a distance I’d be reluctant about allowing Courtney to traverse on her own these days.
Which is something the USA Today article brings up; it’s not just the lure of media and the Internet that’s keeping kids indoors these days. Often it’s the parents as well:
Parents are more afraid of letting kids roam in a world of heavy traffic and reports of pedophiles and missing children. A 41% decline in the birth rate since 1960 means smaller packs of kids roam neighborhoods. Air-conditioning means kids don’t need the local pool or swimming hole to cool off.
“Boundaries for kids used to be measured by blocks or miles. Now, the boundary for most kids is the front yard. A lot of kids are under house arrest,” says Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, a book about how children have lost touch with nature.
He says many parents fear the outdoors, whether it’s letting a kid climb a tree or hike alone in the woods. “Parents think their kids are safer in front of the Xbox in the next room.”
When my mom would get on me about the amount of time I spent playing video games I’d point out that at least she knew where I was and that I was safe. After all, I’d say, I could be out getting high or drunk or something. I don’t think my mom bought into that theory too much, but it sounds like a lot of other parents these days do. Courtney’s allowed roaming range has grown over the years from being limited to the park across the street from the apartment to a couple of blocks to the range of the walkie talkies these days. She’ll be driving within the next two years and already has friends who do drive so we’re considering a cell-phone in the very near future for her. Assuming I can afford it sometime soon, that is.
I’ve been more restrictive with Court than my folks were with me, but mainly because I didn’t become a full-time parent until she was just shy of 9 years old and I was taking the better-safe-than-sorry approach to parenting for awhile. So it’s possible that Courtney’s lack of initiative in getting out more is a direct result of my past limits on how far she was allowed to roam. I was also fortunate to spend the majority of my childhood in one location—we lived in the same house on the north-west side of Pontiac for the first 17 years of my life—whereas when Courtney lived with her mother they moved around quite a bit. I think the six years or so that Courtney has lived here has been the longest she’s been in one spot in her life. Even after we moved I was able to visit with the friend’s I’d established because we were all driving by then. Well, most of us anyway. Bill seemed to always be sans car.
Childhood’s outdoor pastimes are declining fast and the rate has accelerated in the past decade, especially the past five years, according to the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA) annual survey of physical activity.
Since 1995, the portion of children ages 7 to 11 who swim, fish or play touch football has declined by about a third. Canoeing and water skiing are down by similar amounts.
The relationship between kids and their bikes is especially telling.
In 1995, 68% of children ages 7 to 11 rode a bike at least six times a year. Last year, only 47% did.
The sales of children’s bikes fell from 12.4 million in 2000 to 9.8 million in 2004, a 21% decline, according to Bicycle Industry and Retailer News,an industry magazine.
“Bikes used to be empowering for children,” says Marc Sani, publisher of the magazine. “My parents didn’t care where I went as long as I was home for supper. Now, parents are afraid to let kids out of their sight.”
My bike was freedom personified when I was a kid. I had an original Schwinn Stingray that I rode into the ground and then built back up out of spare parts with friends in the neighborhood over and over again. Later I inherited my brother’s ten-speed Schwinn that I used for most of my teen years until I talked my folks into getting me a moped. They couldn’t afford a brand new one so they found a used Puch moped from the 70’s or so that looked like a cross between a bicycle and a motorcycle that you had to pedal like crazy to start and which made you look completely ridiculous riding if you were using your brother’s old full-head visored motorcycle helmet. It came in particularly handy for getting me to and from driver’s training on my own. That silly old moped, which turns out to be quite the collector’s item these days, was my first real taste of freedom similar to what getting your own car is like and I was doing that at Courtney’s current age. I feel like I’m depriving my kid of some of the great stuff I did when I was her age.
According to the article, most kids that do get outdoors these days do it by appointment for scheduled sports events and the like….
Tracey Martin, 40, head of parks and recreation in Greenville, Ohio, says his athletic 14-year-old son spends a typical summer week playing basketball all day at basketball camp and playing soccer at night. But when his son is home, the boy spends his free time using computer chat rooms and playing cards over the Internet. “The funny thing is, I never see him play cards with his friends,” his father says.
I am worried about Courtney not getting enough exercise as that was a routine I should have developed when I was younger myself, and still should for that matter, but I’m also worried that she’s not getting enough time socializing face to face with her peers. Even if she went over to a friend’s house and spent the afternoon playing video games at least she’d be interacting with them on a more personal level. She’s not quite as bad about this as some of the kids in this article are, but I’m still trying to encourage her to make her rare trips out of the apartment more frequent. I used to worry that once she was of driving age I’d rarely see her at all, but now I’m beginning to wonder if that’s likely to happen or not. Time will tell I suppose.