“Last Child in the Woods”: Living in a Toxic Environment

We are in the suburbs of a large city and in an expensive townhouse and apartment community. There is a brand new playground in the middle of the community and the pool just re-opened. And it is toxic. Every couple months, threatening notes are placed in everyone’s mailboxes that focus almost entirely around the fact that children are playing outside. The most recent mandate, “effective immediately,” is that no child shall be outside at any time without supervision.

The mandate itself doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t define the age of such children or what constitutes supervision. It stems from complaints by other tenants that there are occasionally bikes or toys left around the community. That sometimes children cross someone’s back patio. That kids are riding bikes on the dead-end lanes in the community and that someone feels their rights are being fringed upon by having to slow down.

It is exactly what Richard Louv refers to as “the criminalization of natural play.” It is the attempt to keep children inside and not seen or heard. It is the thought that parents must have eyes on and helicopter around their children at all moments. According to his report, “Most housing tracts, condos, and planned communities constructed in the past two or three decades are controlled by strict covenants that discourage or ban the kind of outdoor play many of us enjoyed as children.” (pg 28) It goes against every concept of parenting, but emerges from the adult world of entitlement. To me, it stems from a belief that an individual should be able to have full control of the environment around his or her property and not be impacted at all by others in the community.

This environment is toxic to my soul and to the way that I want my boys to grow in independence, self-sufficiency, creativity, and respect. It goes against my desire for them to develop friendships and negotiate conflict by having space to interact with other kids. It takes away their opportunity to develop responsibility and an understanding of consequences. I expect them to make mistakes and to have to deal with the consequences. When Super Tall Guy accidentally slid his scooter handle into the neighbor’s car, he shouldered some of the cost to repair it.

Richard Louv discusses the importance of spending time in unstructured play. Building a tree house brings together the skills of math, science, spatial relations and a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Exploring the habitats of wildlife engenders an understanding of the species coexisting with humans and a respect for protecting the environment.

Instead, as more children are forced to be inside due to the pressures upon parents, their natural tendency is to turn more and more to screens as a way to pass the time. The consequences of extended screen time are becoming drastically apparent. It is something I struggle with daily as Super Tall Guy has given up on the outside world and shifted towards passive entertainment. I continue to seek opportunities for him and the younger two to stay engaged in the outside world.

Clearly I can no longer foster outside play in my own housing community. Instead I look for chances to pack up the boys and head out to the nearest county park or other spaces (and I continue to look for more acreage in a house for the boys!).

 

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Read Along with Me: Last Child in the Woods

Okay, I finally decided to start reading “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv. So many have asked me if I had read it, that I was starting to feel embarrassed. I felt like one of those presenters who is in front of a large crowd and a hand shoots up and says, “But have you read the most seminal piece in parenting this day?” Ahhh…..

Fine. I’ll read it.

And you can journey along with me.

I completely agree with the premise. Today’s kids have become more and more distant from nature and that is having serious consequences on their health, creativity and development. It is also having an impact on the environment. I’m just not sure I need 300+ pages to tell me all that, since I am now also a product of the internet age and want my information concise and quick.

But I’m going to slug through the book and see what I learn, having started on page one in the middle of the night while waiting for the emergency medicine vet to evaluate my dog’s chocolate toxicity level. Apparently the scent of delectable dark chocolate nonpareils was more than her four paws and sharp canines could resist.

One paragraph that caught my attention was Richard Louv’s description of how much our society uses technology within our cars now. No longer do kids observe endless fields and mindless telephone poles whipping by their peripheral vision. Instead they are plugged into a device and miss out on observations of nature and changing landscapes, thus missing opportunities to understand the expanse of the world and the connection countryside and cityscapes.

“We actually looked out the car window. In our useful boredom, we used our fingers to draw pictures on fogged glass as we watched telephone poles tick by. We saw birds on the wires and combines in the fields. We were fascinated with roadkill, and we counted cows and horses and coyotes and shaving-cream signs. We stared with a kind of reverence at the horizon, as thunderheads and dancing rain moved with us.” (pgs 63-64)

Okay. He got me there. I have long patted my shoulder for keeping all electronics off in the car while we travel around “town,” but whenever we started a road trip that would last longer than an hour, the boys knew that devices were now “allowed.”  I’ve been doing it backwards!

But here’s my argument; that is to say, here’s what I do to convince myself my decision is of course the right one. I’m a single parent driving three bouncy, noisy, crazy boys six hours to get to the beach. There’s only so much a mom can handle before she becomes too much of a distracted driver and things get unsafe. I can’t juggle the arguments about who won the counting cows contest, who is touching whom, who stole whose pillow. So if they’re going to “plug in” and leave me to my inner introvert thoughts for a bit, I’m just going to go with it. We will all arrive safer and saner this way.

As a compromise, we have developed a routine of turning off all electronics about forty-five minutes out from our destination so we can see the landscape change and start to smell the salt air. It’s a moment to bond with each other in excitement and in connecting with nature. We spend the next week feeling and talking about the power of waves and the pull of the tide. We stumble over sharp shells and curl our toes into the sand. We explore the rough, heavy wet sand which shapes into castles with the fine silky hot sand that floats in the wind as you let it spill from your fingers. It’s a whole week of being unplugged which the boys still relish at the ages of 11, 8 and 6.  I’m hoping we get a few more golden years of spending a week at the beach.

And after starting to read this book, I have tried to be more intentional about pointing out “nature” a bit more as we drive around town and through the city parks. I throw in small comments about the shape of the clouds, the color of the sunset, the shade offered by the trees, the grass along the side of the road. This pacifies my guilt a bit, but I still wrestle with wanting my kids to be more comfortable in the natural world and to connect more with it.

So I’ll keep reading (though I confess that I’m more drawn to “Before I Wake” by Dee Henderson which I’m also currently reading!).