The big, fun, scary outdoors

The News & Observer Publishing Company – September 20, 2007
By Joe Miller

The big, fun, scary outdoors

Back in the day, kids played outside all the time. Now, we need a special day

It was a July day along the Susquehanna River of central Pennsylvania: hot, sweaty, still. The three of us were 13, and while we wouldn't admit it, the summer doldrums had set in. It had taken just six weeks to exhaust a school year's worth of pent-up summer plans -- playing baseball, exploring an abandoned canning factory, hiking the woods west of town, taking an epic bike trip five miles up Route 15 to Milton. Now, we sat outside the Tastee-Freeze contemplating the long afternoon ahead.

"Let's walk over to Montandon," Kurt finally suggested. Brad and I looked at him: Montandon? Little as there was to do in Lewisburg, a college town of 13,000, there was absolutely nothing happening across the river in tiny Montandon.

"Across the railroad trestle," he clarified.

Oh.

The Susquehanna is no Mississippi, but it is a big river. The trestle, which paralleled the auto bridge about 50 yards downstream, was maybe a football field long, perhaps 40 feet above the water. The 9-inch-wide ties were spaced not quite 2 feet apart, creating a gap more than sufficient to swallow an awkward 13-year-old boy who was subject to vertigo and not known as one of the braver kids in eighth grade.

Brad and I each waited for the other to say something. Neither did, so we began the half-mile walk through town to the bridge, a half-mile walk I remember almost as vividly as the walk across the bridge itself.

I'm scared of heights. I'm uncoordinated. And what if a train comes while we're on the bridge? I had visions of my sweaty, pudgy fingers clinging to a railroad tie as a slow-moving freight train rumbled overhead.

It was a foolish thing to do, and I do not advocate anyone attempting it themselves. But it took me outside of my comfort zone, which is part of the wonder of being a kid outdoors.

When I mentioned Take A Child Outside Week to my editor, she gave me the cocked-head look of a perplexed puppy. "We have to have a day set aside to take our kids outside?" she asked. "When I was a kid, it was 'Get out of the house day.' Every day was 'Get out of the house day.' "

That was a long generation ago.

In the 1970s, kids came home from school, dumped their book bags, made a beeline out the back door and weren't seen again until dark. Today, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, the average American child spends more than six hours a day "staring at some kind of electronic screen."

The amount of time spent being physical every day, according to another study, out of the University of California at Berkley?

About 19 minutes.

"It's a national concern," says Liz Baird, director of education for the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and the inspiration behind Take A Child Outside Week, which runs Monday through Sept. 30. The goal: Reconnect today's kids to the outdoors, which until a few short years ago was long considered the ultimate kid playground. A playground we had to be dragged from kicking and screaming.

So what happened to drive our kids indoors? You can start by pointing the finger at Willis Carrier. Within four years of his receiving a patent for his "Apparatus for Treating Air," an estimated 12 percent of U.S. households had air conditioning, according to the U.S. Census. By 2001 it was 78 percent. Part of the reason we stayed outside so long before was because it was too hot to go in.

We've also grown reluctant to let our children out of our sight. We've become ruled by fear, says Richard Louv in "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder."

"Fear is the most potent force that prevents parents from allowing their children the freedom they themselves enjoyed when they were young," he writes. "Fear of traffic, of crime, of stranger danger -- and of nature itself."

In a chapter titled "The Bogeyman Syndrome Redux," Louv debunks a variety of popular myths about the dangers of letting kids go outside, from "Halloween terrorism" -- razor blades in apples -- to statistically embellished reports of children being shot on the streets.

There's fear, too, of critter-born diseases -- of Lyme disease, of Rocky Mountain spotted fever. But as Baird is quick to note, the odds of contracting such diseases, already low, can be greatly minimized with proper precautions.

And there are those 44 hours a week our kids spend in front of a screen, a temptation that even devout outdoors types understand.

"I think video games offer intellectual challenges, they work hand-eye coordination, reflexes, strategy," says Tony Clark, an avid backpacker and kayaker who spends his days supervising Cary's Middle Creek Community Center. The one thing missing, he says: a physical challenge.

What kids are missing

Baird believes a child deprived of the outdoors misses out on a lot.

"There are so many skills you develop that are useful as an adult," Baird says. She ticks off several, including "getting into trouble, then figuring how to get out of it."

"I had two younger brothers and we would frequently tear or rip or in other ways harm our clothes, maybe climbing trees we weren't supposed to be in. We'd figure out ways to cover them up, maybe staple them so mom wouldn't notice."

Patience, in short supply in today's soundbite world, is something Mike Dunn, coordinator of teacher education programs at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, learned growing up outdoors. Though he doesn't hunt now, his dad was an avid hunter and Dunn spent many an hour sitting in a blind, waiting. And observing.

"To this day, that's been a big payoff for my photography," says Dunn, who will have his first exhibit of nature photography next month.

"It's also given me a calmness, a peace of mind," Dunn says of his detox time outdoors. "I used to have a temper."

Time outdoors has proved effective as a therapy for various mental and emotional disorders.

Author Louv cites several studies suggesting "green time" is an effective therapy for dealing with ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and autism, among other issues.

Another challenge of the outdoors: The challenge of challenging yourself.

Powerful outdoors

Tony Clark grew up in Winston-Salem reading about the likes of James Fenimore Cooper and Kit Carson. In high school, he got his first taste of how powerful the outdoors could be. The R.J. Reynolds High School Outing Club had planned a backpacking trip along the Appalachian Trail, starting at Damascus, Va., and working south. An ambitious trip, it turned out.

"It really opened me up to the idea of challenging myself," he says.

I had a similar epiphany on the railroad trestle that July day back in 1969. One minute I was safely walking on secure pavement, the next I was gingerly feeling my way across railroad ties spaced 20 inches apart 40 feet above a significant U.S. river. Those first tentative steps were particularly vertiginous; looking down didn't help, but there wasn't an alternative. I thought counting the ties might be a good distraction, but that only led to the realization of how many more lay ahead. Each vaguely mechanical noise in the distance conjured one thought: Train?

Mike Dunn says he can't pinpoint exactly how much his time outside has tamed his temper. Likewise, I can't quantify what impact crossing that bridge has had on my life. Did it make me decide that I could ride my bike 900 miles across the state eight years ago? Did it convince me to shrug aside my fear of tight spaces and go cave diving in Florida -- once? Did it keep me from becoming overwhelmed during a climb up Stone Mountain? I can't say. I can say that frequently and without warning, in my mind, I will find myself standing on the Montandon side of that railroad bridge looking back in disbelief.

Powerful and influential as the outdoor experience can be, it can't be assessed in an End-of-Grade test.

Albert Einstein, who recognized the restorative value of getting outside, may have been the consummate scientist, but he was well aware of life's invaluable intangibles.

Read a sign over the door of his office at Princeton: "Not everything that counts can be counted. Not everything that can be counted counts."


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