I just started reading Last Child in the Woods, and I am finding it enjoyable so far. I’m not sure if it is going to make it on my “favorites” list, but I think he makes some really good points about the way that childhood has changed in the past few generations. My mom has stories of spending the whole day on homemade boats in the canal systems in Miami. My dad has stories about going shrimping at night and building tree houses all day. My brother and I are a step further removed. We have stories of treehouses made of treated lumber and playing in the woods, but they were torn down during our elementary school years. When we moved we no longer had access to any woods, and most outdoor games were not allowed by the homeowners association. Now my children experience the woods through our backyard open space and hiking, but it is not the same as it was when my brother and I explored. Each generation is getting further away from the creative play in nature and more into outdoors activities that are more rigid in scope. Obviously my kids don’t get to explore too much on our hikes because much of the land is protected.
Richard Louv talks about the many reasons for our change, but I wanted to write about his discussion of private (homeowners association) laws that have changed the way that kids play. I think I find it particularly interesting because the same thing happened to my family when we moved.
A few years after moving to Scripps Ranch, Rick started reading articles in the community’s newsletter about the “illegal use” of open space. “Unlike where we had lived before, kids were actually out there running around in the trees, building forts, and playing with their imaginations,” he recalls. “They were putting up bike ramps to make jumps. They were damming up trickles of water to float boats. In other words, they were doing all the things we used to do as kids. They were creating for themselves all those memories that we cherish so fondly.” And now it had to stop. “Somehow,” says Rick, “that tree house was now a fire hazard. Or the ‘dam’ might cause severe flooding.”
I wonder when this happened, because I remember a similar dynamic in the late-80s and mid-90s in our neighborhoods. All of the sudden you needed a permit for everything.
Authoritative adults from the Scripps Ranch Community Association chased kids away from a little pond near the public library, where children had fished for bluegills since Scripps Ranch had been a working cattle spread many decades earlier. In response to the tightened regulations, families erected basketball hoops. Young people moved the skateboard ramps to the foot of their driveways. But the community association reminded the residents that such activities violated the covenants they had signed when they bought their houses.
Down came the ramps and poles; and indoors went the kids.
I find this funny because my parents were ticketed for our basketball court in the mid-90s. My dad had to take it down. It sucked. My dad and I used to play at night before bedtime, and the community association fined and ticketed us for our hoop. There was no legal way to have a hoop, so my parents had to take it down. That was such a bummer.
I was thinking about this the other day because my kids were interested in the native grasses that grow in the canal behind our house. They wanted to pick them and investigate them, and I realized that it was probably illegal for them to pick the grasses. I’m pretty sure that when I read our open space laws that there was a clause that said that you can’t pick or cut any of the vegetation. Its a little sad because that is how my brother and I learned so much about the world around us. I understand why these small areas of remaining nature have to be protected, and it is because there is so little other nature around most neighborhoods that even a few grass pickings here and there can be a big deal if every kid at the thousand or so houses nearby did it.
Similarly we have forced wild animals to live very close to our houses since they don’t have much land left. At night we often hear coyotes right behind our house. I’m sure that if they had thousands of acres to choose from then they wouldn’t want to be in our backyard, but there aren’t many other options for them here. That means that playing in these spaces is less safe for my kids because the wildlife is much more dense. Louv talks about this as well, but I’ll save that for some other time.
So anyways, I’m finding the book interesting. I think that we are far better off than the majority of Americans when it comes to nature because Colorado is known for its great open spaces and nature. My kids are able to do a lot more than most children their age. At the same time, it is a little sad to realize how different childhood has become in the past 50 years.