GROWING UP IN RURAL SOUTHWESTERN MINNESOTA in the 1960s and 1970s, I spent most of my time outdoors. There was nothing to keep me inside. No TV for a long time. No electronic games. No anything. Except books. And the few toys we had.
The outdoors offered so much more. A grove in which to carve paths. Trees for a treehouse. A spacious farmyard for a game of softball. Tall grass for a journey West via imaginary covered wagons. Gravel drive and gravel roads for biking. Snow mountains and drifts to sled and slide and travel across. Vast expanses of grass upon which to lie and gaze at animal-shaped clouds.
Outside of play, the outdoors presented a place to work—to pull weeds from soybean rows and tassels from seed corn, to pick rocks from fields, to haul hay and buckets of milk replacer, to wheel grain and do all those chores necessary on a farm.
The house was mostly a place to sleep and eat and, on Saturday evenings, wash away the grime in the galvanized bath tub hauled from porch to kitchen.
It all sounds so nostalgic. So wonderful. And it was in many ways. But life was also admittedly hard in the kind of way that day-in-day-out, the physical labor circled in a never-ending cycle. We had little in material possessions. I suppose you could say our family lived in poverty, although I had no recognition of that at the time.
We were rich, though, in our love of the outdoors, of the land. I wanted to be outside. I am thankful for having grown up in a place and time when I could roam outdoors without fear and in free play.
Most kids today are missing that unstructured free time outdoors to just be kids, to stretch their imaginations. Sometimes I wonder if kids are even capable any more of playing on their own, without adults planning an activity, a game, a sport, for them. It’s a different world. If I was a kid today and lived as I did then, I would be considered free-range and my parents probably would be the object of concern and likely under fierce attack on social media.
Despite the changes in society, it’s still important for kids to get outdoors–away from electronics and scheduled activities–to simply play. To use their imaginations. To be in nature. To appreciate the warmth of the sun, the waft of the wind, the scent of flowers, the smell of earth, the feel of dirt between their fingers, the taste of a sun-ripened tomato, the birdsong of morning…
Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
I totally understand your childhood because even though I did not live on a farm I lived in small towns where we were able to roam around freely with not a lot of limitations. I remember going fishing all day with my brother, hikes in the woods, and just playing outside all of the time. I love where we live now because outdoor activities are so prominent and so many children are outside so much of the time exploring and hiking and just doing kid things. I think the mountains, the trails and waterfalls all encourage this type of activity and the smart families encourage it. There is a balance and hopefully folks will be able to share that balance with their young ones.
I am so happy to hear about all the kids outdoors in your mountainous neighborhood. Rarely do I see kids playing outside here in Faribault. In some of the neighboring small communities, I do see those kids outdoors, whether fishing or biking or just being.
This is a continual struggle with my 9 year old son. Loves his iPad. First thing he wants to get on when he is home from day camp. At least he is outdoors everyday!
I understand your struggle, Keith, as I dealt with this same issue when my son was a teen. We bought him a laptop and I soon regretted it as he wanted to be on it ALL THE TIME. I set limits and took it away before he went to bed, or he would be on it at night. Today he is a computer science grad from Tufts University and working at MIT Lincoln Lab, earning great money and doing what he loves. There has to be a balance, though, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult in this tech-focused world.
We do the same, put it away before bed. It is difficult.
I understand. Stand your ground.
It’s very, very hard to find balance today. There were times a few years ago when my kids, theoretically old enough to go to park together without me, I would tell them to go ahead. I’ll meet you after I finish x, I would promise.
They refused. School days it’s not safe for us, they told me.
I started to train them. I’ll write up a blog post on this, when we transitioned to walking alone, etc. But yes, it’s still very hard.
I truly understand the challenges. Raising kids today in a tech-focused world with seemingly more dangers than ever is difficult. It’s a tough job. But I know that you care, are aware and are trying.
All three of my kids walked to school or their nearby bus stops. Without me. They now range in age from 24 to 31. Lots of kids in my neighborhood walk to school or bus stops. And I’m happy to see that. We need to find that balance between fear and reality and sometimes that does not come easily. That you are training your kids is the right thing to do as a loving and caring mom. We can’t shelter them forever.
I grew up like you, Audrey. The city park sits just across the road from the pecan orchard. We don’t see kids or families there much. Just yesterday I was talking with a friend who said most days less than ten kids show up at the city pool for the afternoon. When we were kids, all summer we cruised the streets on our bikes, spent hours at the pool which was packed with young and old alike, and we played together in our own yard. No way we could be kept in the house, and TV was rarely watched back then. My dad called it the “nut” box, since he felt it offered little to nourish the brain. News was about all it was good for in his eyes. I can’t say the news is a good reason to watch TV anymore.
It’s a great sadness that so many kids are out of touch with nature. Electronics are the new babysitters. I am thankful that most of my family and their kids still enjoy the great outdoors and exploring nature.
Electronics are the new babysitter. So right you are. Along with the tech-focus of today’s world, it’s increasingly difficult for kids (and adults) to get off their gadgets. I’m glad to hear your extended family still embraces the outdoors.
Your dad’s terminology for TV seems fitting.
Childhood in the city was defined by boundaries. At first you were confined to your yard then after a certain age, you could leave the yard but not the block you lived on. After that, a fence of busy streets defined the area you were free to roam – then finally, the entire city was yours.
Childhood in the city was also defined by defying those boundaries.
We were always getting caught being where we were not supposed to be – and grounded, only to bust out again.
That kids today do not want to leave the house stuns me.
But then again, from being one of the people who analyzed crime for the city of Minneapolis and later the state, I was stunned by the fact that crime increased by forty-fold from the 1950’s to the 1990’s.
Crime is one factor for parents wanting to keep kids close – but trust is another. Prior to the great migrations of the 1960’s from city to suburbs, from rural to urban, city neighborhoods functioned like small towns. Everyone knew each other. Everyone shopped locally. That is how trust is built.
Then came the 1970’s.
As always, I appreciate your insights. I understand the fear parents face today and the reasons they want to shelter and keep their kids close. It just saddens me that it’s come to this, that we are such a sheltered inside our houses society.
Yes, if we could rebuild that sense of community within neighborhoods, it would make all the difference in rebuilding trust.
Kids and adults need the outdoors. We all need the time to unplug, and observe the natural world. To be curious, to listen to the wind and watch the clouds drift pass.
If we all spent more time in nature I think we would see what is happening around us as we consume and over populate the planet. We would all find better solutions to the long term issues that face out planet.
I’m currently reading a book about depression, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression–and the Unexpected Solutions by Johann Hari, which addresses the importance of being outdoors and being connected to nature (and each other). Your comment fits right in with his observation that being in the outdoors can help people deal with issues like depression. It seems so obvious. Thank you for your comment as one who I know really values time outdoors.
Thanks and I love promoting the health benefits of nature. It seems…well natural.
I love this article Audrey! You hit it out of the park! (NO pun intended, LOL)
Thank you, Cheryl. Good to hear from you.
What a great way for a kid to grow up.
I feel pretty blessed to have grown up in the time period I did when kids could still play outdoors without restrictions.
I wish we had that license plate in Arizona … I’d be so havin’ that on my car! I am really with you on growing up in a different time and enjoying the outdoors. Living in a small Nebraska town afforded me a lot of the “luxuries” … the kind you related in your post. We had a park a block from our house and where we’d go to “make a house” with leaves we raked in piles to use as walls, complete with doors and windows. What fun that was. Watching my grandkids I sure wish they had the “opportunities” we had as kids and not so much time on screens closed off from the world.
Oh, my gosh, Rachel, leaf houses. Constructing those was one of my favorite parts of autumn. I’m going to show my granddaughter how to make those. You brought back a delightful memory.
Thank you for sharing your childhood memories, which sound similar to mine in being outdoors all the time.
Enjoyed reading all the reader comments-indeed we have departed into a world of technology leaving imagination and
exploration behind. What a pity this lifestyle of being inside for kids has evolved, Several of my friends came up with a short term solution hosting grandparent camps each summer with a variety of outdoor activities.
I love that grandparents camp idea.
It really is sad how the times have changed. Kids now in these times spend more time on i phones, i pads etc , they are missing out on God’s beautiful creations that’s just right outside their doors. I remember my childhood, during the summers I use to play in the dirt pretending to make mud pies, serve tea to my mom and dad. Spend endless summer swimming in the lake, trips to six flags, when they were still there we would go to drive ins, go out on summer nights and catch lighting bugs in jars watch them light up and then let them go. Winter months when we would get hit with a lot of snow I would go outside and play in the snow, sledding , building snowman etc. All year around we would take weekly trips to the mall, my mom would buy me a pretzel it was the highlight of my mall trip every time. I plan to write a post on my blog on this subject soon.
Thanks for sharing your outdoor memories. I baked lots of mud pies, too, in the sunshine. What wonderful childhood memories you have.
Living In the country for me and my siblings meant lots of playing outside, exploring, building forts and running free. Did I mentions gathering the neighbor kids for football & baseball games in the empty field. There was also 4H and scouts. We did have a TV with 3 channels but that was ruled by the adults. I’m thankful our kids childhood was pre- electronic/screens. They stayed busy outside using their imaginations, biking, scootering and neighborhood games. It’s my grandchild that are most affected by technology and gadgets. They share one iPad and have limited time. No phones yet, but they are quite young for that. For now, they love to play outside with friends. Im glad for that 🙂
It sounds like you had the same type of wonderful outdoor based childhood as me. I think it’s really difficult for parents today, to keep kids off technology and get them outdoors.