Home » Books »Education »Environment » Currently Reading:

No Child Left Inside

May 6, 2009 Books, Education, Environment 15 Comments

I’ve never been a woodsy type or a parent.  But I have a message out there for parents, get your kids outdoors for free play.   You may tell me they are outside all the time: soccer, little league, etc.  Sorry, that doesn’t count.  I’m talking about time outside to just explore, on their own.

The above book was among one of a couple of books from one of my three Urban Planning courses at Saint Louis University this semester. It was an eye opener!  “Nature-Deficit Disorder” is not some new disorder requiring medicine to cure.  In fact, author Richard Louv suggests that free play outdoors may be the solution to the many issues children face today.

I recall growing up in the 70s, I’d spend hours away from home with friends riding our bikes on dirt trails along creeks near our homes.  I’d come home so dirty my clothes went right into the hamper — my mom not allowing me to walk through the house with them because I’d get red Oklahoma mud everywhere.   Other times I’d go riding off by myself exploring other neighborhoods or riding to the mall to buy something. I’d be miles away from home.

It was a different, more innocent time.  Parents just can’t let their kids do that these days.  But the question is if parents can afford to not let their children have free times outdoors?  Which brings us back to little league and such.  Yes, kids are not all couch potatoes playing Wii (though many are).  Yet organized events such as sports is different in a child’s development from free play.

In my pre-teen years I often walked or rode my bike to elementary & middle school. Most kids are chauffeured to school these days.  I didn’t have a full schedule of play dates and structured events.  The lives of kids today are very different.  An amazing number are diagnosed with ADHD and are medicated.  While Louv has no scientific proof that outdoor free play would reduce ADHD the prospect is interesting to explore.

A decade ago author James Howard Kunstler wrote about the connection between growing up in suburbia and the shootings at Columbine.  The theory goes that youth today do not develop any sense of independence — that suburba is so automobile independent this is compounded.  So while some may think suburbia is the best place to raise a child the fact is the driving lifestyle may prove worse than in more walkable areas. Please don’t confuse ‘suburbia’ with a ‘suburb.’  Suburbia is the worse of auto centric sprawl.  Many older suburbs are as walkable as the core city in regions.

Regardless of where a child is raised it is critical to have free play outside.  You’ll need to read the book for all the reasons.  Clicking on the cover image will take you to the author’s website.

With our education policy so focused on test scores (No Child Left Behind), recess often gets omitted.   Big mistake say some.  A connection to outdoors & nature helps the learning process of young minds.  The counter movement is No Child Left Inside.

As I said at the beginning I’m not a parent.  Odds are high that I never will be.  But as part of society I have an interest in making sure today’s kids grow up in such a way they are well adjusted.

Follow UrbanReviewSTL on Twitter


Currently there are "15 comments" on this Article:

  1. John Daly says:

    We have four kids and as soon as I roll up in the driveway at 3:30, we’re playing outside until about 6:30. This is not once or twice a week but every freakin’ day! I keep our schedule light on purpose so we can just do whatever we feel like on any given day. This may include chores too, life can’t be all fun. As one person said: “If all of life were a holiday; to sport would be as tedious as to work.”

    I don’t have many things in this life nailed down but I think I’m doing okay at this parent thing. Btw, if anyone is on twitter, you can find me @NativeVermonter

  2. Dustin Bopp says:

    For better or worse, I had a very unstructured childhood. I had time to dream and explore. When I was eight we moved from a “Suburb” (Kirkwood) to “Suburbia” (Big Bend & 141 — most easily identified by a strip mall called Stonegate Plaza). My friend who lived above a store in Kirkwood thought I had moved to a mansion. It was a new house and it was bigger but I missed the freedom to walk just about anywhere an 8-year old might. Granted, I was more adventurous and independent than most eight year olds but I could walk to a variety of stores in downtown Kirkwood and most of my relatives homes were an easy distance. On my way home from school every day during the winter my siblings and I walked to the ice rink. When we moved I kept saying I wanted to go “home.” We had a pool, intercom, garage opener, and call waiting (all very cool for 1978) but I felt so isolated. The only ice rink I could get to was Queeny Park which was miles away and I had to depend on my mother to drive me there and pick me up so I certainly didn’t get to go every day. The very best part was we lived in a fairly wooded subdivision and I spent countless hours trudging through creeks, catching frogs, building treehouses, and simply using my creativity and imagination — that was delightful. Sometimes I was with other kids but there weren’t all that many my age so I spent a ton of time on my own. We had a weekend house so I could never participate in organized sports or go to friend’s birthday parties but I got to waterski, fish, and just walk for hours upon hours in the woods.

    Steve says, “It was a different, more innocent time. Parents just can’t let their kids do that these days.” I am not a parent either but I totally disagree with that mindset. My sister-in-law drove my nephew 3/4 mile to high school every day in Fenton because she was scared for him to walk. And judging by the traffic many other parents felt the same. I think parents are reacting to unrealistic dangers. I don’t think society has fundamentally changed. Statistically, he was much more likely to be injured in a car accident than be abducted. My nieces and nephews are scheduled up to their eyeballs with activities with their parents endlessly driving them to and fro. They are great kids but I can’t help but think they are missing something. I was never, ever, bored. I loved my freedom and imagination and through some serious trial and error I learned independence and responsibility.

    [slp — yes, my comment on an innocent time and that parents can’t do that today was sarcasm. It may look different than when we were kids but free play is still possible. Chapter 10, The Bogeyman Syndrome Redux, addresses the issue of fear.]

  3. studs lonigan says:

    I recall parents in my days as a young lad being generally less fearful of their children’s safety than parents nowadays. Still, at home and school we were drilled with somber lectures about not trusting smiling strangers, (“Hi, I’m a friend of your mommy! Will you help me find my kitty?”) not getting into cars with them, etc., backed up dramatically with haunting, crackly films from prior decades involving tragic tots who accepted candy from a “danger stranger” in a big, black car with windows frosted over like cataracts. Message received! We were savvy about pervs as portrayed in those educational films and we could all run pretty fast. Every once in a while, a story would go around about a perv who exposed himself to a group of girls walking home from school on Waterman. Those reinforced our wariness. Still, we rode our bikes all over the neighborhood all summer and sometimes our parents didn’t see us or know exactly where we were for hours on end.

    When my sister and I were very small, my parents bought a little vacation place in the woods, about 75 miles from where we lived in the city. They had an idea about us experiencing some version of nature that included fishing, walking in the woods, clear starry nights, etc. We had no TV at the country place and were outside even more than at home.

    I think a lot of kids today miss out if they never escape from the manufactured world at least a little. I also think that urban neighborhoods are at least in some respects safer for children. Growing up in exurban “wilderness” offers none of the “natural world” children should discover and even less of an intimate community one often sees in city neighborhoods.

  4. john says:

    Yes we are creating another generation of car huggers who grow up to be carheads. In my son’s health class the teacher polled how the 22 students got to school: 12 by car, 6 by bus, 3 walked and my son was the only one who rode a bike. In another son’s elementary school of 363 students, it is rare to have more than 3 bikes in the bike shed and he rides to school on his own.
    – –
    Was at a party for children two weekends ago and the important conversation between parents was how the drugs their children were taking were dramatically raising their late night appetites. No doubt our increasing reliance on motorized vehicles is having a dramatic impact on attitudes, eating habits, health and dependence on medications.
    – –
    To support auto dependence we have built highways and explained by researchers at the USC School of Medicine, children who lived within 500 meters of a freeway from age 10 had substantial deficits in lung function by the age of 18 years, compared to children living at least 1500 meters, or approximately one mile, away. As stated “Someone suffering a pollution-related deficit in lung function as a child will probably have less than healthy lungs all of his or her life.” Therefore parents have more incentives to keep their young ones inside to play video games. And of course many of our main roads have become like highways in the noise and pollution created. Too many parents now claim being a pedestrian or cyclist is “too risky”. This is another key reason why highways should not be part of an urban environment in addition to the fact that they make independent travel by our youth more dangerous and more difficult.
    – –
    A mother in the NY region has started a sight to address many of these issues. One of the latest stories is how the police picked up a ten year old as he was walking to soccer practice by himself.

    The automobile culture, especially in becoming over dependent, inevitably creates a nanny state and a class of children even more dependent on being chauffeured. Nature and self reliance have more lessons to teach than any video game or car ride.

  5. Jim says:

    An important consideration here for Steve and Richard Louv is the trend in our cities away from child-oriented development (not that we ever had it in the first place, but it is getting worse). There is a growing body of research on the child-centered city, and the slow-city movement, particularly in Italy, which demonstrates how little our urban development patterns serve the needs of the non-voting public. In other words, it shouldn’t take a book for us to realize that there is a problem, just ask a kid….

  6. Jimmy Z says:

    It has less to do with environment and more to do with parental and societal expectations and fears. 50 years ago, stickball in the streets of New York, pickup basketball on the south side of Chicago and sandlot baseball in suburban Oklahoma City weren’t all that much different – kids were out being kids. Today, three words rule – Fear, Liability and Structure. “You can never be too safe”. Wrong – you learn by making mistakes. Will you sometimes get hurt? Sure, but rarely fatally (and now we just change the trajectory, starting kids down a path toward childhood obesity). Competetive parents also want “successful” kids, so unstructured, “pick-up” play is replaced by soccer camps and road trips to away tournaments, so every achievement can be documented. And with today’s “too many lawyers”, the days of my youth hanging around suburban residential construction sites, during the summers when I was in the second and third grades, watching and learning from the carpenters and plumbers are looooong past . . .

  7. lana says:

    I’m glad someone already mentioned ‘free-range kids’–here is an article on the movement/book:

    And here is another useful book on keeping perspective on dangers to kids and educating them on protecting themselves: http://www.amazon.com/Protecting-Gift-Keeping-Children-Teenagers/dp/0440509009

    I have read Last Child In The Woods and agree that it is worth a read. Everything in it makes a ton of sense, but it is also very hard to be rational when you are making safety decisions about your child–thousands of years of biology are screaming at you to do what you can to keep the kids safe, even though that short-term decision may hurt them down the line in terms of learning and self-reliance. (Caveman brain just wants the genetic material to get passed along and isn’t so concerned with the self-esteem of the genetic material container.)

    Anyway, I always say that St. Louis City is a great place to raise a kid. All the cars make it tough for little ones to ride bikes or play in the street, but that would be the case in the suburbs too. I do wish there was a little more wild area to explore.

    [slp — Chapter 19, Cities Gone Wild, talks about how cities have more nature than we think. Besides many wonderful parks we have areas like the North Riverfront Trail.]

  8. Jenniferwhatnot says:

    I too was coming to recommend Free Range Kids. I spent the loveliest years of my childhood living on Whidbey Island, Washington, and was completely unstructured from K-3rd grade. My sister (two years older) and I rode our bikes everywhere, never came home til dark, and our parents had no idea where we were at any given hour of the day – and weren’t worried. We knew how to be safe on our bikes in traffic, we knew not to talk to strangers and stick together, and we knew what to do if there was an emergency. We spent hours wandering the woods and beaches with our friends.

    Then when I was in third grade we moved to O’Fallon, Missouri and my childhood was over. We lived in a dumpy subdivision off Bryan Road – too narrow and dangerous for bikes – no sidewalks back then! – and were confined to our house due to the oppressive heat (to us!) and lack of anything outdoors. There was a “common ground” in the subdivision that was essentially a big drainage ditch full of poison sumac, and that was it. We both grew obese as we hunkered in the basement watching t.v. during the never-ending summer days while our parents worked downtown, wishing we could be back in school so we could at least go somewhere! It totally sucked.

    Suburbia is certainly no place to raise healthy, independent children!

  9. Steveo says:


  10. James R. says:

    Well, Steve talked about our buddy Jim Kunstler and his decade old observations on growing up in Suburbia in relation to Columbine.

    Well, I’d be remiss if I didn’t polish off this nugget from 1982. “The suburbs have no charms to sooth the restless dreams of youth.”

    Rush – Subdivisions

    Sprawling on the fringes of the city
    In geometric order
    An insulated border
    In between the bright lights
    And the far unlit unknown

    Growing up it all seems so one-sided
    Opinions all provided
    The future pre-decided
    Detached and subdivided
    In the mass production zone

    Nowhere is the dreamer
    Or the misfit so alone

    Subdivisions —
    In the high school halls
    In the shopping malls
    Conform or be cast out
    Subdivisions —
    In the basement bars
    In the backs of cars
    Be cool or be cast out
    Any escape might help to smooth
    The unattractive truth
    But the suburbs have no charms to soothe
    The restless dreams of youth

    Drawn like moths we drift into the city
    The timeless old attraction
    Cruising for the action
    Lit up like a firefly
    Just to feel the living night

    Some will sell their dreams for small desires
    Or lose the race to rats
    Get caught in ticking traps
    And start to dream of somewhere
    To relax their restless flight

    Somewhere out of a memory
    Of lighted streets on quiet nights…

  11. Tim says:

    When I was eight we moved to a new neighborhood. I was told how far I could go and what streets to not cross, see you later. That area was roughly a mile or so from home. I don’t think I ever even tested the boundries of that area much until I was at least ten. I think the difference between the dangers to kids then than in the early 70’s of my youth is you hear more about it. Every night on CNN that talking hairdo is telling us about another kid taken, etc. I wonder though if most kids are stuck in this uber parent controled world or is this just the message that keeps being pushed on the world. Since most of what we think we know ain’t so I’m hoping this is one of those times.

    I think the kids with skateboards probably have the nearest to “free range”, at least the ones that roam from spot to spot anyway. The ones dropped off at the park probably not so much. My advice, buy your kid a skateboard.

  12. Dustin Bopp says:

    My bicycle was my vehicle of freedom. I would ride back to Kirkwood every chance I got.

  13. The Answer Man says:

    “It was a different, more innocent time. Parents just can’t let their kids do that these days.”….False, false, false, false. Just plain false. Idiot parents have scared themselves to death. They see a child molester lurking behind every bush (and yet they send their kids to catholic schools. Odd, that.) and have convinced themselves that they can’t let their kids out of their sight. Kids are every bit as safe as they were 20, 30, 50 or 100 years ago. Learn the facts and don’t buy into mass hysteria (see: Swine Flu)!

  14. studs lonigan says:

    >Kids are every bit as safe as they were 20, 30, 50 or 100 years ago.<

    Maybe. They are also every bit as unsafe as they were 20, 30, 50 or 100 years ago.

  15. Randy P. says:

    Good thoughts. Biking, hiking, climbing and swinging in the trees, creeks, bushes and dirt trails surely beat little pills and info passed along via headphones and flat screens. And safety can be improved as long as the kids hang together in numbers (two, and preferably three or more) and get coaching and assistance from adults (checking in periodically and accessing each other via cell phones, which most every kid over ten, or eight or ?? have these days). Great article and wonderful memories of Lightning Creek and the Santa Fe bridge in good ol’ south OKC!


Comment on this Article: