Opinion: Many neighbourhood streets are devoid of children as protective parents cocoon them inside

Image:  Children should be encouraged to cut back on computer screen time and head to the great outdoors.


THINK back to your childhood. What were the absolute best things you did before you went to high school and became a pseudo grown up?

Chances are, if you were raised in Australia, your memories involve the great outdoors. Here are three of mine.

Rainy Easter holidays at Tewantin on the Sunshine Coast, sliding down grassy slopes on rubbish bin lids with other motel kids.

Running races on a friend’s farm – one time being so determined to beat two boys my age that I failed to see a barbed wire fence. My left eyelid bears the scar but, hey, I won.

Making a cubby in the neighbour’s yard when I was seven. I fell out of the tree, shredding my knuckles, but learned to sew curtains out of Mum’s best tea towels.

Admittedly, these were the 1970s and the world was a different place, but how many outdoor activities can youngsters do unsupervised today?

Think about it. Many neighbourhood streets are conspicuously devoid of children, as protective or overly busy ­parents cocoon them inside, giving in to the effortless entertainer that is technology.

If kids do leave the house, they’re driven everywhere.

Many still play sport – if families can foot the club fees – but it’s more structured, with times for training and games.

Even so-called “free” play is scheduled in as “play dates”, terms unheard of 30 years ago.

A visiting US author says it’s time we make neighbourhoods kid-friendly again, and I reckon he’s on to something.

Mike Lanza is a former software entrepreneur waging war, ironically, on technology’s role in how children play.

Lanza has started a revolution in his own back yard – and front yard – turning them into playgrounds for all the locals, and his spin-off book, Playborhood, is garnering the attention of policymakers keen to improve public health.

Stanford University-educated Lanza is the keynote speaker at the inaugural Kids Outdoors 2030 conference on the Gold Coast on June 26-28.

The event, facilitated by the Queensland Outdoor Recreation Federation, asks a valid, key question: “If the outdoors is so great, then why is everyone spending so much time inside?”

When we know the statistics on obesity, heart disease and poor mental health that a lack of outdoor activity exacerbates, it just doesn’t seem right.

When we are blessed with abundant open space, beaches and parks, it’s a travesty that many Australians suffer from nature deficit disorder.

Health isn’t the only worry. Lanza and an army of psychologists say children who are glued to screens, inhabiting virtual worlds, lack real-world skills like face-to-face conversation, and because most non-screen time is supervised by adults, young people lose the ability to think for themselves.

If you’re nodding in agreement, be part of the solution.

No one wants a world of me-focused tech-addicts who can’t relate or problem solve.

Lanza argues that a happy, productive life is built on spontaneous play.

Why? It requires “intrinsic motivation” – you do things because you want to, not because someone makes you (parents, teachers, bosses).

Self-starters get things done, instead of relying on others, including politicians, to provide.

OK, you say, but it’s hard to get children outdoors today.

Lanza has heard the excuses: kids like screens better; their days are too full; few mothers stay at home anymore; and stranger danger.

But he insists neighbourhood play is “more a social problem than an aggregation of individual problems”.

For example, it’s roughly 1600 times more likely that a child will be injured as a passenger in a car than they will be abducted by a stranger.

While it’s good to limit screen time, this won’t generate more outdoor play unless other kids are also outside.

So the key to promoting nature play is making neighbourhoods more attractive to more children.

With many competors for kids’ interest – internet, video games, TV, structured activities, and marketing spin – drawing them to shops, neighbourhoods have become comparatively dull.

There are still streets, trees and lawns, Lanza says, but no children. This may not be true of your area, but it’s true of enough to raise alarm.

How to respond?

Well, Lanza has gone to extremes, neglecting his home’s ­interior and ­installing an inground trampoline, picnic tables, sandpit, basketball hoop, cubby house, swings, murals, and media system with projector and speaker.

Not all the local children come, mind you, but plenty do.

Lanza’s advice covers all budgets: organise street parties; walk or cycle with your kids; invite neighbours to dinner; celebrate birthdays in your front yard.

Don’t be beige – be colourful.

There are loads of ideas, but all start with a keen and renewed focus on the outdoors.

When you think back to your own childhood fun, you have to admit, it’s worth a try.


Source:  The Sunday Mail

Originally published:  14 June 2015


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