Getting children outside helps them stay engaged

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By Danette Vernon

In the chilled sunlight of a recent winter afternoon, I reflected on my childhood as I played the games Mother May I and Red Light, Green Light with my oldest granddaughter, Miah. She turned 5 this week. She lives in a world of bicycle helmets, iPods and organized activities. In contrast, I had Yard Darts — which were basically weapons that came in a box labeled for use by children — and Pic-Up-Sticks, objects so sharp that they could easily handle the most delicate of vegetables for shish kabobs, yet they were intended for kids to play with on rainy afternoons.

By the time I was two years older than Miah, I was permitted to take my younger sister Judy along on forages of the surrounding fields. We scrambled through fresh cut corn fields and groups of trees so old that they were hung with a shade that hadn’t relented to the sun in decades. We dammed small streams, and stood quiet in moments of simple reverence whenever we found the old bones of last winter’s lost sheep. Our only responsibilities were to pull our own leaches, to avoid rabid animals and not to disturbing the cattle that roamed many of these same fields.

The innocence of that sort freedom is most likely lost forever for most young children, and rightly so in many environments. But must the lessons that went with those days of exploration be lost as well? What were the benefits of damming streams, building forts or tree houses, having a pocket knife, or playing with sparklers?

I can think of children who discuss the characters they regularly encounter on video games with the fervor and familiarity of housewives of the 1970’s and their soap opera “friends.”

Don’t let that be your child.

Gever Tulley, a contract computer scientist as a general rule, co-initiated a program in 2005 called the Tinkering School that teaches children to build things they have thought of themselves (yes, they will use power tools).

He simplifies what will happen over the week that they will spend in camp, with the statement that your child may be returned, “bruised, scraped, or bloody.” But they will also be returned with the tools “with which children ultimately become inquisitive members of society and are the underpinning for the inventors, innovators, and leaders of the next generation.”

While at camp they may try something as simple as throwing a stick at a target, which stimulates the frontal lobe, increases visual acuity, 3-D understanding, and structural problem solving. It’s a whole body activity that is both analytical and physical.

Maybe you don’t have the money for camp, or maybe you want to be personally involved in making sure your child is a competent and confident adult. If so, you can start by allowing them to break the recipe rule book, through permitting them to create a dish to their own taste (believe me, there is an actual researched point of sweetness that is beyond even the average child’s desire for sugar). Or get them out on a sidewalk with some scrap lumber and some nails. Teach them the fine art of hitting a nail on the head. Deconstruct a dead appliance (or an old computer) before throwing it away, or hauling it off — a fascinating project that would seem to have endless benefits. Or finally, construct your own flying machine with a dry cleaner bag and a hair dryer.

Eliminate the mystic for your child, or maybe at this late date, for yourself, by becoming a person who “can.”

All of the above activities are recommended and described in detail in Gever Tulley’s book, “50 Dangerous Things (you should let your children do).”