Photo: Scott Anderson

Editor’s Note: “Over a Beer” is a regular column written by Greg Heil. While Greg is the Editor in Chief for Singletracks.com, any opinions expressed in this column are his alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Singletracks.com.

I am not a father. I have no children. However, at one point I was myself a child (as most of us were), and it’s interesting to me to observe the kids and teens that I interact with, to see how their environment has changed in the relatively short amount of time since my own childhood. Despite the fact that I don’t have kids myself, I think it’s important to sit down and attempt to answer the question: “What if kids stop playing outside?”

Here’s a video to jumpstart your mental processes:

As a non-parent, this column isn’t intended to proclaim the decline of our civilization, philosopher king-style. Rather, it’s an invitation to pause and think about this question.

Briefly, here are three potential outcomes that I can personally envision if kids stop playing outside:

1. Kids won’t develop a true understanding of natural consequences.

This was highlighted superbly in the video above, but I think it’s a critical point to reiterate. I’ve personally observed an ever-increasing disregard for consequences in the world around us. Whether it’s a politician that breaks the law and keeps their job, a frat boy who commits a rape and gets away with a slap on the wrist, or a driver who rolls their car while trying to drive 100mph on a curvy road, many humans that share our air have a poor concept of consequences, and they try to avoid them at all costs when things do go wrong.

When you plant your front wheel in a rut instead of riding up and over the root in front of you, you flip over the handlebars. The consequences are immediate and absolute. There is no argument to be made–you immediately suffer the repercussions of your actions.

See Also
By Nancy Anderson

2. Kids won’t acquire the grit and perseverance that challenging themselves in a truly visceral way provides.

If we constantly ask for easy, we’ll get soft, weak human beings in return, instead of hardy men and women shaped by challenge and adversity.

3. Kids will lose touch with the environment and other life on the planet around them.

I know of no better way to be in tune with the environment, the changing of the seasons, the movements of animals through their natural habitat, than to spend time under the big blue expanse of open sky. Sometimes I can personally go three or four days at a time without leaving my house, especially if its nasty and unpleasant outside. If the fridge is stocked, I don’t even need to put my shoes on for my commute from the bedroom to the kitchen to my office.

However, I’ve noticed that if I go so much as one day without stepping outdoors, I lose touch with what the weather is doing. I lose touch with the fluctuations in temperature, the budding of the trees in the spring, the changing of the leaves in the fall, the melting of the snow on the ground. We can completely miss out on these rhythms of life and change in our world that our ancestors were intimately familiar with. This lack of connection can lead to comments like “climate change is a hoax,” as we stare out through our windows with the air conditioning roaring. Yet people who have stayed intimately connected to our environment, who haven’t shuttered themselves away, stand witness to our world changing around us.

Now It’s Your Turn

As I mentioned above, this column an invitation to sit and think about this question, and what it means for our kids and our world. So I turn it over to you, especially all of the parents out there: what do you think will happen if kids stop playing outside? Share your thoughts, ideas, and concerns in the comments section below…

# Comments

  • kawazoomer

    I would not spend too many cycles thinking about this one nor does the question need to be answered. I think it is a hypothetical that won’t happen or at least highly unlikely. My observation is that just like in the past, some kids like the outdoors and some not as much. I think because of video games, computers that a number of kids stay indoors, but in my day, some kids watched tv or listened to records, or read books that would take them to another place, like video games or computers. I think kids are resilient. You can be in doors jumping on a bed, fall off. The “consequences are immediate and absolute. There is no argument to be made–you immediately suffer the repercussions of your actions.”

    If a child was denied access to the outdoors, or if they had no interest in it when they were young, they would experience it when they are older. There are some kids who grow up into adults, who function fine in this world, and don’t like the outdoors. They understand consequences. I personally come to this site and I see young men riding trails at break neck speeds all for an adrenaline rush. I watch them go over the bars, some of them seriously injured. I have no desire to do that, does not mean that I am weak or there is something wrong with me because I don’t want to do that. I raced motocross when I was younger, I only left with mostly minor injuries, though my ankle was shattered and now I have to live everyday not being able to walk as well and always being in pain.

    The real question is risk management. How do you handle it? It is quite different when you are young. As a parent, what risks do you allow your children to take? Do you allow them to play outside, in the street, sports at school, race bicycles or motorcycles, snow or water ski, scuba dive, jump out of a plane?

    How about back to your point. If your child does not like the outdoors, do you force them to go outside? Do you force them to take risks like play on the play ground or ride a bicycle? What about the dads who played a sport, force/manipulate their children to do that sport and yell and scream at them when they don’t perform (I have seen this in baseball, football, motocross and some other sports) What happens when the opposite happens, your child sees on tv the x-games and says he wants to do back flips on a bicycle/motorcycle, or race, fly in a flying squirrel suit after jumping out of a plane, things that if your child makes a mistake, they could end up very broken, a quadriplegic or dead. That is a realistic possibility unlike all children not wanting to play outside.

    I will say my bigger concern is drugs. While a child can rebound from not going outdoors as a child and experiencing it as an adult, many children who get involved in drugs don’t come back or are locked into drugs through adulthood. They may truly never have any aspiration for the outdoors, only that they are forced to live there, under a bridge because of their addiction.

  • mongwolf

    For our sons: experiencing the wilderness, playing an instrument, playing team sports, learning another language, writing, contributing in their community, playing outside, … … these were all important for them to spread their wings, gain invaluable experiences, learn about life and learn about themselves. And for us all of this occurred in another culture. Mongolia. That in itself was profound in several ways … none the lest was being the minority every single day. I know all our sons are especially grateful for the experiences they gained in the backcountry of Mongolia — camping, fishing, hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking, star gazing. They were profoundly affected by quality of the true wilderness that is Mongolia — its beauty and ferocity.

  • Jeff Barber

    This is a thought-provoking question, but I don’t think it’s something we need to worry about. Kids are born with innate curiosity about the world around them, particularly with the outdoor world. We’re all animals after all, and I don’t think anyone–kids or adults–will ever lose our primal connection with the living world. Heck, even the most urban city-dwellers prefer to sit outside at the café when the weather is nice!

    • mongwolf

      Jeff, I meet many young professionals from Singapore (a city state) and other Asian mega-tropolisis. These people have sat outside many a cafe and walk the concrete everyday. When they get to Mongolia, it is obvious they can function within the big city (the capital), but once they step outside the city, they are utterly lost … truly utterly lost. They would not even consider to go out into the forest. They think they should never do this. Then when they finally do, it becomes a life transforming experience. It’s almost like for the young male professional, he starts to become a man … and he loves it though it is very intimidating for him. Imo, we were not created to be separated from nature. We can do it as has been pointed out, of course, but it will limit development.

      Also, many of these persons I am referring to do not know how to paint a wall or check their own oil. So there is something to what Greg is saying imo, and I would add to it. Dads should require their kids to also do work around the house and show them how to do it and show them how to do some basic mechanic work. Things like this.

      So all in all, maybe it’s not applicable in the US just yet, but Greg’s point does apply to other places in the world today, especially heavily populated, well developed nations. And if we ever hit a great depression again, I think we will see how inapt many Americans are today, adult Americans, in basic life skills. For example, can they plant a basic garden? Some can. Many cannot.

  • triton189

    Unfortunately we didn’t have the extensive trails for mountain biking when my kids were young. However we always took them on vacations that usually revolved around outdoor activity such as hiking, fishing and such. I always took pride in turning off the TV and chasing them out of the house on a summer day. They thought I was some kind of Nazi back then but I actually have received thank you’s from them now that they are older. It’s tougher now with all the social media and phones. Up hill battle.

  • dan_3lliott

    I’m still a kid, but a lot of my childhood was based off of riding bikes. I’m still in my teens but mountain biking is still a staple of my activities. But as said in this article, I have a direct view of what happens if kids don’t go outside right in front of me, at school, and a lot of places. I know a lot of kids who don’t even know how to ride a bike. I know kids who spend maybe 10 minutes outside each day, if that. Some of my cousins are so underdeveloped in terms of outdoor activity that we’ll go outside to play tag and they’ll trip over their own feet. As a member of a family that has never had a TV and only got a computer 3 years ago, I can surely say that how much time kids spend outdoors shapes their futures immensely. Having kids spend time outside, whether it’s mountain biking or just walking to the park, in my opinion, remains a fundamental part of growing up and development.

  • mongwolf

    Playing outside, going into the woods, backpacking and camping (or backpacking) in true backcountry also builds a sense of adventure in a kid’s life. That will give them the ability to take on new challenges and expand their horizons in life as an adult. Can they develop that ability in other ways, I’m sure, but this is certainly one of the great advantages of being in the great outdoors. You are forced to take on challenges that seem bigger than yourself and bigger than life, but are actually a part of a different kind of life. I would suggest a better kind of life. I acknowledge that it is not for everyone, but it would be best if each child is given at least a substantial quality opportunity to experience it.

  • iliketexmex

    You need another beer, you are worried about nothing.

    I’ve been involved with coaching youth sports and youth volunteer organizations for over 20 years. I have five kids. Things are different, kids are different, but from what I’ve seen the kids will figure it out.

    • mongwolf

      Well and good texmex. But then again I wouldn’t dimension Greg’s concerns when they are directed at youth. We should all be doing what you have done (I too have done a ton of youth coaching … in baseball and basketball). But the fact is there are many kids who are just sitting around doing nothing. And to your comment, “kids will figure it out”. Some do and some don’t. There is a drug epidemic in our country you may know. Hell, there are many adults who have not figured it out imo. Greg’s concern is good and right. Playing outside (team sports and otherwise and mountain biking) and giving kids every chance to be active, be challenged, experience new things and experience nature are all important to them figuring it out … … and let’s not forget the importance of adult voices in their lives, beyond their parents, like coaches. These days kids need every chance they can get. There are a bunch of bad homes in the US today and whole bunch of risks and dangers beyond the home.

    • iliketexmex

      I went to an inner city school myself, I’m painfully aware of how many kids don’t figure it out. The drug epidemic has been around a long time. Before that it was booze (in some homes it still is booze). The world is full of problems and the more you stare at them the bigger they seem. I’m just happy to report in my extensive experience with kids, they still frequently surprise me in a good way. The vast majority find their way. Sometimes a little help is all they need to avoid a big mess. Sometimes they avoid them on their own.

      This is an old one, but I’ll share it anyway: “An old man used to walk on the beach every morning. One morning he he walked after a powerful storm and found the beach covered with starfish as far as the eye could see. As he walked he came across a boy picking up starfish and throwing them back in the water. He said to the boy “May I ask what you are doing?”, the boy replied “The starfish can’t make it back to the ocean on their own and if they are still on the beach when the sun gets high in the sky, they will die”. The old man replied “Son, I’m sorry to tell you that there are thousands of starfish, you can’t make much of a difference”. The boy stared blankly at the old man, slowly picked up another starfish and threw it in the water. He looked at the old man and said “It made a big difference to that one…”. You can’t fix everything but you don’t fix anything only worrying about it.

    • mongwolf

      Great reply texmex. One kid at a time … and maybe that’s Greg’s intent. He knows the limit of the reach of one ST article. It’s also one parent and adult at a time to get them to engage in youth. We all need to be a voice in at least one youth’s life. I did drugs in middle school and high school. Didn’t have a dad at home. It was my coaches and one very cool high school principal who helped turn me around. They saw my potential (and other kids’ potential of course) and spoke into my life. I am forever grateful. I wouldn’t have figured it out … well not at least with some severe consequences … without their voice and demonstrated care.

  • FattyHeadshok

    I can tell you this much from personal experience. I have a ten yo boy who is very gifted in several areas, academically, athletically, and musically. But his one drawback is that he is lazy. Notice I mentioned gifted above not driven or motivated. If left to his own devices he would mostly sit inside playing video games or stuck with his head 3″ from his iPod screen watching Dan TDM videos for hours on end. He requires real arm twisting to pull him away from that sometimes. This past week we went to Lithia Florida for my nieces wedding and I discovered the Alafia trails. Lucas sat in the darkened theater room at my sister in law’s house while I rented a bike and went out to hit as much gnar as I could find. (Yeah they have exposed switchbacks with loose sand over hard pack that sit right above alligator swamps) The next day I noticed a surly kid with an attitude that didn’t want to do anything except more video games. Since I had lost my wallet out there the day before I drug Lucas out with me to walk all the trails I’d ridden the to help me look. Didn’t give him a choice. Within minutes of getting on the trails he became animated and talkative saying how he wished he’d had his bike, how he couldn’t wait to come back and hit these trails, etc. within a half hour we were laughing and joking, discussing line choices etc. Suddenly I had my boy back. Night and day difference. Wallet is still lost out on moonscape or graviton I think. Anyway, I think the effects of staying inside too much with over exposure to tech devices is downright harmful to a kid’s personality and brain development. I see this same transformation in my little boy so often that when he gets in his moods I force him outside or grab the bikes and take him out to hit “The Wiss” our local trails here. The difference is profound. Kids need to be outside. Period.

    • mongwolf

      Wow, GREAT story headshok. Thanks for sharing it. Our kids need our input, direction and sometimes a nudge. Great job being a caring involved dad. Major kudos to you. Mountain biking is the same for my youngest son who is my least motivated. =) I had to start him on all downhill shuttles. Once he was hooked on speed, then we added some pedaling. Later uphills. Now he crushes me on the climbs. =)

  • arkinet

    As Jeff mentioned, kids will figure it out. And they are naturally resilient and can adjust, its just us adult who are over thinking it. I can force them out to ride with me, even bribing them with goodies after a ride. But would that be any good in the long run? Maybe, maybe not. And we should recognize that each kid is different. All we need to focus is good parenting, letting them know that these avenues are available if they want to go for it.
    By the way, I have a teen and a pre-teen and so far they’re turning out ok.

    • mongwolf

      I agree that each kid is different … totally right. Will every kid figure it out? Well not every, and the more we help as adults the better. We’re not talking about forcing. We’re talking about being involved (as you are eluding to). One kid at a time … and maybe that’s Greg’s intent. He knows the limit of the reach of one ST article. It’s also one parent and adult at a time to get them to engage in youth. We all need to be a voice in at least one youth’s life. I did drugs in middle school and high school. Didn’t have a dad at home. It was my coaches and one very cool high school principal who helped turn me around. They saw my potential (and other kids’ potential of course) and spoke into my life. I am forever grateful. I wouldn’t have figured it out … well not at least with some severe consequences … without their voice and demonstrated care. I saw something better in them and received something better from them, and thus, started to turn away from the drugs and other destructive behavior.

  • Aaron Chamberlain

    Greg, methinks you may have been living up in the hills too long. A couple weeks ago we wanted everything handed to us, and now it’s spread to our children! NOT THE CHILDREN!!! What gives you this impression that our country is filled with soft, lazy, weak, and uninspired people?

    Seriously though as an uncle nine times over, the kids will be aight. The adults are the ones I’m more worried about.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.