Were baby boomers among the last generation to play outside?

As Thomas Edison once said, “To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” We baby boomers knew that when we were kids. But today? Not so much. That’s why we like this piece by Nate Hanson that appeared on Hufington Post. He calls it, The Last Generation of Kids That Played Outside.

A scary thought hit me while eating breakfast the other day: We’re slowly killing the future of innovation.

Let me explain.

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Consider the iPad. It was invented and built by grownups who had to play outside when they were kids. Fast forward to this current generation where the majority of kids sit inside staring at … an iPad.

It sounds funny, but the iPad may actually cause future “iPads” from being dreamed, invented, and built.

From the moment we all held an iPad, we knew it was a remarkable piece of technology and art. To build it, a team of brilliant people had to solve crucial problems, invent countless components, and continually choose to not give up.

I remember a story one Apple executive told of his team receiving all the parts for the new iPad and then having to figure out how to fit them all into the smallest shell possible. It had to be thin, light and beautiful. How did they do it?!

Not only that, but how did they think to create something like an iPad in the first place?

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Then I remembered growing up in the small town of West Linn, Oregon. Many days were spent running around in the backyard, hooking up hoses, sprinklers, and water-switches to create cool water shows. I remembered building forts with tarps and wood.

I even remembered creating little ant houses with small twigs for walls, ramps and furniture.

I thought back to racing out to my garden the morning after planting beans or peas to see if they had magically sprouted overnight, or making whistles by blowing on thick blades of grass. I remembered grabbing some pieces of scrap wood, and a hammer and nails, to try to make a birdhouse.

I recalled discovering a tiny maple tree leaf sticking out of the ground — and noticing it was connected to the dirt. I remembered digging it up and replanting it in a proper place in the backyard. I watered and nurtured it until I moved out, watching it grow from a single leaf into a beautiful, full-grown, 30-foot tree that provided shade for our house.

Then, in the winter months when it was too cold to be outside, the thousands of hours creating whole worlds, governments, and economies out of Legos and Monopoly money. I didn’t like sets — I just wanted a bucket of Legos to build whatever my little head could dream up.

If you’re over the age of 20 or 30, I’m sure you have similar stories of adventures in the woods — of having to solve problems and think outside the box. You probably recall creating your own fun with seemingly boring items.

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You weren’t dependent on someone else’s creativity and ingenuity. You knew how to dream.

You didn’t need someone to entertain you or design things for you to have fun with. You could create a game with pinecones and sticks.

When this past generation of Apple creators sat down to dream up the next product, I believe they subconsciously drew back on their own “backyard” roots.

They knew how to solve problems because they had solved them before. They knew how to dream up new possibilities because they had been doing that since they were kids themselves.

This brings me to the startling truth: If we allow the current generation to be satisfied by thinking within a 9.7‑inch box, we’ll rob them of the curiosity and creativity that it took to build that very device they’re holding.

If we don’t remove easy entertainment from our children, they’ll never learn to create their own.

It’s time for today’s parents to stop saying, “But it’s just easier to plop them down with the iPad.” Or, “They’ll throw a fit if they don’t get to play with my iPhone.”

Even Steve Jobs, the visionary behind the iPad, didn’t let his kids use the iPad. He pushed them to play outside, read books, and be fascinated with good conversation.

It’s time to look inward. Are we losing the sense of wonder that we used to possess? Are our children simply following in our footsteps? Are we grownups forgetting the adventures we had? Are we lazily reading Twitter instead of showing our kids the endless possibilities of curiosity and dreams?

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We have the potential to create a new generation of kids who can imagine and explore — who can think outside the box and create exciting things.

If we don’t, those little maple leafs will go unplanted and eventually die. The ants won’t have a fort to play in. The beans and peas won’t have a friend to look after them every day — and, more importantly, the future “iPads” (or whatever is next) won’t be created.

Let’s raise a generation of kids who build bird houses and sprinkler shows. A generation that plants bean seeds, maple leafs, or whatever else their minds can dream up.

Their future depends on it.

6 Comments

  1. I agree.. I believe that our great outdoor life gave us imagination! (we were always “exploring”) And we learned to deal with bumps, bruises and relationships along the way by actually doing things instead of reading about them on a computer.

  2. An excellent book on this topic came out several years ago — Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder by Robert Louv (Algonquin Books). In it, the author “directly links the absence of nature in the lives of today’s wired generation to some of the most disturbing childhood trends: the rise in obesity, attention disorders, and depression.” It’s a saddening tale of children deprived of outdoor play and contact with nature by everything from technology to parental fear — the latter hard to fathom for those of us allowed to roam free as kids for hours on end, until the call from the porch to come home. But as a fourth-grader is quoted, “I like to play indoors ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”

  3. I agree. I babysit for neighborhood kids and have found that it’s easy to get them to stop screen watching and venture outside with me to explore their neighborhood’s potential. Kids really do want to play. Not virtually. Really.

  4. I think this post brings up some interesting points that need to be considered….but…. I had the opportunity to talk with a young woman of 14 this weekend and she showed me the art she was creating…on her phone. And I was impressed. As a blogger I spend a lot of time on my computer and social media too, but it never occurred to me that this could be created with/or on a piece of technology. But she did. What I mean to say is the children of today will create things that we can’t even conceive of because they are being raised in a completely different world. Is it worse/better? Only time will tell. Frankly the fact that you and I played outside with only our devises to entertain us is not necessarily a good thing when you consider the overly materialistic, polluted and consumer driven society of the have and have nots that we have created. Sure, our generation created some cool things, but hey they too had a price. The things and/or creations of the youth from today will likely be both good and bad. I think the most valuable we can do is to provide LOTS of contrast so that they see both the good and the less than good–AND then show the price and responsibility that comes from every decision we make.

  5. Kids spending so much time on “screen time” is a big problem. Parents have to be really tough to limit that time. It’s telling that Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids use the iPad.

    My kids, who are Gen X, were lucky. We lived in a neighborhood where they could play outside.

    Rita, blogging at The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide

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