New! My Talk at Google's 2018 I/O Conference on Building Healthier Relations with Technology

Children’s Experience of Place

A plethora of great soon-to-be-published books have just crossed my desk, and I’m determined to read and blog about them soon – from Ellen Galinsky’s Mind in the Making to Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. Hats off to them for their great work, now and in the past. More later.

But tonight I’m quickly giving a little airtime to a little known academic study from about 40 years ago: Roger Hart’s Children’s Experience of Place.

Hart spent two years in a small New England town, following around children as they built forts in their backyards, fished at the local river, explored, bicycled, roamed and wandered. It seems amazing that his depictions of life not that long ago seem worlds away from the indoors-centric, cyber-dominant, car-oriented lives of our kids today.

Hart has some wonderful observations.

– “Small patches of dirt throughout the town are the most intensively used of all children’s places.”

– “It is notable that the most important qualities to the children of this town – sand/dirt, small shallow ponds or brooks of water, slight elevations of topography, low trees and bushes, and tall unmanicured grass – are systematically removed from all new residential areas, even the highly applauded new towns”

– Children like to find small places, as “places of retreat, to look out upon the world from a place of one’s own, as places for experimenting with how to put things together… In each of these activities a child is probably exploring his or her relationship with the environment, both social and physical.”

“The large amount of time spent by children deeply involved in modelling the environment in micro-scale” — i.e. building forts or houses out of tree branches and found items or tracing towns and cities in the dirt or sand  — “is one demonstration of their desire to give order and meaning to the larger environment which lies beyond their physical grasp.”

Today, I’ve heard it argued that the Net is kids’ backyard. This is a space for a thin kind of social connectivity, and for exploring worlds largely of adults’ imaginations. But the virtual isn’t a space for coming to grips with one’s own place in the physical world, or for exploring the planet earth.

Consider that natural spaces – even a walk in the park – diminish symptoms of ADHD and improve focus in children even without attention deficiencies. Consider that kids in an age of alarming obesity are spending just 30 minutes of unstructured time outdoors – a week! Consider that kids today are living under a kind of house arrest, unable to walk to school, play outdoors, explore their own communities.

That’s quite a contrast to the world that Roger Hart found in a small New England town.

Hats off to people like Lenore Skenazy and Richard Louv who are fighting to get kids back outside.

Leave a Comment


  1. Mar 16, 201010:13 am

    Loved your post and learning about Roger Hart’s Children’s Experience of Place. Our teenage sons still gripe and groan on weekends that their screen time (TV, video games, laptop) happens only after they’ve spent time outside. They rebel under their breath and cast us dirty looks as they reluctantly head outside for at least an hour. Our oldest lands on a patio chair sulking while the youngest tries his best to look dejected. Sometimes I’m overcome with guilt and think of Joan Crawford, but after awhile out of the blue magic happens. They spot a hawk after its prey or a potato bug on its back, their cats join them and they end up wrestling in between bouts of laughter. Without fail they lay on their backs and follow the clouds, their cats purr on their stomach until they fall asleep or grab a soccer ball. Then they’re kicking it around until they collapse. Sometimes they just stare or sleep, but they seem content and are more talkative, which is just not the case after even one hour of video games. Balance is key, but a challenge to maintain!

  2. Apr 17, 201011:19 am

    Fascinating observations. Kids can’t play catch with a digital dad online. Young or old, nursing an online existence can cause us to depreciate. We cannot afford to lose touch with the physical connections waiting outside to liberate us again.

    Your work serves great purpose. I recently referred to “Distracted” in some of my own observations. Feel free to read:

    Shifts in Fortitude

    Looking forward to hearing more about those unpublished titles.

  3. Feb 6, 20113:05 pm

    Kids’ relationship to the outdoors is not only shaped by irrational phobias of elders and betters to protect them from real (or often) imagined boogeymen.
    It is also a byproduct of the way we, in our great foolishness, have shaped where we live.

    I’m sure 100 years ago, living arrangements were not intentionally shaped with the health and happiness of kids in mind, it just happened to work out that way. Our communities were walkable because they had to be – for adults, as well as kids. And our communities were full of endless habitats that kids could explore and enjoy safely (otherwise they wouldn’t have survived.)

    In the past 4 decades, we have systematically taken these habitats apart – rebuilding in the modern fashion, and so destroying what was child-friendly – or, built entire new communties that are sometimes even worse.

    Approximately 70% of the North American population lives in suburbia. By definition, this environment is car-friendly. Very.
    But kids don’t drive.

    So that “Honey, for the sake of the kids” thing just doesn’t quite wash.

    Perhaps, had more adults followed kids around such as Mr. Hart did (with benign, and not evil intent) we might have placed more forethought on how to design our communities, in order to provide our children with something so basic to their health and well-being, and growth of their self-secure understanding of where they live. After all, in due time they inherit the earth.

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