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.