Have Kids Lost the “Huck Finn” Gene?

Have Kids Lost the "Huck Finn" Gene?

Picture this: Jeannie and I have two forts: one is a pile of fallen tree logs in the corner of her backyard. The other is a lean-to-shed next to her parents’ garage. It has no window, but they let us paint it bright yellow with blue trim. There’s also a weedy rock garden (her mom has no time for gardening with seven children and more to come) and though if I were to transport myself to that rock garden today, it would be small–but to Jeannie and me in the lower grades, it was big–and in our imaginations the perfect place to push imaginary evil doers. Hot oil anyone? We might not yet have read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finnbut we were swimming in their gene pool as “adventure” and “creating our own worlds” flowed in our blood.

OUR PRESENT NEIGHBORHOOD? RIPE FOR FORTS

Now where I live in Southern California, my husband and I take frequent walks. We see open space between rows of houses that is lined with trees on either side and filled with piles of leaves and even inviting dead branches in every size you can imagine. But no forts, in a tree or on the ground.

If it rains, the dry creek behind our house fills up with water. The trails we can easily walk to take us up low hills where you can look out over your neighborhood, pick wild flowers and challenge each other to see who can make the rise first.

WHAT DO WE NOT SEE? WHAT DO WE NOT HEAR? Children. Their shouts, their bikes streaming by, their arms loaded with an old quilt or a cardboard box to add to some fort that is gradually taking shape in their minds or behind their houses. Do kids even know what a fort is anymore?

WHERE ARE THE CHILDREN?

Where are the children and what are they doing? When the few children that live near us come out to throw a ball around or rollerblade, we are thrilled. We hear their voices on the evening breeze and are immediately taken back to our old neighborhood, where in summer the sweetest sounds were children’s voices: freeze tag, hide and seek, hopscotch, baseball in the street, tree climbing, bike riding and of course fort-building.

When we were raising our three children–how joyful. In the first suburban Chicago house there was a shed, and because it was filled with lawn equipment, the area BEHIND THE SHED became the fort for our two daughters, complete with dishes and bricks for a table. Our children knew how to make this work. The second house had a huge side yard with play equipment and my son was out there constantly, always joined by his friend who lived–you guessed it–across the fence.

Then in Iowa, we had a tree fort, built right around one of the huge oaks in our backyard. But once again the space behind the garage often attracted friends like Charlie, who could get to our garage roof from the higher ground back there. Why not? That’s what boys do!

BROKEN ARMS OR UNDREAMED DREAMS

So what keeps kids inside and away from the fun? Maybe weather. Okay. Global warming sucks, and one reason, if you lived in the Midwest this past winter, they didn’t even have enough snow to make outdoor play fun. My son would race out of the house during a good Iowa snowfall–because the street one block away provided a magnificent sledding hill. Yes, there were cars, but they were extremely careful going down that hill in a rollicking Iowa snow storm.

Fear. A younger parent reading this will think about broken arms and head trauma. Okay, I get that. So buy your kid a bike helmet and make him wear it. When I was a kid, my old friend Bing broke his arm falling off the railing of our back porch–the distance could not have been more than a 3 foot drop. But it was an accident, it was the angle of the fall. Why stay inside to prevent that. My son broke his arm sliding in a wading pool. I kid you not. Charlie climbed our roof–he was fine. I fell off a bike with a quick turn on the grass after coming down our steep hill–I was no young chicken but I was fine. You can’t stay inside because of what MIGHT happen.

I say give kids some guidelines and then let them go. They have to feel that life is an adventure. You cannot lock them up with a television or a computer, please.

SOME STATISTICS. 

Almost all (96%) of the 1,001 parents with children aged between four and 14 quizzed for the National Trust thought it was important their children had a connection with nature and thought playing outdoors was important for their development. The research found, on average, children were playing outside for just over four hours a week, compared to 8.2 hours a week when the adults questioned were children. To read more go here. 

I HAVE THE VELCRO STORY FOR YOU: I’M SURE YOU HAVE MORE

Tom Sawyer knew how to attract his friends, even if the attraction involved a little bit of work. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) was so damn smart. He wrote: Tom had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it – namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. 

Let’s pledge to get our children and grandchildren to covet the outdoors, adventure, and creativity. Sure, some young people are making millions bent over their computers and creating apps. But there is still room for roaming that stimulates the brain in a different way. Take, velcro.

George de Mestral invented his first touch fastener when, in 1941, he went for a walk in the woods and wondered if the burrs that clung to his trousers — and dog — could be turned into something useful. See! What if de Mestral had stayed indoors that day. He patented it in 1955 and subsequently refined and developed its practical manufacture until its commercial introduction in the late 1950s. He gave his invention the name Velcro, creating it from the French word velours or velvet and crochet or hook. The rest is history, as they say.

FORTS, SPORTS, BIKE ADVENTURES & MORE

Parents reading this might claim that there children get enough of the outdoors through sports. Yes and no Sports today are usually organized with adults there. Sports today are not the backyard lot when you created your own rules and learned how to WORK THINGS OUT with the kids down the block. That’s SO important. Children need to grow up slowly, yes, but as they do, day to day they learn skills that they will never lose. Jeannie and I had to negotiate when selecting the color of our fort or even deciding it would be in HER backyard. Getting out of the house and away from the eyes and ears of parents is part of growing up. STILL WORRIED? Well today, someone in the group that is roaming the hills or building that fort will have a cell phone, connection to Mom or Dad. So let them go out into the world. And don’t call or text them. Give them a deadline and hope that they wander into the world of imagination without an app or a screen to guide them.

Thanks to: DiviantArt