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.


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 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!


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.


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. 


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.


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

20 thoughts on “Have Kids Lost the “Huck Finn” Gene?

  1. Beth, I love this post, I too wander around our neighborhood and wonder where the kids are? We live in a condo but there is lots of playing area. There is a giant field and basketball court, park area and tennis court. However, the basketball court is falling apart, the hoops having no net, and one backboard only has half a hoop, the court is covered in broken asphalt as are the tennis courts, which also are missing their nets. The park has a metal slide that is rusted out and leaning too one side. I understand why kids don’t play there and parents don’t let them. It’s not even about letting kids be free, in this case the rusted slide is cause for cuts and possible metal poisoning, the broken asphalt is a major cause for broken ankles. I am perplexed as to how the condition of this fine kid and adult friendly area came to be so broken… The condos are very nice, there is a lake here, a decent parking lot, trees galore, monthly assessments are significant, why was the outdoor recreation allowed to become run down? Didn’t anyone complain?
    There is a monthly board meeting, doesn’t anyone say anything about the park area? I rent my unit here so unfortunately I am not allowed to attend board meetings or make comments but I know some of the owners in my building, I’ve asked about the park. It’s been expressed that it’s not important; no one goes there, no one uses it, why maintain it has been the overall decision. I find it sad that the only park in our area is one that is falling apart. I have to get in the car and drive a few miles away to go to the park with Grace and yet there could be one we could walk too!
    I don’t see kids outside playing anymore, I don’t hear laughter in the evenings either. I know Grace doesn’t play outside as much as I would like because there are few kids in our area to play with and yes I am one of those parents that doesn’t like her playing outside by herself, although I do let her take walks and we go out walking together. My child has not had the outside experiences I had. There have never been any kids in the neighborhoods we’ve lived in.
    Her school district did a strange thing several years back where they lumped all the kids by grade at each school. So 1 school is all Pre K and K, the next is 1st and 2nd, the next is 3rd and 4th and finally the middle school is 5th thru 8th. Therefore, the kids come from all over the town, not just the neighborhood the school is located in. Most of the schools themselves have not been in walking distance for her either. Her best friends have always lived way across town, across several major intersections, 40 mph speed limits and probably an hour walk away. I would never let her go there by herself. However, her best friends also have had working parents, so when they were younger those girls went to after school day care while Grace came home because me or Jeff were always there for her to come home too. Trying to organize play dates worked okay on weekends but her friend’s parents didn’t like their daughter playing outside too much…they called to tell us that one time when we watched their daughter for them during spring break one year. It was too dangerous for her to be outside… ???
    Grace is older now and does spend more time outside but it’s nothing like the fun I had growing up. Of course we had 5 kids in my family and a block full of kids ranging in all ages. There were so many of us just on our street and we all played together, as well as with the kids on the next block. I’ve realized a lot of kids go to after school activities and day care or sports and they just don’t play outside anymore. It is a bit of a lost generation, imagination and role playing- a lost art. I don’t imagine that laughter and sound of kids playing is going to come back and I think that is very sad.

  2. Thanks for your long comment and history, Natalie. I feel terrible about that play lot that has gone to ruin. So wrong. Where are people’s priorities? Children need fresh air and exercise. It wouldn’t hurt for mom or dad to hang out at the park, climb a slide, throw a ball around. No wonder we have people ill at an early age. Hope you are feeling okay and great–take those walks, Beth

  3. I don’t understand the parent mentality of the last 20+ years: everyone gets a trophy, no losers, kids don’t play outside or have chores… No wonder they’re called snowflakes. Sensitive little creatures, aren’t they?

    • Thanks, Brenda. You have added some that I forgot about, the trophy thing for one. Life is tough and it certainly helps if children get tossed around a bit as they grow, otherwise they will never be happy, never make it in this world.

  4. Beth….this occurs everytime I walk the dog or just sit outside and commune with nature. When my daughters were young and we lived in Virginia, I always heard the children or saw them as they played in the woods. Now when I go outside, there is the sound of traffic in the distance and no sounds of joy. I hope this makes people think.

    • Thanks, Teresa. I really don’t know what we can do to change this? The fact that children can’t play in the woods anymore (esp. if one has a cell phone that they could use if something went amiss) makes no sense. Thanks for your comment.

  5. Hi Beth, you post touched a dear memory tucked away in my heart. When I was about 10, I built a fort using only the big bushes that were under a tree in my back yard. It wasn’t much but it had a nice comfortable quilt for the floor and just some old sheets over the top and some boxes, that held my sisters and my dolls and treasures… many tea parties were held there, a perfect hideaway place…I need to think about how to interest my step great granddaughters into doing something like this ….I don’t think they even ever heard of such a thing…hmmm… how have we gotten so far away from imaginary magical thinking?

  6. I agree with everything you say Beth. Too much screen time, too much sports time, not enough playing outside or playing indoors with friends doing imaginary play.

    • Thanks Haralee. How will these generations grow up imaging their lives, their relationships, their successes if everything is fed to them? Your response is so appreciated.

  7. Love this walk down memory lane, Beth! I remember making snow forts in the snow bank in front of my grandparents’ house. And exploring the nearby woods, breathing in the smell of fallen leaves and pine needles. And the sound of the ice cream truck’s tinkling music wafting through the neighborhood on summer evenings. And, most of all, feeling no fear about being outside, in nature.

  8. And who can forget about big boxes? Whenever a large cardboard box arrived, it was the designated fort for as long as it would last. It could be a stage coach, or a military outpost, or the dugout of the Chicago White Sox, or a cave in the mountains, or anything your imagination could muster. Oh and what fun it was just to decide what it would be and then allow it to be just that. The hours of fun with friends, with like minds that met the challenge and came up with their own ideas which we all shared. Simple, safe, creative, and oh so wonderful. And it always brought all kinds of childhood sounds skipping through the air on a summer afternoon……

    • We were so blessed in our childhoods. I do cherish every single memory. Thanks for bringing up a few I forgot.

  9. The kids who live next door have a trampoline and they are on it ALL THE TIME…we do actually have a bunch of kids playing in my neighborhood, but it is still not the same as it was when I was a kid. You couldn’t keep me inside when I was a kid and I used to have to force my kids outside.

    • So glad some of your neighbor kids no how to make use of the outdoors. You couldn’t keep me inside either. THANKS SO MUCH, Beth

  10. Amen to this. I, also, have a neighborhood devoid of children playing outdoors. We live near a river; children could go down there and skip stones, or fish, or do the things that my now-grown son used to do sometimes. And there used to be a playground there. No longer. You would think the children were all kidnapped by aliens. I wonder if they will ever know what they are missing,but I also know many parents are so fearful now. I really wonder how today’s children will turn out.

    • Thanks for this, Alana. I am writing a novel about kidnapping. But your idea that they’ve all been removed by space aliens is intriguing. Me

  11. As much as I wanted to get away from our Northwestern Ontario farm in my teens, I am now so thankful that we had a 160 acre playground. My sister recently reminded me that even when it was -20 below, my mother would push us outdoors because “fresh air was good for us”!

    This was pre-high-tech clothing, so you can imagine how many layers we wore in order to withstand the elements.

    It made me sad to see so few children playing outdoors this winter when we had an unusual amount of snow. You would think the novelty would be enough to attract them and set imaginations soaring.

    Even in my 20’s I remember going to a friend’s cottage and a number of us playing a made-up-on-the-spot game with a large ball. The game had no name, and very few rules, but it sure was fun!

    I agree enthusiastically, unequivocally and wholeheartedly with everything you say in this post, Beth!

    • Thanks so sharing so much with me, Marianna. I love people’s stories and yours is a great one. Making up games and using whatever was around to create new worlds is what childhood should be. Beth

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