Life Potatoes

Young boy playing in the sand next to an American flag. iStockphoto

This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.



Have the instincts of our species atrophied so completely that parents need to be told to have their kids play outside?

Apparently.

Apparently, it's worse than that.

Apparently, the American family of homo sapiens now needs national commissions, Congressional oversight, how-to books and even a slogan, "No Child Left Inside," to get our young out of their shelters. This used to be accomplished when primitive mothers and fathers pointed a finger and spoke two words: "Go outside." Occasionally, two other words were needed: "Or else."

I'm not sure how much weight the "or else" locution carries in the contemporary household. But "go outside" seems to have gone the way of other primitive behaviors, like not wearing hats in restaurants.

So now we have the National Forum on Children and Nation, sponsored by the Conservation Fund and aided by various businesses and politicians.

It's part of what Washington Post reporter Donna St. Clair found to be a broader bureaucratic assault on youthful sloth. "In recent months," she wrote, "it has been the focus of Capitol Hill hearings, state legislative action, grass-roots projects, a U.S. Forest Service initiative to get more children into the woods and a national effort to promote a 'green hour' in each day."

Good luck and Godspeed to all of them.

Richard Louv is helping the "go outside" alliance. He's the author of "Last Child in the Woods" and he coined the fabulous phrase "nature-deficit disorder." I have a boatload of politically incorrect and highly uninformed thoughts about this syndrome, but I'll just share two of them.

One, if kids didn't plop their soon-to-be-wide butts in front of electronic screens so much and used the imagination more in make-believe games, pretending and outdoor, free-form unstructured play – away from meddling grown-ups – there would be less attention-deficit disorder in the world.

Two (and I might lose you here), and speaking as a fisherman, I think we featherless bipeds get really corked up if we don't do something to lubricate the ancient hunter-gatherer instincts that lurk in our genes. It alienates us from what Marx called "species being," and although I don't know what that really means, it sounds exactly like what I mean. Anyway, I usually don't say this in mixed company (fishermen versus civilians), but I think kids ought to hunt and fish, not just play.

Now, I have paid close attention over several years to the research about the effects of television, video games and the Internet on children's behavior and their neurological and emotional development. And I can assure you, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that the research is conclusive. Find a paper that says video games rot a kid's soul and I'll find one that says they enhance the function of the inferior cerebellar peduncle.

But I believe some day I'll be vindicated and the research will be clear: electronic fun is bad except in low doses. In the meantime, I'll have to trust what I observe: kids who spend a lot of time in front of screens are different than kids who don't. It's not brain surgery.

The "go outside" movement will be helped immensely by the good works of Conn and Hal Iggulden. These guys wrote the best-selling book, "The Dangerous Book for Boys."

It's a best-seller for a reason; it's great, fun and virtuous. The outside consultant I use in these matters, Daniel Meyer, age 12, agrees. Having prior expertise in the making of bows, arrows and tomahawks, my son thinks especially highly of the sections on "Insects and Spiders," "Tanning a Skin," and "Hunting and Cooking a Rabbit."

Cities and suburbs, of course, are anti-nature, but the suburbs weren't supposed to be. They weren't when I was a kid. But drive around suburbia and exurbia now and you just don't see kids outside. Never mind seeing kids hunting varmints or making forts; you also won't see them shooting baskets or playing hopscotch.

Kids are not just shackled to their machines, they're shackled to their schedules. Or should I say the schedules we impose on them, whether it's because two parents have to work or because we're trying to design the kind of trophy children that will get into a good college. We leave them alone too much and we don't leave them alone enough.

But surely between the sadistic amounts of homework schools now load on all kids over the age of 7, organized sports and lessons, portable electronic games and the big-screen junk, we are squeezing the imagination and the daring out of our kids.

We are not going to just have too many couch potatoes, we're going to have too many life potatoes.



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  • Alfonso Serrano

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