By Clint Calhoun
As I get closer to the half-century mark, I find myself frequently reflecting on my childhood years and the memories of riding bicycles with my brothers, playing baseball, wondering around outside, finding new ways to make mischief and use our imaginations. During the summer, it seems like we stayed outside from the time we got up and ate breakfast until we were called inside to eat supper. We would usually go back outside and stay until it got dark, and then we had to go inside and wash the layers of dirt that our bodies had accumulated over the course of the day’s adventures. I remember frequently uttering the famous last words of rednecks and daredevil children. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s two sentences, each with only two words: “Hey y’all! Watch this!”
In reflecting on my love for the outdoors, I realize that so much of that love comes from spending time outside as a child. For half of my childhood, we lived in a mobile home (a trailer as we Southern folks prefer to call it). Back in those days, not everyone had air conditioning. It just wasn’t seen as something that was necessary, particularly if you raised the windows and ran fans, which was much cheaper than having AC installed. Our trailer was hot in the summertime (and cold in the wintertime, except when we burned wood heat or the oil furnace), and even though it may have been hot outside, at least outside there was usually a breeze or a shade tree you could get under and be a little cooler than being inside, so being outside was as much necessity as it was voluntary.
Today, nearly every household has air-conditioning. Our vehicles do as well. We have gotten so used to it, we fall apart when we don’t have it. Remember when air conditioning in a truck was rolling the window down? Or if you were a kid, you rode in the back of the truck where you could really cool off. Was it unsafe? Probably, but we lived in a time where we understood that we were responsible for our own actions and no one else could or should be blamed if an injury occurred or our parent got a ticket (not that any law enforcement would have bothered stopping you then).
I teach three classes at Lake Lure Classical Academy, that require my students to get outside. My students are learning how to garden. They are learning how to make shelters in the woods, and campfires. They are learning how to tie knots, identify plants and animals, and most importantly, they are learning how to appreciate being outdoors. If we look at kids today, we are failing to pass on the knowledge of the past and thus making their future rather uncertain. They aren’t learning how to grow their own food. They aren’t learning how to can or make jam and jellies. They have no appreciation for the smell of freshly plowed dirt and how that smell excites neurons in the brain and release chemicals that increase attention and reduce stress. They aren’t learning outdoor skills the way we did. Most know nothing about what it’s like to run a chainsaw, drive a tractor, pick up potatoes, or milk a cow. For that matter, most adults my age don’t know how to do many of those things either. What changed? We stopped going outside.
As parents, educators and communities, we need to demand that kids go outside! Turn off the video games! Turn off the phones and computers. Get outside and climb a tree! Play ball with your friends! Go fly a kite or go fishing! Go catch lightning bugs in a jar at night. Play Blind Man’s Bluff or Kick the Can. It is a scientific fact that getting outside stimulates our minds, influences our DNA in positive ways that reduce risk of cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease, anxiety and depression. It reduces childhood obesity because kids are getting much needed exercise. Are kids going to skin their knees? Probably. Will they get stung by a bee or get into poison ivy? Highly likely. But you know what? We did those things when we were kids and we lived to tell the tale. Most of us are none the worse for wear, other than we can probably tell embarrassing stories about our likely misadventures. Kids should not be afraid to get their hands dirty. They shouldn’t be afraid to touch a fish, or worse, an earthworm. They shouldn’t fear getting wet from a rainstorm, picking up a toad, or catching a crawdad. This is what kids should live for.
If there is anything you can do for a child this summer, tell them to go outside and not come back inside until you call them or it gets dark, whichever comes first. Better yet, go join them. Squirt them with a water hose or water pistol. Take them camping and fishing. Pitch a tent in the backyard; tell ghost stories around a campfire. The only way kids learn how to appreciate the outdoors is by having someone teach them to appreciate the outdoors. Now, I must go outside! I have a baseball game to go see!
Until Next Time!
Clint Calhoun is a naturalist and biologist, whose entire career has been spent in the wilds of Hickory Nut Gorge. Clint is currently teaching high school science at Lake Lure Classical Academy.