Let’s play a game. A virtual game.
Picture yourself standing on a satellite orbiting the Earth, looking down on our world as a first-time observer.
As you zoom in more closely, you notice that people on this planet tend to live among each other, in groups. They live vertically and horizontally. You see their public gathering spaces— parks, playgrounds, neighborhood blocks, community gardens, basketball courts, skate parks, creeks, rivers, beaches, conservation areas, nature reserves, hills, mountains and other green spaces— all interconnected to these places and to each other by roads, bike paths and walking tracks.
With the knowledge that these people choose to live amassed together in these supersized villages, amassed together, you imagine they must have an innate desire to connect with each other and to converse with each other, among all these impressive social resources and infrastructures. Imagine the social gatherings, the interconnectedness, the sense of community and the celebrations among these citizens!
You have just come upon the great paradox of the modern world in which many of us now live. At no other time in human history have we lived in such large groups and yet, at the same time, at no other time have we been so socially disconnected, isolated and alone.
We want to believe in the idyllic picture of neighborhoods filled with children roaming everywhere, playing outside. But, often, the real picture is that our children may live within direct contact distance, just miles apart, but they now prefer the company of screens to “IRL” (in-real-life) friends. Urbanization and the mass movement of people to the cities may mean we choose to live together, but it is like we are living a million miles apart. Many of us live in urban communities with children who don’t even know each other.
Yet children are achieving togetherness, sharing awesome experiences, going on adventures with friends, building, destroying, and embracing playing with superhuman powers. They’re just doing so in a variety of virtual settings. Indeed there are now growing bands of children, mostly aged nine and up, but some younger, who are part of digital communities. These youngsters are connecting with others, young and old, mostly across gaming forums, discussing a lot more than gaming. While on these online expeditions, they are dropping in comments, chatting, telling jokes, discussing funny videos, recommending other cool online features to explore, smiling, laughing, and being creative. But they are not leaving their rooms. The blinds are pulled down to enhance the screen. The door is shut for privacy and to reduce disturbance. The world is no longer “at their feet,” but in front of them, on a screen.
Children are forming relationships and friendships, but now it is virtual and global.
As a digital immigrant, clinging furiously to the concept of a free-range outdoor childhood based on my own experiences as a child, my mind has been blown away by the social and cultural shifts in modern childhood. As I come to terms with these changes, I have begun to accept these thought-provoking facts: 1) The concept of “neighborhood” has dramatically changed for this generation; 2) Our children are integrating virtual online neighborhoods as part of their social stimuli and connection experience.
Children’s online social connections are their virtual reality and virtual neighborhood. Children finding friends through commonality has resulted in huge established online communities gathering within these platforms. Hundreds and thousands of children (and adults) come together, bringing with them their personalities, character, self-expression, interests, attitudes, values and beliefs, where together they explore, express, test and form their identity.
Forget for a moment whether this behavior is healthy, as it is happening now, under our rooves and within our homes across the country. But instead, consider what has been lost in modern childhood, and consider whether these changes are in the best interest for our children, our communities, our planet.
Developmentally, we can see the impacts. The priority for a baby is to master its body. A baby forms his or her identity based on the connections within their immediate family. At around nine years old, most children are seldom satisfied with just having a family identity. They want to know who they are out there, in the world.
The problem is that, over the past 30 years, our neighborhoods have almost disappeared as a space for childhood. For most modern children, their neighborhood is no longer a place for social connection, for having fun, for friends, freedom, and challenge.
This means the modern neighborhood now offers little value to our children.
As a result, a healthy lifestyle—with physical activity, honed social-emotional skills and well-rounded cognitive development— for children is becoming harder to achieve. Some experts are now suggesting that, due to the significant changes in childhood, this generation of children are going to have a lower life expectancy than that of their parents.
The problem is that the major stakeholder in this issue—the child— is not interested. For children, it is a question of motivation. The question then becomes: what is motivating our children today?
The answer has been the same for all of human history. Children are motivated by what I call the 4 F’s: Fun, Freedom, Friends and Fluency (by fluency I mean mastery of skills). For those like me who experienced a free-range outdoors childhood, we cling to the hope that our children will want to venture outside to find their fun, freedom, friends and fluency.
But these 4 F’s can all be satisfied online as well as out in the physical neighborhood. Today’s online world is just the easiest and simplest way for children to satisfy the 4 F’s. Still, children’s indoor sedentary lifestyles are resulting in significant long-term health problems, physically, emotionally, and socio-emotionally. And sadly, we are losing our connectivity and sense of community.
There is good news. In my role as Program Director of Nature Play QLD, I have the opportunity to see communities where families have recognized the need to ensure children have a sense of autonomy in their neighborhoods, are able to access friends on a whim, have a high degree of choice and build their independence. And within these neighborhoods, children are choosing outdoor play over online gaming to satisfy the 4 F’s. These children would rather connect in real life, face to face, and have real-time adventures than virtual ones. This means outdoor free play, and interest in physical neighborhoods is not evolving-out of childhood.
Some takeaways I would like to share from these communities:
- With a few simple and easy actions, we can revitalize our local areas as places children can satisfy their play needs.
- When given the choice and opportunity to go outdoors to play with other children locally, most of our youngsters prefer the physical neighborhood over the virtual.
- We need to prioritize and cater to children’s motivations for play locally.
- We also need to take time, patience, and consistency to rebuild our neighborhoods.
- It is also going to take some skillful ‘ninja parenting’ (this is the art of facilitating play, without being present. Not being seen, but still having some idea what our children are up to, and therefore enabling them to be the driver of their play activities) and trust to our children.
While there is no research on what children are discussing online, it is great to know that children are finding an outlet for their need to connect with other children. However, I have strong reservations about the quality of those online relationships, as well as the impacts the reduced amount of face-to-face time may be having on our children.
Hearing tone, seeing facial expressions, being physically present, hearing stories, help our children develop a sense of their friend’s worlds as well as the immediate world they live in.
The Childhood Summit (being hosted in Brisbane in 2019) will feature a keynote by Dr. Mari Swingle, a globally published therapist, researcher and author who has been working in the fields of impact on children of screens. Her work explores the pervasive influence of technology on the developing brain and shows how constant connectivity is rapidly changing our brains, what dangers are posed to children and adults alike in this brave, new world. She also highlights the positive steps we can take to embrace new technology while protecting our well-being and steering our future in a more human direction.
I invite all interested people and policymakers to join us at the Childrens Summit in 2019 (March 2019) to debate the impact of the digital era on our children and how we can provide their Four F’s and protect their future.
A version of this post has previously appeared on the Nature Play QLD website.
Photo credits: Hyahno Moser
Additional reading and resources
Nature Play QLD
THE ARROW HEAD GANG: And the Importance of Social Groups to the Outdoor Play Revival
LAST TREEHOUSE IN THE WOODS
RISKY PLAY: Losing a Childhood “Right” of Passage — and a Tool to Help Protect that Right
OutsidePlay.ca an online tool to help parents and caregivers gain the confidence to allow their kids to get out and play
Position Statement on Active Outdoor Play
Research: What is the relationship between risky outdoor play and health in children? A systematic review
Nature and why it’s essential for kids’ brains
Online Tool Supports Risky Play
Risky Playgrounds Create Healthy Kids
The Anti-Helicopter Parent’s Plea: Let Kids Play!
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