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Why we should remember what our childhoods were like

Updated: Mar 5, 2021

The New Year began by taking my family in our hometown visiting family and friends. Travel with a 21 month old can be stressful, but there is a lot of joy in bringing our daughter to where my wife and I were raised. Nap time was a struggle with the time change so I resorted to car seat soothing. The neighborhood of my childhood was just around the corner so I decided to take a slow drive through the forgotten streets of my youth. Turning into the entrance as the backseat quieted sent memories back of my out-until-dinner childhood*.

The nostalgia must have been heightened with the presence of my child. Entering the far entrance to the neighborhood, considered WAAY out there then, carried hints of accomplishment I felt when I was able to bike there on my own. As I rounded each turn I could clearly see my crew biking and running through the hidden corners of the neighborhood (#4 & 15 below). Behind my friends homes were thickets we called forts. I felt the excitement of the big hill we would bike down, which truly has very little grade at all through adult eyes that is (#10). I recoiled at the thought of the bullies encountered in the cul-de-sac near Brett’s house. I was again bewildered to see the drop of blood on the thorny booby trap we had set the night before on our shelter (#13). I blushed a bit passing the home of my first crush, and I felt the embarrassment of flipping over my handle bars going no hands trying to impress her(#11 & 12). The trip back to childhood was a real gift. I recognize how important the freedom to experience life on my own terms was to my growth.

On a jog through the forest I cam across many signs that these woods are still used for Wild Nature Play

It is interesting to read about the benefits of wild nature play and acknowledge the need for freedom in our own children’s experiences. However, it is transformational to recall our very own moments of development through independence. How often did we have agency in deciding what game to play or adventure to imagine without caregivers chiming in? Did we get the opportunity to face a challenge and be nervous, then overcome it to build resiliency and confidence? Were our feelings ever hurt by a careless friend, a pain dealt with in solitude, to be mended with an unlikely friendship elsewhere, even if that friend was a squirrel or favorite tree? Are we willing to give the gift of these experiences to our own children, modified for the present world? This reflection, or perhaps nostalgia, of the gift of freedom I was provided emboldens my search for Wild Nature Play today.

While my daughter slept on in her car seat, I began a mind map of the memories that rose from the trip. First, I laid out the most important places to my young self and then began to fill in the stories. It was a joy to get these thoughts down and recount the memories. It was also something special for my own parents to look through when I had finished. We laughed at the shared memories, and I laughed as I shared secret stories untold until then. Just like every child I had to test the boundaries, be a little mischievous, in order to gain my independence. It has made me who I am, and I hope to allow my daughter the same privileges to attempt, learn, and overcome.

*An "out-until-dinner childhood" refers to a time when children roamed the areas near their home from the end of school, or after breakfast on weekends, until dinner time. Children were free to explore the streets, ditches, and the woods surrounding their home with little to no adult supervision. While there are likely some communities in the United States that still offer this type of childhood experience, it is generally considered a relic. Many factors contribute to the limitation of independence including perceptions of danger from injury or strangers, litigation from neighborhood associations, and the heavily structured scheduling characteristic of a typical family day. Upon reflection, I seemed to have been raised in both a time and space where I could explore my neighborhood unencumbered but was also regularly involved in organized sports and groups through school. There seemed to be a balance in activities that I hope to find for my daughter as she grows.

For a perspective on the possible benefits of articulating one’s “idyllic” out-until-dinner childhood take a look at Peter Kahn’s theory, “Environmental Generational Amnesia.”

- Paul

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