My wife and I walked the dog tonight, up past the water park/mini-golf course that was recently built eight blocks away from my home. It was built to give kids something to do since there isn’t a lot of open space nearby. As we walked by the eight foot tall gate that barricaded the amenities against those who might not have the money to pay, I couldn’t help noticing the domed piece of darkened glass that covered the camera that was observing us as we walked by. Surely it was there to keep the peace, surely it wasn’t bothering anyone who was obeying the laws. And yet I couldn’t help thinking that our world has changed lately, changed with both a speed and extremity that has never been witnessed before.
I think about my own childhood and I think of endless hours of play outdoors, whether it be on the streets or in the field a couple of blocks away from my home. Either way it was play far from the eyes of the adults. The field I’m talking about was no nature preserve, rather it was a bit of land that had been cleared in order to make it just another piece of the suburban puzzle of square plots of land. But for whatever reason, the project was halted halfway through and abandoned. The result was not too different from a sandbox where a child had been playing with Tonka trucks before getting bored and moving on to some other endeavor, just on a grander scale. But it was a place where we learned how to negotiate both an external reality and our relationships with our fellow man (or boy, as the case may be).
But kids don’t explore the real world while figuring out how to get along with others nowadays. It’s bad enough with the waterpark example, where they are constantly monitored by not only the lifeguards but by video cameras. They are not discovering anything, rather they are caged in like animals at a zoo, free to play in an artificial environment that might amuse but does not instruct them how to live in the wild. And this is when kids are at physical play, burning off the energy nature has given them. More often they are busy exploring artificial worlds with artificial people. I refer, of course, to video games, where adults construct reality to which the children respond. It’s like play, only nothing ever useful is learned. Instead, children are taught how to steal cars and kill a bunch of people and if the game stops going your way you can just hit the reset button.
This is the point where you say, “Aw, just an old man talking about how hard his childhood was and how easy kids have it today.” Not at all. I loved my childhood. I feel sorry for kids nowadays who will never get away from the world adults have fashioned for them. Of course, even in my day I knew there was something artificial about my life that made my experiences feel a little less than legitimate. See, my dad had grown up during the Great Depression and he exited that straight into the greatest war the world had ever seen. His generation had a connection to reality very similar to every other generation that had come before. Prior to the last 70 years or so, you would had to have been a very rich and alienated aristocrat if you wanted to be able to escape the laws of nature and the fundamental lessons that life teaches. When my dad wanted to go swimming, he and the other kids in the neighborhood would dam up a stream until they had a pool. Imagine what that taught them about working with others and getting along in order to accomplish a goal. Now a kid just has to have parents with the money to get past the iron gate. Of course, maybe they’ll come out with a swimming game for PlayStation and save them the hassle. They could cliff dive in Australia, bodysurf at Waikiki or compete in the 400 meter freestyle against Michael Phelps. I’m sure it will teach them good hand/eye coordination.