When I played outside, I learned to interact with others, to share, to win and to lose. I learned when to fight and when to give in—in real time, not virtually, not because some program dictated by my algorithms decided I had an X percentage chance of reacting to Y.
When I went outside to hike through a park or play in a pickup baseball game or just hang out in someone’s garage, I learned to remember, I learned a multitude of actions and reactions through observations and mistakes. I learned about the human touch, about facial expressions of agreement, of ridicule, of doubt and of encouragement—another person’s eyes could tell me when they had my back and when they knew I could handle it. Another person’s stare told me when I screwed up and when I made them proud.
When I played outside I learned about silence, about the distant call of a cardinal after we’d all been yelling and laughing, and I learned the modulation of nature, its ups and downs, how a crowd of kids sounds then how they don’t and how the small ripple of a creek can bring peace to my entire being. When I was out there with a group of friends I learned to allow another’s interests to dictate the day and to be grateful when it was my turn to choose.
I learned to sit on the bench. I learned to get out of the way. I learned the possibility of my agility and strength and speed as well as their limitations. I found out I was really freaking good at tennis but sucked at baseball. I discovered through trial and error I was not interested in rocks but was in water, I was not interested in cars but was in music. But still I learned. I hung out with friends and someone else’s interests bled into my space, and I learned. I learned a little about engines, about various religions, ethnicities, foods. Certainly I could have read about these things or participated in some organized fashion through a community game of some sort about these things, but they eliminate the smell of life, the aroma of sweat that comes from contact, the drift of dry leaves in fall that comes when playing football in someone’s backyard. They don’t allow the feel of the air when I learned how much heat or cold I could tolerate, the outright tackle that did two things—knocked the wind out of me to remind me others are stronger and just might be smarter and just might have thoughts and opinions I could learn from, and it showed me just how much I could take and get up again and try one more time.
I learned everyone’s phone numbers and remembered them, their addresses. I learned the directions from one place to another by stopping to ask, by reading a map, by common sense. I learned about local places to eat by asking someone local, by asking someone to take my picture instead of taking a selfie, and in doing so learned about where the best places for just about everything might be that I could never find in a guide.
My parents sent me outside to play and I learned to interact, to live, to think in multiplicities instead of the scope of my room at home. And I hope I don’t need to suggest the health benefits, both physically and psychologically.
I am not better than anyone alive save serial killers and warmongers. I am certainly not smarter than most of the people I know and I’m definitively not smart enough for the life I have led.
But I have experience. I have a depth of experience I never imagined I’d have. And I can trace the spark of that experience to my parents sending me outside to play and I looked up and saw the sky was so much larger than the view from my window. The horizon too. The possibilities too.
I went outside and used something extraordinary—imagination. I wondered what it would be like to sail, to fly, to play at Wimbledon, to hike mountains. Yes, of course, I could read about them and did read about them and let my imagination fly just as easily, but outside it was all closer, in reach, outside where I could look across a field and know that just over the curve of the earth was Spain, Africa. Outside was different, it was big and taught me to be small instead of some master of my space, it taught me to look both ways, it taught me to duck and to stand up and look around.
Outside I learned the world doesn’t spin solely for me, that I could learn directly from others, that making mistakes was absolutely acceptable and expected, and that in the end, I’d be fine.
I’d be absolutely fine.
The percentage of people playing Little League has plummeted. The numbers joining the scouting programs has fallen. The numbers of young people involved in after-school groups has diminished. Racism has risen dramatically. Intolerance of anything other than what we know and what we believe is a cancer spreading throughout towns everywhere. Psychologists say in a Pew Research study that the likelihood of high school students to disagree with their teachers has risen to unprecedented numbers and in more than half of all cases where the parents pushed the school system, the board found in favor of the student. In eight percent of the cases the teacher was reassigned. Growth does not come from being right. It doesn’t even come from being told the truth. It comes from being told you are wrong, to learn from it, and to move on with more information than you had before.
Yet. YET. SAT scores are HALF that of forty years ago. Graduation rates are a third less and the dropout rate has doubled. Violent crime among teenagers has risen to numbers more than triple than they were during the 1960s.
More than triple than back then, when we played outside. When we went outside and found out that someone else might know more than us and if we ran home crying to our parents, they’d make us work it out between us.
Am I an old guy remembering when things were better? Of course. But I’m also a professor who during a thirty-year career has taught research and verification of information, and I’m not wrong. The numbers are clear. We were better off when we spent more time outside with others. I’m sure there is some serious Post Hoc Fallacy going on here—the factors for the decline being infinitely more complicated than the difference between going outside to interact with others and staying inside and being a virtual participant in life. But in some sweeping way, the old truism is still true: Everything I really needed to know I learned in kindergarten. I’m not suggesting we don’t read or get online or interact virtually with people. Of course not; I’m doing that right now. I’m suggesting that without daily interaction outside with no constant supervision, we will never grow; we will never discover; we will never know what we are capable of, and that might be the biggest tragedy of all.
Imagine never finding out what you are truly capable of.
I’m going outside now to sit quietly near the river and listen. Sometimes the Rappahannock River sounds exactly like the Great South Bay.
You’re never too old to go outside and play.