The ‘Seven Bridges’ – The Decline of the Outdoor Childhood

As with many places, we have a lot of new Immigrants in our town.  One thing in particular strikes me when I look at them.  Their children are having the childhood that I had, whereas my own children are not.

These Immigrant children are there, morning until dusk, playing football, exploring the woods at the bottom of the field, sitting around on the pavement kicking dust.  They are living the Outdoor Childhood just like we used to do back in the Sixties and the Seventies.

My kids are getting bigger now and I find it is a source of some regret to me that they have not know the joys of the Outdoor Childhood.  They’ve been 'out' of course – regularly and often – but they haven’t known the experience of waving goodbye to Mum early of a Summer’s morning, heading out and knowing you would not be returning until hunger, pitch darkness, or physical damage drives you back in.

This is no fault of my kids, of course.  I think it’s even too simple to say it’s my fault.  As parents, we all seemed to stop dispatching our kids to the outdoors at around the same time.  How could I have sent my guys off out into the world when there was  nobody else out there to play with?  (The Immigrants came a few years too late for my fellas.).

I realise what I am saying is not true-of-everywhere.  When I go to other places in town I see everybody’s kids out in their neighbourhood, adventuring, socialising and generally having a ball.

The way I see it, there are a couple of elements at work here.  I reckon that my compatriots and I were ran outdoors because there wasn’t enough in the house to amuse us back then. No daytime TV, video games, social networks.  We were bored and under our parents feet and out we went.  These days our kids can amuse themselves quite well within the confines of the home and something is suffering as a result.

The other element is Community.  So many families have both parents working (or trying to work) now.  In my day, the Mum’s all seemed to be at home.  They watched us surreptitiously from behind their net curtains and made sure we were largely all right.  The places in town where there are groups of parents at home are invariably the less-advantaged places – they haven’t got the cash for Playstations and Sky TV and, yes, the kids are there, on the streets, living the Outdoor Childhood.

I’m not complaining.  I’m just sad that my guys, who have had a brilliant childhood, have still not had the extraordinary childhood that I was gifted with.

I was lucky though. As a kid, I lived in an extraordinary place, where the council houses looked out upon a beautiful wide river and where deep mysterious woods were only footsteps away.

We used to issue challenges to each other.  “I bet you couldn’t jump off that,” or “I bet your couldn’t hang out of that for longer than me.”  We called these regular events ‘Connies’ which I reckon must have been short for ‘Contests’.  I go back there now and I look disbelievingly at some the things we used to do.  The older boys would challenge themselves to feats of power and endurance that still, to this day, seem impossible to me.

We built rafts from timber pallets made buoyant and wonderfully unstable by barrels tied beneath.  We used to ride them down the falls at the weir.  We couldn’t swim.

We played football on the street, the entrance to our houses being the goal posts but, because the river was on one side of the street, the goals were both on the same side.  As a result, a winning goal-scoring technique would be to nurse the ball along the garden walls, fending off all attackers until you reached the opposition’s goal.  The best times were when the ball went in the river and had to be coaxed back to land with stones and other projectiles.

And what of the Seven Bridges back there in the title?  That was, perhaps, our most memorable adventure.  In the woods above our houses there was a path with two bridges spanning inlets from the wide river.  We heard a rumour that there were more bridges, lost and abandoned, deeper in the woods where the path had long been lost.  With sticks and thick jumpers, we cut our way through those deeper woods and found five more lost bridges further up the river than we had ever ventured before.  It felt like an epic adventure and the scratches, scrapes, fights, soakings we met along the way will not easily be forgotten.

That path is all opened up again today.  Some of the bridges are gone as inlets were filled in.  It’s a nice clear walk now but still a long one. Long enough that when I look at it today and imagine it totally overgrown and inaccessible, I can still see that our then-epic adventure would still be a bit epic, even today.

It’s too late for my guys. They are happy and know-no-better.  But if you have young kids, and your home place is conducive, take my advice and run them out of the house from time-to-time.  There’s still a world of adventure out there, a world of sweet memories to be made.


William Gallagher said...

There was an odd beach near where we used to go on holiday. Sand, of course, but also sometimes a lot of bushes. And one particular spot where the sand was a deep hollow and the bushes grew all the way over the top like a canopy. It was a perfect little den and it was mine.

Until one summer, I ran into the den and found three other boys there. They froze and I continued running as if I'd intended to just cut through and out the other side.

I didn't know them, they didn't know me and we never saw each other again. But I can still feel the sense that I'd passed the place on to them, that I'd grown up and moved on. Would I have thought that if they hadn't been there? I expect I'd have stopped in that den and wondered what I'd liked so much. I'd have left it about as quickly and felt that I'd out-grown it, but it would've been a rather sadder moment.

In other words, lovely and evocative piece. As ever.

Laura Cousins said...

I like this post very much Ken, though it makes me feel sad at the same time. Sad, and rather old. At this recognition of yet another mile in the gulf that divides me and my experiences from those of my children. It opens up afresh that old question of what is right and what is wrong for my kids?

PS I also love the new look of your blog. Very smart indeed.

seoirse mac enri said...

Hi Ken
your making me remember growing up we did make our own fun
nowadays entertainment is non tactile
dvd and Sky replace The Gaiety and Savoy matinees shiny games discs rule over Airfix Meccano and Action Man is missing in action.Having said that if todays technology were available 30 or 40 years ago what would we have embraced personally I feel the same as I was 40 years ago only slightly bigger I'm not sure what my answer would be we did a lot of things then because of what our friends did our liked I walk the 7 bridges daily with my dog you could turn a bus there now and lately they've begun to thin out the Back Avenue Why can't they leave nature to itself? I think I know my answer now...

Jim Murdoch said...

There was an item about this on the news this morning about the need to designate more 'play streets' - never heard of them before - as a means to tackle obesity in kids. My daughter used to play in the street when she was wee, if there was someone around to play with, but my parents had a big garden and so there wasn't quite the need. Of course the garden was exactly the same size as it was when I was a kid and, like you, we went out at dawn and returned at dusk and no one batted an eye. All they have to take are simple precautions, i.e. not wandering off alone and let's face it even in our day that was common sense not that it stopped me going into abandoned buildings on my own but it should have.

Acadia said...

Like the new look. I also think that things took a turn when someone invented the term "play date".

Ken Armstrong said...

William: Thanks for this comment. I think the image of you running in and running past, having discovered some other boys there, is a very very strong on. You should look after that one and, if it hasn't already, integrate into some writing piece someday.

Laura: It's funny, isn't it? We want nothing more than to do the best for them and yet so many decisions we make can be questioned afterwards. I can relate to the sad feeling, I really can.

Seoirse: I can remember myself and yourself up the back avenue one Summer's afternoon. We either had a radio or a tape machine and had some music on the move. If I trust the gloom of my memory, one of the songs we heard was called 'Reggae Like it Used to Be' which, upon researching, dates the walk at 1976. You has a sweater/shirt which said Madras University and you tried to convince me that Madras was pronounced 'Madram'.

All of the above could be completely wrong. My memory is an increasingly odd thing. :)

Jim: We were given great freedom but we were warned most graphically about then dangers of taking lifts from strangers. I later learned this advice was in the context of a relatively local tragedy/horror. The world was by no means a safer place back then but our parents seemed to trust our defence-systems more.

Acadia: Thanks for dropping by. You really make me laugh with your writing - such a natural cocky style, you gotta keep plugging at it man. I can see you even bigger than you are.

Karen Redman said...

Hi Ken,
Another excellent blogpost! I also grew up with "long summer days" roaming free & not returning until dusk. It was a different age. Am sure just as many awful things occurred then as now but communications weren't what they are today & our parents probably weren't as aware of them as we are. But kids CAN still make the most of outdoors if parents will allow it. My son, aged nearly 14, returns today from a Duke of Edinburgh award trek ... he's been camping in Epping Forest. We just have to bite the bullet & decide that these are good things to do & at least provide a little change from "attached to the computer" syndrome. Of course, he'll probably have hated every minute as his usual degree of physical activity is walking from the house to the car - but I'M THE MUMMY & if I decide these treks/hikes etc are good for him, then he does them! End of! It's parents who need to get brave ... not kids! K

Art Durkee said...

I had an Outdoor Childhood, too, and grateful I am for it, as it was the root of many things that make me who I am. I'm a partial professional outdoorsman, who travels a lot, and camps, and hikes, for photo and video work; and I love being out there in the wild places. I'm what travel writer Paul Theroux described himself as: a fresh air fiend.

The main problem I have with contemporary virtual play, i.e. TV and game consoles, is that they are disembodied, not very physical or tactile enough. (I do like this trend towards game controllers that are full-body-movement based.) You're correct to link obesity with all this, and the lack of running around wild outside.

But the other thing that bothers me is that such play that happens via controllers is imaginatively passive. Who writes games for themselves to play? I remember how a cardboard box could become, in my imagination, a fort or a spaceship. Most virtual play is sold by branches of the entertainment industry, and while they might seem wildly creative at times, they are all at root passive entertainments. The main difference between passive entertainment and the Outdoors Childhood is the level of active imagination required. Sure, there can be creativity applied to the game console—but it's still within the confines of set parameters. Whereas play outside, you have to invent ALL of it from scratch, every time. Making up new games with new and variable rules was half the fun of it.

Laura said...

I've thought about the same thing. My nephew is going to be 16 soon but I can easily count the number of times he has gone out into the woods or had other outdoor explorations. His friends have even less. Probably because I have shoved that chick out of the nest and my brother has taken him for some adventures as well.

His friends are not even allowed to catch the bus and travel into the next town. Parents are afraid. So much violence, crime and such in the media that parents have become too afraid to let their kids go anywhere on their own.

Few kids even play outside in the yard compared to my brother and sisters. We used to take our bikes and just go. Stop at the corner store for some pop (even though we already had canteens with water - seasoned adventurers that we were). It is a shame kids are locked up inside. But, I think the situation is of our own making.

On one hand we have fears about criminals, abuse and etc which do happen, but not to the extent shown on TV. Then we have parents who have been taught to over protect their kids with modern safety standards, from birth. I laugh to see a four year old kid still in a stroller with a pacifier in it's mouth. But this is something I see far too often.

I don't think both parents working is the real problem. My parents both worked and we still took it upon ourselves to amuse each other, to take road trips into the abandoned golf course, to collect bugs, even the odd snake. Things are changing. We see far more violence and people are far more afraid of "bad guys".