A Death-Defying Childhood

I’ve read articles about the extreme heat they’ve been experiencing in Great Britain, Europe, and parts of the U.S. and was thinking about a time-honored way to beat the heat from my childhood: taking hearty drinks of water from a garden hose (and, most likely, putting my thumb over the water flow and spraying my brother and sisters and some of the other kids lined up for refreshment). For some reason, garden hose water always seemed to be cooler than water from the faucet, and of course it was messier, which was part of the fun.

But then I learned that drinking from the garden hose is no longer seen as a viable way to cool off. Indeed, to read some evaluations of the practice, you would conclude that a simple gulp or two from the hose is courting certain disaster. For example, one website article emphasizes “Do not drink water from the hose” and states that garden hose water contains bacteria and mold and also “typically contains” toxic chemicals like lead, antimony, bromine, organotin, phthalates, and bisphenol A, some of which come from the material used to manufacture the hose. These substances, the article explains, can disrupt the endocrine system and are linked to liver, kidney and organ damage.

Perhaps most significantly, the article notes that the substances can “lower intelligence” and “cause behavioral changes.” That explains a lot, doesn’t it?

It’s hard to imagine that those of us who routinely guzzled water from garden hoses on hot summer days in the ’60s and ’70s survived such risky behavior–but then, it was part of a pattern. Kids in our neighborhood back then did things during the process of what the adults called “playing outside” that would probably be viewed as death-defying now, like climbing trees, playing “demolition derby” on our bikes, damming up dirty creeks and looking for snakes, salamanders, and tadpoles, using hammers and rusty nails to create poorly constructed clubhouses, hurling water balloons at each other’s heads, jumping off rocks, and riding bikes down steep hills at top speeds without a helmet, to name just a few. And yet, somehow we survived them all, and drinking from the garden hose, besides.

It’s sad to think that some kids these days don’t get to experience the simple pleasure of drinking cool water from a garden hose, and the frivolity that inevitably accompanied it.

Squelching Summer Fun

When we were kids and lived on The Circle in semi-rural Bath, Ohio, a typical summer day went like this:  we got up early, ate cereal, and ran from the house to play outside with the gang of other kids in the neighborhood.  We’d ride our bikes and climb trees, play “army” and baseball and kickball, build dams and catch tadpoles in the creek that ran through the woods, and make up stupid games.  Except for stopping to eat a lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches served by one of the moms in the neighborhood — usually selected at random — we were outside and on our own all day long, and after we’d eaten dinner at home, often at the picnic table outside, we’d find our friends again and catch lightning bugs and play freeze tag until it was time for bed.  And if we were lucky enough to go somewhere for a beach vacation (in our case, to Ocean City, New Jersey), we’d dig in the sand, bury each other, and build sand castles.

fun-ways-to-celebrate-the-summer-solstice-sqI remember those long, hot summer days fondly — but if you read the expert advice given to parents these days, you’d think that our entire group of friends was unbelievably lucky to survive them without experiencing serious injury or lifelong trauma.

Consider the “10 Rules for Summer Safety” published by parents.com.  It cautions against overexposure to the sun, heat exhaustion, doing anything around water, wearing clothing with floral patterns that might attract stinging bees, poisonous plants, and bug bites, among other things to worry about.  Some experts (including, apparently, the U.S. EPA) are very concerned about sand, whether a child is digging in it, being buried in it, or even walking on it.  And don’t even think about letting your child walk around outside barefoot!

All of these cautions about potential death-dealing problems lurking outside on that sunny summer’s day are bad enough, but what’s really troubling about these “rules” for child safety is that they presuppose that the parents are right there, at all times, making sure that the kids don’t take off their shoes or touch creek water or walk on sand or risk brushing up against what might be a poisonous plant.  We seem to have totally lost the notion that kids might actually be able to fend for themselves, and that whatever problems might occur — skinned knees, bug bites, sun burns, and the like — were a small price to pay for letting kids get lots of fresh air, have fun, engage in creative, self-directed play, and establish a little independence with their neighborhood friends.

If you took these warnings seriously, you’d decide that the best course is to just keep your kids inside, where there are fewer dangers around every corner and they can be in your line of sight at all times, as they sit watching TV, or playing video games, or tapping away on a computer.  Could it be that the worries about outdoor play that the experts have raised, and the parental response to them, have contributed to the rise in asthma, obesity, and diabetes in children who never go outside and get any exercise, sunshine, or fresh air without being lathered with sunscreen and scrutinized by helicopter parents?

Who knows more about what kids are capable of — the skittish experts of our modern world, or those Moms of the ’60s who were perfectly willing to let their kids go out and play, unattended by adults, confident that the kids could take care of themselves.  I’ll trust the practical experience of the ’60s Moms over the experts any day.

Getting Down And Dirty

The New York Times carried an interesting article recently about how the “dirt cure” can make children healthier.  The theme of the article, which featured an interview with pediatric neurologist and author Dr. Maya Shetreat-Klein, is that children are better protected against illness and infection if they are routinely exposed to dirt — by eating natural, non-processed foods and by playing outside, with hands and knees on the soil.

2501c9ff68b8ed08549c745f9bddd4c0In the article, Dr. Shetreat-Klein relayed two fascinating things about dirt.  First, in one teaspoon of soil, there are more organisms than there are humans on our planet.  (That sounds impossible, but it’s one of those factoids that is often cited in articles about soil.) Second, soil is home to about 25 percent of Earth’s biodiversity — in the form of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, mites, microbes, and microarthropods.  There’s a lot going on below our feet that we never even think about.

Studies show that kids who play outside tend to be healthier, do better on standardized tests, have lower cortisol levels, which means they’re calmer and less stressed, and be more creative.  Dr. Shetreat-Klein thinks all of those attributes might be related to exposure to the teeming population underground.

I can’t speak to the science of it, but I suspect that Dr. Shetreat-Klein is right . . . and that there’s an additional reason for the results reported in those studies, which is that playing outside is just a lot of fun.  Of course kids who get away from their houses and play with their friends outside, explore a wooded area, build a dam in a stream, and turn over rocks just to see if there’s anything underneath are going to have stronger immune systems, because of what they’re exposed to, but they’re also going to be more curious, more self-reliant, and more willing to take risks because that’s what playing outside is all about.

Our mother used to groan when UJ and I came home with faces streaked with dust and shoes caked with mud, carrying caterpillars or crayfish or a captured garter snake or a big, weirdly shaped toadstool that we and our neighborhood friends found in the woods that encircled our houses, but I think it did us a lot of good in a lot of ways.