On autumn afternoons in the late 1980s, my mother knew better than to keep me indoors. When the school day was over, I could strap my tape deck to the handlebars of my BMX bike, cheer on some Pink Floyd, and cruise the streets of suburban Cleveland, mingling with the usual horde of neighborhood kids. We would lift piles of leaves with our bicycles to destroy them; we dug ditches in the mud, stabbed dead squirrels with sticks and jumped from trees; and we’d sprain our fingers and bleed our knees. Neither of our parents knew where we were.
Well, on some level they did. We were outside: our eternal refuge when our elders literally threw us out the door. It hardly mattered where we went from there. Wherever it was and whatever we were going to do, it would be formative and tiring enough to make us bearable for dinner. As a father, I now have the insight to suspect that my unleashing was both parental wisdom and devotion, but the rewards have never been less than wholesome. My independence grew outdoors.
I had no conception of my nature as anything other than universal. Growing up in a financially secure white family, in a remote area where “crime” meant a poorly manicured lawn, I was privileged to have a wondrous nature untroubled by other opportunities. A few miles away, in Cleveland, my 9- and 10-year-olds may have dreaded the outdoors in a city that then averaged 180 homicides a year and where “outdoor living” for too many comes with hunger was and poverty.
Remarkably, the word “outside” has always meant injustice. Codified in the early 17th century, ‘leisure aid’ promised homeless or struggling Britons food and clothing beyond the confines of institutions such as orphanages and workhouses. Our romantic notion of “outdoors” only emerged in the 18th century during industrial expansion, as coal-spitting cities sprawled and railroads swallowed forests.
Decades later, in the era of William Wordsworth and Henry David Thoreau, when nostalgia for vanishing nature became fashionable, the word took on its modern connotation as a haven for wild imaginations. But even then, it never lost its connection to economic and social vulnerability.
In its full representation, then, ‘outside’ conveys something more than ‘outside’: something greater, even ‘magnificent’, but also something more frightening and revealing. This is where you find or lose yourself; a place of opportunity and reward, but also of hunt and risk.
“Inside” itself seems to be a limiting term, almost always functioning as an adjective (a “house cat”), while “outside” has the bulk of a noun.
My son is the same age as I am in these knee-wracking days, and while I would have happily allowed him to meet up with neighborhood kids at the soccer field, his favorite after-school destination is online, where his friends are waiting for him in Minecraft land. I try not to fight back too much for fear of clouding nature with my uncool dad energy.
And so I try to persuade myself that the internet is a viable alternative to nature, with similar benefits.
I’m skeptical about the metaverse, but for my planned son, the internet offers a way out: a lofty realm where memes and YouTube videos sprout like blades of grass. There are risks, even online predators, and I moderate and mentor appropriately, but he’s also learning to manage that responsibility himself.
The Internet, like nature, is entangled in inequality as it is a privilege of access and leisure. And while it’s unlikely my son will break a bone fighting the ender dragon, he’s certainly suffered his fair share of psychological wounds from failing to work with his friends. In the age of cyberbullying, insults in Minecraft spill over into the practical world.
But who am I kidding? I embrace point and click parenting because it’s easy. At least for now, the internet can’t demand the kind of physical improvisation that’s being developed out there. And even if digital world-making has blurred the line between nature and culture, as in Minecraft, there’s still no virtualization of nature’s sensations — flushed cheeks and the smell of fall leaves — or its demands for risk negotiation that can. t be stopped for a snack break.
I know there are compromises, like downloadable apps that can teach kids about nature: apps that can identify birdsong or locate a constellation. Admirable work has been done on this front, but in my experience, being outdoors only diminishes the joys of nature and screen time. Compromise is not the answer here.
My son has passed the point of early intervention, but I know what to do. If he’s not attracted to the fall foliage, I have to work hard to make him enjoy it. As bizarre as it sounds, I might need to learn about imitating “Minecraft” outdoors in order to imitate it outdoors, without screens, amid real bricks and rocks.
No doubt he’ll roll his eyes at that conceit, at least initially, but I’ll prevail. In the worst case, I’m not above disconnecting the WiFi.
Noah Comet is a professor at the US Naval Academy, a Maryland-certified naturalist, and a natural history and wildlife writer.
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