Playing way to learn, create

Published 9:59 am Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Get this: Prisoners spend more time enjoying the outdoors than modern children.

That is the finding of a global survey commissioned by the “Dirt Is Good” Child Development Advisory Board in the U.K.

According to the survey, about 75 percent of children are spending less than an hour outside on an average day — and 10 percent of children do not play outside at all.

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I wish they could grow up the way I and millions of other kids did in the ‘70s.

Unlike modern kids, we didn’t sit inside air-conditioned homes playing video games and texting our pals.

We were out in the hills roaming, exploring and creating all day long. We collected discarded wood at new housing sites and built shacks. We dammed up the creek to go swimming and catch pet minnows and crayfish.

One summer, we built a motorized go-cart with scrap items from a junked riding mower, a piece of Formica and a handful of old two-by-fours. Despite having no brakes, it had plenty of power and was one of the great engineering feats in my neighborhood’s history.

As soon as the spring weather broke, we were on our bikes trying to rack up mileage on our speedometers. Our mothers allowed us to ride to South Park, as long as we kept within 5 miles of home — though we’d ride 20 miles or more until exhaustion finally set in.

Jumping our bikes off warped plywood platforms also was a favorite pastime. We took our bikes to the top of Marilynn Drive — a hill so steep it may as well have been a cliff — and pedaled like mad as we turned left on Janet Drive and hit until liftoff.

The typical bike jumper was covered with scrapes and bruises. When a kid went down especially hard, a mother in a station wagon would arrive, the moaning kid would be loaded in the back next to his bike and off he’d go to St. Clair Hospital for stitches or a cast.

Sure, we got into some occasional mischief, but nothing too bad. I sometimes plucked pears off a tree by Horning Road and whipped them at cars. Every now and then, a car would screech to a stop and an irate man would chase us. We’d duck into a 5-foot-wide creek conduit that sat 15 feet under the neighborhood.

You haven’t experienced adrenaline until you’ve run through a pitch-black creek drain while adult footsteps are splashing right behind you.

In any event, it turns out that the action-packed ‘70s childhood I experienced outdoors was very good for me because it unleashed all five senses.

“We don’t yet know why it happens, but when all five of a child’s senses come alive, a child is at an optimum state of learning, and creative and cognitive functioning go way up,” said journalist Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods.”

Louv said that the consequences of withdrawing a child from nature are not good. Kids lose their sense of being rooted in the world. They’re more likely to experience stress, hyperactivity, attention-deficit disorder and other modern maladies.

Sir Ken Robinson, a leading expert in education, creativity and human development and chairman of the Dirt is Good board, concurs.

“Academic research shows that active play is the natural and primary way that children learn,” he said in a board press release. “It is essential to their healthy growth and progress, particularly during periods of rapid brain development.”

Hey, spring has arrived. A little dirt could do all of us some good, but especially our kids.


Tom Purcell is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist and is nationally syndicated by Cagle Cartoons. Email Tom at