01/03/2013 12:44 GMT | Updated 01/05/2013 06:12 BST

The Death of Childhood

Has a decline in outdoor play and the juggernaut of digitalisation damaged the institution of childhood?

A Brief History

William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience were written in 1789 and concern the two contrary states of the human soul. If childhood is John Milton's idea of paradise, then adulthood is the fall. The soul is corrupted by experience and innocence is replaced with inhibition and social convention. Before you curl your lip and click off-page, bear with me, I'm going somewhere with this.

Beautifully illustrated and astoundingly relevant, Blake offered a window into the lives of children of the 18th century and, much like Dickens observed a hundred years later, many of these children were not afforded the apparent luxury of a green and pleasant childhood.

Be that as it may, the modern understanding of childhood didn't actually exist until the end of the 19th century (fronted, for the most part, by Charles Dickens himself). Until then, children were treated like adults in miniature and were expected to earn their keep just like the rest. Although Jean-Jacques Rousseau - a contemporary of Blake - is widely recognised for identifying the institution of the child, the cultural shift of preservation was not to come until over 100 years later.

"Why rob these innocents of the joys which pass so quickly, of that precious gift which they cannot abuse? Why fill with bitterness the fleeting days of early childhood, days which will no more return for them than for you?" Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile: Or, On Education, 1762.

The Plight of Outdoor Play

Today, over 250 years after Rousseau's initial plea, childhood continues to be typified by social experience. Modern children are faced with a host of adult stumbling blocks, from the rapid decline of the environment to our equally rapid reliance on information technology. As urbanisation invades green spaces and parents are increasingly fearful of unsupervised play, children have to rely on technology for adventure. Whilst today's quality of life cannot be compared to the conditions of Blake or Dickens, digitalisation has replaced outdoor play - the songs of innocence that lead to experience - and this is the injustice.

Richard Louv, who wrote Last Child in the Woods and coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder, said in an interview "[T]he message we're sending kids is that nature is in the past and probably doesn't count anymore, the future's in electronics [and] the bogeyman lives in the woods..."

Although this reads like hyperbole, Louv's statement is rooted in truth. A 2013 study by the University of Westminster compared data from 1971, 1990 and 2010. It found that only 25 per cent of children are allowed "independent mobility" - a figure that stood at 86 per cent in 1971. Initially, this mightn't seem like a social crisis, and yet outdoor play and independence are linked implicitly to physical and mental wellbeing. If children do not have the freedom to discover their own environment, they are deprived of a connectedness with nature that has been integral to growing up in decades gone by.


At a time when we desperately need children to be environmentally educated, their understanding of biodiversity is being outsourced to digital media. To deprive them of the innocence of outdoor play is to jeopardise the fragile future of our environment. What will happen if we raise a generation of children who do not care about nature, who are so overstimulated by 24/7 rolling media that their imaginations are stifled and their memories are virtual? How can a child possibly hope to make sense of the world if their only contact with it is through a screen? When more children can identify a Dalek than an owl, it's time to reconsider our methods.

Having said that, there's already a glut of organisations that are working to reconnect children with nature. Kingswood is an outdoor education centre that, amongst other things, provides UK-wide environmental courses for children. Combining outdoor play with field work, they aim to "provide a valuable insight into the workings of the natural world." Similarly, Play England and the National Trust are campaigning extensively for free outdoor play and the Children and Nature Network has been established in a bid to connect like-minded parents and educators.

Given all of the above, it's clear that we need to unplug our children from the dark satanic mill of digitalisation and get soil between their toes. Their years of innocence are fleeting, and unless we want to raise a generation that is totally out of touch, now is the time to climb trees.