Play, Paranoia, and American Childhood in the Great Outdoors

Review of The Nature of Childhood: An Environmental History of Growing Up in America since 1865, by Pamela Riney-Kehrberg (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2014)

For this reviewer, who believes whole-heartedly that the best years in life fall between third grade and middle school, who currently spends much time going on picnics with a three-year-old son, and who tends to view the texting-‘liking’-gaming culture of the twenty-first century suspiciously, The Nature of Childhood: An Environmental History of Growing Up in America since 1865 proved a timely, refreshing, and even nostalgic read.

Through its pages, historian Pamela Riney-Kehrberg presents an important history of childhood, as well as a significant work for contemporary activism. The Nature of Childhood is a convincingly argued and passionately-written monograph that explains how outdoor-children turned gradually into indoor-children between 1865 and the present.

The Nature of Childhood begins its story a period of major historical transition, when the United States began to hurtle along a path of industrialization and urbanization that would transform a nation “born in the country” into a nation defined by its cities (1). Riney-Kehrberg’s central thesis is straightforward. Over the last 150 years, American “children’s focus has, for the most part, moved indoors, and away from the naturally occurring and constructed landscapes beyond their homes.” Not only did children move inside, but they also became “islanded,” “progressively separated from adult space, and moved into their own spaces, designed specifically for children” (5). As a result, children increasingly found themselves in bounded spaces—playgrounds, McDonald’s Play Places, backyards, and basements filled with televisions, computers, and Playstations.

Riney-Kehrberg describes how the grand country-to-city transition in American society was partially responsible for this sheltering of childhood. However, she also shows how children often (especially in the first half of the twentieth century) resisted this push, seizing their own outdoor play places despite pressure to do otherwise. Riney-Kehrberg does not blame urbanization, industrialization, population growth, or technological change for “islanding” our kids. What moved children indoors was the fear that these processes produced in American parents. The Nature of Childhood is a story about play and paranoia in modern America.

Riney-Kehrberg presents a loosely chronological narrative of American childhood in seven chapters, and she focuses on children growing up in the Midwest and Great Plains. Chapter One describes how rural children lived “premodern” lives close to “nature.” Chapter Two shows how urban children transformed alleys and polluted rivers into play areas. This chapter also examines the rise of the playground as the first adult-sanctioned safe haven for children (64). Chapter Three explores how summer camps, scouting, and nature education proliferated in the early twentieth century for children who were increasingly losing their outdoor stomping grounds. Chapter Four continues with the topic of the previous chapter, examining the “tug-of-war between the lure of the indoors and adult desires to get children outdoors” in the mid-twentieth century (8). Instead of outdoor camps, though, this chapter introduces Smokey Bear, Ranger Rick, Woodsy Owl, and Bambi as tools for nature education. In Chapter Five, Riney-Kehrberg takes the reader to her own childhood “playground”—Denver’s High Line Canal. Through this case study, the reader will see that between 1950 and 1970 resilient children combatted the pressure to move indoors by finding creative ways to utilize built environments. By the late twentieth century, though, as Chapter Six demonstrates, “[t]he day of the free-roaming child, exploring urban, suburban or wild space seemed to be over” (9). Children succumbed to televisions and shopping malls, and parents succumbed to the fear that their children were no longer safe outside. In the 1990s, some “voices in the wilderness,” so to speak, reacted against the sheltering of childhood. Chapter Seven amplifies these voices and should itself be read as a call-for-action for parents.

Riney-Kehrberg not only uses a wide-range of newspapers, periodicals, television programs, films, websites, and published works to tell her story, but she also draws extensively from manuscripts found in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, Colorado, and Nebraska archives. One of Riney-Kehrberg’s strengths is her ability to uncover the voices of children in her sources. Indeed, the first chapters showcase this ability, as children themselves advance her argument. Filled with vivid stories of children playing around horse carcasses, swimming in sewage, hostelling in southern Wisconsin, and adventuring in high-rise elevators, The Nature of Childhood shows (and not just “tells”) how children, wherever they were in modern America, “made use of whatever spaces they had” (51).

The book is at its best when Riney-Kehrberg allows children to speak. The book is less good when focusing on the adult fears that kept children inside. Riney-Kehrberg laments the rise of parental fear, and she seems to suggest several times that this paranoia was (and is) largely unfounded. Nonetheless, she spends too little time developing this component of her argument. Fear is a prominent theme in historiographical debates concerning the United States after World War Two. Fear is also a significant topic in cultural studies, sociology, and psychology. For the historian of modern America, a nuanced discussion of parental fear would have situated parents and children more squarely in American history. For the activist, a more nuanced discussion of parental fear could have led to more productive discussions about how to fix the problem—about how to get children outside before we truly become a society that is, in Sherry Turkle’s words, “alone together.”

As an environmental history, The Nature of Childhood also falls a little flat, using concepts like “environment” and “nature” simplistically to signify either “beyond the house” or the “great outdoors.” She could have made much more of both children’s ever-changing relationships with their ever-changing environmental contexts and of children’s role in shaping ideas about Nature writ large. Despite these weaknesses, The Nature of Childhood is a passionately-written and thought-provoking introduction to a topic that deserves far more attention by historians.