Accidental Activist

The Road to Boredom

Our kids today, and many parents too, have never known a childhood that includes playing on the street.

By Ben Bull
Published September 20, 2006

In a recent episode of The Sopranos, Tony Soprano is sitting in his Psychiatrists office, reflecting on his near death experience and contemplating his on-going battle with boredom.

"I treat every day as a gift," he tells her, "but does it always have to be socks?"

Boredom has been my nemesis ever since I was a kid. As a youngster growing up with three older sisters and a younger brother, I would do almost anything to get a reaction.

When I was nine, I pulled the chair out from under my brother, who just happened to be standing on it at the time. He broke his tailbone in the ensuing fall and couldn't sit down for a week.

Despite my omnipresent boredom, my early childhood experiences were full of exciting adventures. Most of them were played out on the streets of my childhood home. I forget how many times I came home after dark, dirty, exhausted, bloodied - and content.

We don't get that anymore, do we? It seems that in the 30 years or so since I was biting ankles and breaking tailbones, our kids have all become tethered to their tellys, coerced into the comfort of their own homes ? stolen from the street.

If you, like me, are anything over 30 you will probably recall trotting down the road, knocking on your friend's front door and asking that immortal question: "Wanna play?"

Why don't our kids play outdoors anymore? What has changed in 30 years to make us so uptight about our little charges?

First, let me clarify this observation. It's true that some kids still play on the street. I'm quite certain that if you drive around Hamilton or Toronto long enough, you will find the odd waif or stray bouncing a ball around a sub-division cul-de-sac somewhere.

You'll also find their parents in close attendance, and you can be sure they'll know exactly where they are. Our kiddy comfort zone is definitely shrinking.

So, what's changed?

As usual, I have a theory. I believe there are two main reasons our kids don't go out alone anymore:

  1. Pedophiles - In 2006, we are accustomed to the perception that our kids are in imminent danger of being kidnapped every time they run around the corner without an escort.

    Is this true? Probably not. In fact, I have heard no evidence to suggest that pedophilia is any worse today than it was 30 years ago. But the perception exists, and thus, so does our reality.

  2. Cars - The threat from cars is undoubtedly real. First, there are many more of them; second, they are driven with less care and attention than ever before.

    Whenever I encountered a car on my childhood streets I would invariably get a happy honk and a friendly wave as I moved out of the way. Residential streets were treated with caution because a driver knew there was just about a 100 percent chance they would encounter a wayward child along the way. Caution was the key.

    These days, with such "distractions" out of the equation, residential streets are traversed like any other - as quickly as possible. So it is that with more cars, and faster cars, and less attentive drivers we have a very real and present danger to our offspring.

So if this is how we got here, then how do we go back?

That's a tougher question. For myself, I try to give my kids room to roam. I sit with them outdoors whenever I have the time.

Another thing we can all do (again) is insist on better street design. There's nothing like a dead end street to bring a bit of youthful exuberance to the tarmac, and back laneways with parking can do wonders for easing the traffic flow.

Beyond this I don't really know, and deep down I worry our streets will never again know the wonderful sounds of kids at play.

My greatest fear is that our kids today, and many parents too, have never known a childhood like mine. In the same way that we struggle to "sell" vibrant neighbourhoods to generations of suburbanites, it's hard to want what you never had.

My eight-year-old boy, Jack, keeps bugging me for a GameCube. His reason?

"I'm bored."

As I hurry him home from school, lock the front door and warn him once again to stay inside, it makes me sad to know that he's right.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.

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By I would also add (anonymous) | Posted September 20, 2006 at 10:58:46

You should also add the attitude people get when they see groups of kids roaming around, if kids played as I did as a kid, their would be whinig about gangs and vandalism all over the neighbourhood. Not that we did any of this but we congregated in a rather large group and roamed widely. Thanks to tv, all people (kids included) is that if you are going to gather you are either some kind of gang or you are gathering to "party". The more innocent passtime of play has disappeared.

I would also add featureless neighbourhoods where every open space is a parking lot, leaves little room for any real adventures anymore even the simple park is endangered.

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted September 20, 2006 at 11:16:35

Good points. On one occasion, just after we moved to our new neighbourhood in TO, my kids were running around outside. I was watching them from my deck which is not visible from the street. My neighbour came over a few days later to tell me that my kids were, 'making her nervous' and that we, 'really should be watching them...'

You point about featureless neighbourhoods is also well taken. I recall chatting with a friend of mine who grew up playing on what is now the 403 in Burlington. He complained that there are 'no dead spaces' anymore. He explained that as a kid he was always attracted to woods and other little nooks that had no distinct purpose. 'Nowadays' he explained 'every space is designated for something - there's no adventure to be had'

He's absolutely right - you both are. As a kid today I would go out on the street and do what...?

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 20, 2006 at 12:18:49

....get run over by a car if you live in Hamilton.

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By david wootton (anonymous) | Posted October 02, 2006 at 23:57:04

All the more reason to plan our cities so that they SPRAWL. Streets should be much narrower and every home should have lots of space around it so that boys at least, can play as I did 60 years ago - in the creek, damming it up and making fires, on the farmer's field building underground forts and pulling up his carrots to make mud roads for my dinky toys, and in the woods across the road slashing out trails using my machete and trapping rabbits. Often, there should be junk yards where kids can build something with used materials. I built a four bedroom cabin in the middle of a swamp using "borrowed" material from a construction firm's storage yard. Hamilton should sprawl south all the way to Lake Erie. The soil is very poor and a house on it would only be an environmental asset since the owners would be spending time and money to landscape it, planting lots of trees that don't exist there now. On my own half-acre, I have planted 100 trees and my lot is ALL garden.
In conclusion, Canadian cities with their sterile parks are no place for kids to play. A further disaster looms if the Ontario Government has its way in propagandizing people not to desire the family home but to live and raise their families in condos and row houses in order to save precious space in this, the second largest country in the world ! As a boy, I would want to have committed suicide in any of these places !!!

David Wootton - childhood was the best and most creative time of my life - I benefit from it to this very day.

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By jason (registered) | Posted October 03, 2006 at 22:15:14

I love the description of your childhood. However, I fail to see how sprawl would enable other kids to enjoy a similar existence...read this again:

in the creek, damming it up and making fires, on the farmer's field building underground forts and pulling up his carrots to make mud roads for my dinky toys, and in the woods across the road slashing out trails using my machete and trapping rabbits. Often, there should be junk yards where kids can build something with used materials. I built a four bedroom cabin in the middle of a swamp using "borrowed" material from a construction firm's storage yard.

kids growing up in the middle of Hamilton Mountain or other sprawl areas have no opportunity to partake in any of these activities. I live downtown near Victoria Park and Dundurn Park....my kids and I could do everything you describe within a 5 minute walk of our home. We can also canoe, fish, ski, and do many other things within a short jaunt of our home. Imagine if all of Hamilton's waterfront land, local industrial areas and quirky little valleys, ravines and cliffs were paved over with sprawl?

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