Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 7:32 PM on Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Good advice for young, old: Let's get outdoors and play


Michael Armstrong

Recently while walking on the Homer Spit, I saw two boys climbing on the rocks by Mariner Park. My first impulse was to go into adult nanny mode and ask the kids just what the heck they were up to and did they know they could get hurt?

Then I looked around and saw a car nearby and figured, Hey, their mom was watching them, and they'd be all right. Besides, kids should have the right to be kids, to play on the beach, to run wild in nature with minimal adult supervision.

Heck, that's what I did as a boy.

In their book, "Time Bandit: Two Brothers, the Bering Sea and One of the World's Deadliest Jobs," Andy and Johnathan Hillstrand write about growing up in Homer in the 1960s. "The Spit was our babysitter," they said. Visit the Spit on any summer day, and you'll see dozens of kids riding their bikes, wetting a line at the fishing hole or doing what kids do well: hanging out.

In Homer and nationally, a movement has started, Children and Nature, to get kids outside and play. Here in Homer we have Nature Rocks. April is national Let's G.O. Month — "G.O" for "get outdoors." Let's G.O. Homer events include camping, beach walks and intergenerational activities. At 6:30 p.m. April 21 a film, "Play Again," shows at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center about this movement. For more information, see the Children and Nature website at http://www.childrenandnature.org.

I'm all for things like Nature Rocks, although I wonder why parents need inspiration and instruction manuals to figure out what we kids did naturally. Maybe kids have lost the art of play.

What kids need, I think, is a big back yard — and the permission to use it.

In my boyhood growing up in Tampa, Fla., I was lucky enough to have a big back yard. When I lived at the W.T. Edwards Tuberculosis Hospital where my dad worked as a doctor, we children living on the hospital grounds had the run of the fields around our houses. A chain link fence surrounding the entire 160 acres kept us from running into the Dale Mabry Highway. Every house had a big oak tree to climb. We had fields to fly kites and play ball and woods to explore.

On drizzly days I liked to stay inside playing Lego building blocks with my buddy Carl Spunde, but when the rain stopped, Mom would say what moms have been saying for centuries: "It's nice outside. You kids go outside and play."

When my family moved across town to Forest Hills, a suburb in north Tampa, I lucked out again. Fields and woods surrounded the entire subdivision. In 1966, the old golf course built by Babe Didrikson Zaharias had fallen into ruin. We loved it. My local posse, the Vallee Drive gang — Mike Morbach, Chris Miller, Chris Wheatley and George Dame — claimed the field behind our houses as our turf. We'd climb a stately oak tree and build marvelous tree forts. Sometimes George's dad mowed part of that field for us, and we'd play touch football.

As kids we had homework and stuff, so our days weren't free from care. Every afternoon after school, though, you could run amok for a bit, burning off energy bottled up sitting in a classroom. When I came home from school I'd rush inside, take off my school clothes, put on jeans and a T-shirt, and go outside and play.

Open space liberated us, we young Huck Finns. We didn't want to be inside under the supervision of our mothers. We wanted to be outside. There were understood rules. You didn't wander beyond the neighborhood without permission. We could play outside until dark, until the street lights came on — that was the signal. If a kid got called to dinner, he'd better be in hailing range.

Looking back, I'm amazed at what I got away with. If we wanted to go fishing in a lake up the road, that was OK. If we wanted to take an old inflatable raft and kick around in that lake, that was OK, too. I think. Boys lived by the principle that it was better to ask for forgiveness later than permission first.

Yeah, we got hurt. George cut his hand badly when he made an art farm in a glass jar and banged the jar too hard to stir up the ants. Chris Miller broke his collarbone in a spectacular bike crash. I got my nose broken when I tried to close a gate on a mean kid coming down the driveway on his bike. That's not counting the hundreds of scrapes, cuts and bruises a boy picks up in a life of adventure.

Eventually, the city bought the old golf course and rebuilt it as a modern, public golf course. Our old woods got tamed. Bulldozers came in and rearranged the greens. We'd grown up, too, become teenagers, with other interests — girls, sports and studying. The golf course closed at 5 p.m., though. On a hot summer night, when the sun didn't set until 8 p.m., we could sneak out on the greens, lie down on the freshly mowed grass and watch the stars come out.

I didn't realize it then, but a life growing up surrounded by woods prepared me for Alaska. The urge to roam and to explore has stayed with me. I now live in an even wilder place on Diamond Ridge, with trails all around me, forests to explore, wildlife to see and all the world in my backyard.

It's a world where my wife occasionally tells me, "Turn off the computer. It's too nice out. Let's get outdoors and play."

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael. armstrong@homernews.com.