May 12, 2009

The decline of outdoor fun, and the graying of park-goers

We've already been over how Halloween is no longer a special night of unsupervised romping around for children, how toy stores offer little to boys who want to horse around and shoot things at stuff, and how video game arcades started vanishing around 1989. What other dangerous places are out there that helicopter parents would rather die than see their children spend time at? Parks!

As a kid, I never went to any neighborhood parks with my parents -- "Mommmm, get away from me!" -- unless it was far enough away that I needed them to drive me, such as Mirror Lake on the OSU campus or Griggs Reservoir on the Scioto River. Places cool enough that it was worth having to have your parents there. Otherwise, my friends and I would either walk or ride our bikes to the park and do whatever we wanted -- without our parents constantly swooping in every time we scraped an elbow or got our kite caught in a tree.

Not only that: we did this strange thing called "camping," where you spend the night outside in a park. It was usually for Cub Scouts, but we went on family camping trips too. For a quick fix, we'd just set the thing up in the backyard and sleep outside. (I have a vivid memory of when I was 3 or 4 years old and camping outside for the better part of the evening, unsupervised, while my parents were watching Knight Rider in peace for once.)

Ah, but today's parents know better -- going to parks without a chaperone is just asking for your kid to get murdered, and who has enough time in the day to go along with them? So going to parks for fun is out, and camping is definitely out -- you lose a day and a night of your schedule! But if the schools want to take them on a field trip, that's OK.

Indeed, that's just what national park data show. I pieced these graphs together from various editions of the Statistical Abstract of the United States, going as far back as there were comparable data. First, here is the per capita rate of overnight stays at national parks:

Camping became incredibly popular during the 1960s, and despite flagging somewhat in the early 1970s, picked up again for the rest of the decade. Throughout the 1980s, its popularity is a bit lower than before but still holding steady. Starting in the early-mid 1990s, though, camping rates decline steadily up through 2008. This is silly since there's never been a safer time to go camping, and with environmental regulations out the ass now, you figure the parks have never been cleaner.

Here's a similar graph for national park attendance for recreational vs. non-recreational purposes:

Here the decline in going to parks for fun starts in 1988 and hasn't recovered since. Starting in 1993, though, non-recreational visits increase logistically (or in an S-shape), as though a switch were turned on and we went from one state to another. I'm not sure exactly what "non-recreational" includes -- could be the schools trying to make up for their students' lack of fun by giving them field trips, could be convicts being put to work cleaning the place up, or something else. At any rate, fun is down while forced attendance is up.

As with the numerous other examples of young people's social spaces evaporating and leaving them with nothing fun to do, the major change in playing at parks and going camping seems to have been in the late '80s / early '90s. I can easily recall three pop culture examples of camping out from that time, but few from later on: the Simpsons episode where Homer gets the family lost in the woods during an RV camping trip, the episode of Saved by the Bell where they camp out in a sporting goods store in the mall in order to be the first in line for U2 tickets the next day, and that horrible movie Career Opportunities where babalicious Jennifer Connelly and some schmuck are trapped inside a Target store and they make out or do it in a tent.

Today no one would get what the characters are doing, since the poor bastards born after roughly 1987 -- the Millennials -- were the first generation (at least in awhile) to have helicopter parents all around them. You'd think that they'd be more grateful than any previous group to go off to college and roam around unsupervised. But from what I can tell here at a big state school, they aren't horsing around even now. Most are continuing the only thing they've known growing up: glued to the internet, TV, or video game system, and fumbling with their ipod or cell phone.

It's quite rare to see people outside enjoying the expanse of green grass, laying in the shade of a tree, or playing sports of any kind. And that's not just on campus -- the three most popular parks nearby also lack a young-people presence. It's mostly people 25 and over, typically 35 and over, who are jogging in a futile effort to lose weight (just eat less carbs), showing off their toy dogs to the other toy dog owners, plus the odd hippie Boomer staying in touch with Gaia.

Parks -- another space seized from young people by grown-ups.


  1. Another excellent and timely post.

    It is true that generally it is safe for kids to go camping. Also, many state parks allow kids age 9 and up to carry firearms so long as they have completed hunter ed. cert. I don't think a group of armed teens would be in too much danger from random psychos so long as they aren't drinking.

    When I was in middle school, the boys all went skeet shooting on weekends or out to someone's deer/duck lease to camp, shoot, fish and do their own cooking and whatever. Either dads or an older brother or cousin would go along to provide transportation, but they hardly saw them since the dads just hung out with each other and the boys ran off to do their own thing. A deer/duck lease is pretty big.

    Certainly a healthy break from mom.

  2. This post actually says a lot about us.

    Smaller families dont need the large outdoor cooking facilities and tables when they have get-togethers.

    Illegal aliens (in my area anyway) infest the parks around the two resivoir lakes here, which make many whites and blacks somewhat uncomfortable.

    Guys and gals run the treadmills at gyms instead of walk the trails in the park (perhaps some of that is fear from endless crime dramas on TV?)

    Less men fish and hunt.

    Frisbee golf isn't as popular as what it used to be.

    Public golf courses are seen as "plebian" by a lot of upper crust men who never play public courses anymore.

    Lots of gays were known to congregate and have anonymous sex in park-parking lots (they go a few feet into the woods) in the mid-ninties and early 00's, until the two counties in my area had a big undercover crackdown on it (netted a bunch of men who you wouldn't think.........whatever). That probably makes many squeamish about going to the park.

    The subtle fear of children being abducted (more TV-fear again), probably keeps some away.

    Churches now oft-have mini-park like facilities for their members.

    Many new subdivisions have community pools and play areas (severeal around here do).

    Parks with basketball courts seem to draw "dangerous-looking" young men, which might scare some people off also.

    It seems that the "Bowling alone" thesis gets more affirmation year-by-year does it not?

  3. Where do you live, agnostic?

    The Portland oregon area has parks that are full of people, both young and not so young. Hiking areas are full of people as well, both young and not-so-young.

    I hope your article about the decline of national park visitation is true, because my wife and I are planning to visit Yellowstone in late June (I have not been there since I was a child) and hopefully, it will not be too crowded.

  4. it's amazing how many people i know that have never been camping, not even real camping, but like, camping out of the back of their car with everything but a roof included.
    nevermind how many people have never been backpacking, kayaking, canoeing, etc.

  5. Guys and gals run the treadmills at gyms instead of walk the trails in the park (perhaps some of that is fear from endless crime dramas on TV?)I've tried running a few times at a nearby park, but I prefer the treadmill at the gym because it's easier on the joints. All that pounding on an asphalt surface takes a toll over time. In addition to being lower impact, the treadmill also has a TV monitor to keep things from getting too boring.

    Speaking of running, I remember years ago seeing people running on tracks at schools during evenings and weekends (this was before I started running myself). At least in my area, school tracks and other outdoor facilities are now strictly off-limits to outsiders even when the schools aren't in session, which of course is most of the time. This is a serious issue for runners because schools have just about the only softer-surface tracks around, the running courses in the public parks being asphalt.

    Agnostic: what's with the Ohio references? Aren't you from the DC area?


  6. I lived in Upper Arlington during elementary school, before moving to Maryland for middle school and after.

  7. I lived in Upper Arlington during elementary school, before moving to Maryland for middle school and after.Now I know where you are coming from. The pacific Northwest (where I live) and the mountain states (like Montana and Colorado) feature much more outdoor life style than the rest of the U.S. Our national, state, and county parks are full of people on weekends and the holidays.

    Ski places are full up and the Columbia gorge is full of wind and kite surfers. A derivative of kite surfing, called snow kiting, has appeared in the last 3 years and the agency in charge of national forest land wants to shut it down in the national forest (the best area for snow kiting is on national forest land) for reasons that are not clear to me.

    Traditional outdoor activities such as hunting are in decline, but fishing is as popular as ever (the Columbia gorge where I went hiking last Saturday was full of people fishing from boats) and outdoor sports are popular too.

  8. Traditional outdoor activities such as hunting are in declineI read something not long ago about the decline in hunting, and why it's unlikely to be reversed anytime soon. Hunting has long been the sort of interest that fathers pass on to their sons. Not too many people whose fathers didn't hunt will take it up on their own as adults. What this means is that if a whole generation of people turn away from hunting, as has happened to a considerable extent, the loss of interest is likely to affect future generations as well. In other words, interest in hunting can be seen as a generational chain, and breaking just one link has major consequences.


  9. Similar to the situation of fewer people, passing on knowledge of hunting, I know that the total number of languages is following the same pattern, and even children's games. As the older generation of speakers of some languages die, their language dies with them. As more children spend more time in age segregated institutions, they have fewer opportunities to learn games from older children. I am referring to those sorts of games that don't involve any specific equipment just kids, space and ideas.

  10. I would like to know more about the sample size and accuracy of those stats. Also, pop culture references as evidence of actual activity? Or were you just throwing those in as an aside concerning camping in popular culture?

    Still, you did not prove any connection between the decrease and "helicopter parents".

    Not only that but you seem to have forgotten another very likely cause that maps well to the stats provided, the internet.

    So maybe you should have included

  11. The data are accurate, as they're reported by the national park services themselves.

    You can figure out sample size by yourself -- I reported per capita rates, and the US population has been around 200 - 300 million for some time.

    Take between 0.04 and 0.08 of that -- the scale indicated on the first graph -- and you get raw counts on the order of 10 million. Same with recreational visits -- they're about the same order of magnitude as population, so the raw counts are around 200 million.

    You can't prove anything. Obviously helicopter parents are a big part.

    The internet was not common until the mid-1990s -- ditto for even home computers. The decline for overnight stays begins in the late 1970s, and the decline for recreational visits starts in 1988 -- effects cannot precede their causes.

    Do kids these days not know when the internet began to spread?

  12. Do those numbers take into account only public parkland? Not private parks or spacious backyards (and spacious woodlands of relatives)?

    I agree, you can "prove" nothing with these numbers. Yet you seem to put the blame almost entirely on helicopter parents. I don't doubt they area factor. Just like the short jump in violent crime in the 80s (over reported), increased urabanization and the rise of the suburbs, the popularity of video games, more child and adolescent centric television programming (like the rise of the saturday morning cartoon block), followed by the rise of the internet.

    I'm just saying, if you are going to lay the blame primarily on helicopter parents then you need to present evidence of causation and not just assertions of correlation.

  13. I went camping the last two weekends and I can tell you, it is as popular as ever. I do notice a lot more RV's and fewer tent campers (I use tents). However, the camping areas and national parts (Olympic National Park) was full of people this Memorial weekend.

    Nationwide, if outdoor activities are declining, its most likely due to the increased urbanization and sub-urbanization of the U.S.

    Another explanation is immigration. Although I see lots of Chinese and Indians when I visit the national parts, Steve Sailor pointed out some years back that Hispanics do not visit the parks at all and generally do not engage in outdoor activities. The same is generally true for blacks as well. Since these people are making up an increasing percentage of the U.S. population, this, no doubt, has an effect as well.


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