A friend recently pointed out how rare it is to see children playing outside these days. The two of us grew up when driveway basketball or a game of touch football in the front yard were common in rural communities.

On weekends, families played softball together or gathered a croquet set from the garage and got everyone involved, from grandpa to the youngster next door. Outdoor recreation was part competition and part communal gathering.

The elementary school in my neighborhood had an outdoor basketball court where you could easily get up a half-court game of two-on-two or three-on-three. We played games of 21 and, later, discovered combat 21, which was an entirely different experience. Games of H-O-R-S-E were common, providing a way to hone our shooting skills.

We pretended to be Pistol Pete Maravich, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, or some other star from the 1970s. David Thompson, the N.C. State mega-star and arguably the greatest player ever in the Atlantic Coast Conference, became a favorite in neighborhoods across North Carolina, as did UNC star Phil Ford. 

You didn’t have to be an outstanding athlete to get involved in a game of pickup basketball or touch football, as no special skills were required to fill out our make-shift rosters. Many did it simply because their buddies were playing. Even the youngsters with little interest in sports would show up and play. All they had to do was stay alert (just in case someone did throw the ball their way) or to get between the player they were assigned to guard and the basket.

Yes, there was a proverbial “pecking order”—based on skillset usually, although age and other attributes were factored in, though not consciously. We were young males, so fearlessness and toughness were respected. No apologies given for that.

When we weren’t playing ball, we roamed the woods and built tree houses and trails. We camped outside often during warm months. 

I mention these things because, I’ve noticed, my friend was right. You really don’t see children playing outside as much nowadays.

We’ve lost something deeper than that, however.

An empty yard serves as a metaphor for society in some ways. We’ve become a culture of navel gazers, fixated on self and the self-indulgent pursuits that run counter to the interactions that previously were taken for granted. Video games and social media have replaced outdoor recreation. The grass looks great but the attributes that previously trampled the yard are missing.

Young people are still participating in sports, but we’re now overrun with organized leagues and travel teams that occupy the time of parents and young people alike, 12 months a year. We’ve become obsessed with goals that are unreasonable and unattainable. Many parents who sign their child up for this or that travel team are convinced a college scholarship is awaiting their young prodigy.

Who are the losers in this? The young people who are disillusioned by unreasonable expectations. The parents who are simply disillusioned, whether by unreasonable evaluations of their young athletes or by a system they expect will supply their needs. Or both.

The real losers may be the aforementioned young people who may not have been the best athletes in the neighborhood but whose self-esteem was boosted simply because he or she was part of something constructive. They had a role, and they developed an understanding of their shortcomings. Where they stood on the playground had no impact on what they became, other than to instill in them a sense of teamwork and self-worth. The ones at age 12 who thought they were headed to the NBA were the ones who were in for a real surprise. But they, too, overcame.

Some of the playground stars from my youth became solid, productive blue-collar workers. Some became CPAs or successful entrepreneurs. Same for the ones who were fill-ins, the last chosen in our impromptu games.

The point is that we’ve stopped being a society with a structure and a value system that fosters the growth, competitiveness and character building that made us all a part of something larger. Instead, we’ve become a society of political correctness where the lessons taught in a game of driveway basketball or touch football are taboo.

Terms such as “toxic masculinity” or “safe spaces” or “triggering” have infected our collective psyche. We’ve become soft. We’ve become whiney and short-sighted, occupied with all the wrong things, it seems. The things that set us apart from one another have now become the things that define us as individuals.

A cynic might suggest that shallow self-indulgence has come to define an entire generation, one so wrapped up in its own bubble of existence that we’ve lost something of value, something to build our future on—our foundation. It’s too easy, though, to judge a portion of the population by the foolish actions of the few or the inaction of the many. Time will ultimately define each generation.

Indeed, each generation looks at younger generations and sees a general decline in society. That’s part of the cycle, I imagine. It’s usually not as bad as it seems from one generation to the next.

One has to wonder, however, where we are headed. Where do go as a country, as a culture. It’s about more than children playing outside.

Or is it?

 Larry Cothren is a former newspaper and magazine editor who currently teaches marketing at the high school level.

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