In The Nature of Childhood, historian Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, professor and chair of the History Department at Iowa State University, explores how children’s connections to the natural world have dramatically changed since the Civil War. In mid-nineteenth-century rural America, children knew nature both through farm labor and through often unsupervised recreation. By the late twentieth century, however, children’s leisure time was overwhelmingly spent indoors. In the intervening century and a half, as the book illustrates, children have become considerably distanced from nature.
Acknowledging and building upon the work of pioneers in the field of children’s history, including Elliott West, Leslie Paris, and Howard Chudacoff, among others, the author successfully constructs “a narrative following the environmental history of American childhood from the end of the Civil War through the opening years of the twenty-first century” (p. 4). Providing a comprehensive historical overview that also includes first-person accounts, the book addresses how adult concepts of children’s recreation and children’s own efforts to create play spaces have often been at odds.
The author’s geographic focus is on the Midwest and Great Plains, with less focus on the Mountain West, the Far West, and the South. Eastern metropolitan areas such as New York City are also represented. The book makes extensive use of diaries and personal papers as well as published personal accounts of childhood experiences. It traces turn-of-the-twentieth-century debates regarding children’s environments while paying special attention to the opinions of urban and rural researchers, social reformers, spokespeople for boys and girls clubs, and landscape and park designers, among many others, to ascertain their perceptions of nature and the nation’s youth. Such an approach allows for a study that embraces geography, class, gender, race, and ethnicity.
The author stresses that up through World War II, children had [End Page 124] to “adapt themselves to a changing landscape” of recreation and that they largely did so in an unsupervised manner (p. 1). Subsequent chapters discuss the growth of home-based entertainments before and after World War II as well as continuing debates regarding the role of indoor and outdoor leisure activities in childhood development. All the while, children continued to establish their own places for play. Generations of children, for instance, played near Denver’s High Line Canal, despite official efforts to curtail such uses.
As Riney-Kehrberg notes, however, a transition occurred in the last decades of the twentieth century when such places were transformed “from preferred playground to adult-oriented recreational space, with little or no place for children” (p. 139). Additionally, home designs in the 1950s, in the form of “segregated indoor space,” were joined by increasingly home-based entertainments that led to a growing distance between children and the natural world around them (p. 162). Later chapters illustrate poignant cultural changes wrought in the last four decades. The work strives to explain why, by the 1980s, parks and other designated outdoor spaces remained underutilized, stemming from factors including the dramatic growth in computer-based game technologies to growing concerns about the dangers of unsupervised outdoor play.
The Nature of Childhood offers an effective historical overview of the environmental history of childhood since the Civil War. The dramatic changes in children’s recreation are the result of complex cultural forces. As the author points out, it is clear that children today have “far less familiarity with the landscapes within which they live” than previous generations (p. 193). As an environmental history, the book ably discusses the historical basis for this shift to indoor play and its repercussions. [End Page 125]
DALE POTTS is an assistant professor of history at South Dakota State University, where he teaches courses in environmental history, Native American history, and world history. He has published articles in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment and Studies in American Indian Literatures.