Book Review: Until The Streetlights Come On By Ginny Yurich – Before Excessive Restrictions On Kids Freedom To Play Outside When Outdoor Play Was Ubiquitous


Book Review: Until The Streetlights Come On By Ginny Yurich: Remembering Before Excessive Youth Restrictions, Outdoor Play As Primary Entertainment 


If you are an adult who grew up between the 1970s and 1990s, this book will bring back the many forgotten memories of your childhood.  If you were born after the 2000s or so, you will learn all about what you missed when you were growing up, since the trend across the country became focused on using devices rather than prioritizing time spent outdoors.  This is particularly so for those growing up cities, as opposed to more rural areas, but both environments have suffered in similar ways. 

Remembering when your parents used to tell you that you were due back home “When the streetlights come on.”  This was a time of freedom and outdoor play.  Unstructured time with our friends in the neighborhood.  A time when we could play in the open fields and lots of the community without someone always hovering over us.  A time before “helicopter parenting” was even a thing. 


All of this has been evolved out of our society in an unnatural and unnerving way, and our children and the next generations will likely suffer as a result in hitherto unknown ways.  Our children and the children of the generations immediately preceding those growing up today have missed out on something that we used to take for granted: the ability and freedom to play in the open spaces, without structure, without time.  Taking a walk around the neighborhood.  Climbing a tree on the neighbor’s property.  Playing with dump trucks in the dirt in front of our house.  All of these things have now been replaced, and the replacement is not equivalent…and may not even be beneficial.  


Enter Ginny Yurich, a mom from a generation for whom outdoor play was a reality, who began to see a deficiency in the way that kids are expected to be raised.  From the time they are little, they are shuttled to different places, almost as though they are expected to extract the most education and intelligence out of their childhood, but in reality, we have squeezed the childhood itself out of our kids’ lives.  


It is a very different thing to grow up constantly enthralled by screens, entertaining us with the latest TikTok video, the best Instagram feed, or the ultimate Facebook post.  Kids are lonelier than they have ever been, literally on par with how lonely the elderly have historically been after their kids have moved away and they are in a nursing home with no one to visit.  Children are lacking connection to other kids, other families, in an unstructured and mind-expanding way.  The childhood we grew up with is being ignored and supplanted, without much argument, by a new type of childhood.  As newer is not always better, this is causing our children to suffer in ways that are only now beginning to be understood.  Luckily, there are still some outdoor spaces, and it is not too late in that regard. 


One of the things that is beginning to emerge is that screen time, even such time spent watching nature videos or other apparently innocuous imagery, does not help children in the same way that spending time in nature does.  For example, it has been found that many of the apps and activities that kids can do on their tablets and on their cell phones do not help them to learn nearly as much as simple unstructured outdoor time does.  This seems counterintuitive, as there have been learning machines for decades that have claimed to make kids smarter and give them a head start.  As it turns out, now that the evidence is coming in for the benefits of outdoor play, these electronic devices cannot hold a candle to the learning enabled by time spent in nature.  


One of the most important aspects to remember when you are reading this book is that the key is unstructured time.  In our society, this is very hard for parents and other relatives to accept.  We are taught from a young age that we must be DOING something, that we must be productive and engaged in learning in order to have the best education, the best head start in life. 

The fact that research is showing that it is the unstructured, even surprising aspects of the natural world that bring the most enrichment to kids’ lives is completely different from what we would expect the evidence to show.  Evidence is emerging, much of it being recorded on Richard Louv’s website as well as other places, that children learn better when they are outside.  They learn better overall when they have a lot of time and space for outdoor play. This outdoor play gives them a kind of receptivity to being educated that time spent on devices simply does not.  Our society has essentially traded something that was helpful and useful for the illusion of the same.    

The same has emerged about shuttling kids to and from different places every day, like soccer practice, karate, and other sports, with each child usually participating in two or more extracurricular activities.  As has been mentioned in Richard Louv’s book, laws have come into effect around the country restricting the ability of kids to be without direct parental supervision and also disallowed from being outside in certain neighborhoods altogether.  In most cases, it is detrimental to children to be restricted in such a way, and also disallows them from spending time outside.

Something that the author articulates quite well is the amount of effort this actually takes, and the effort that it does not take at the same time.  For example, play dates.  The way they typically have been is more like a marathon than like play time.  The kids always have to be entertained.  The new play date that she proposes involves getting together with others, perhaps a neighbor or family in the area that also wants to explore the outdoors.  Then, overcoming that shyness, that feeling silly asking another family to hang out outdoors, you can break the ice and maybe make a new friend.   If it doesn’t work out, you can try again with someone else. 

The simplest start for this is to arrange a picnic, preferably a potluck type of picnic, where everyone brings something, and you can provide the blanket.  Often, it will other families in the neighborhood that you have become acquainted with.  Friendships will be formed in these types of simple settings that can last for years or decades, or they might be short lived.  The adventure of living in a simplified way, accepting whatever it is that life brings, is also important.  Teaching kids through modeling that it doesn’t have to be so hard is also important.  But the most important concept to grasp is that nature time, where screens are left behind and full engagement with the surroundings becomes possible, is critical in younger years.  


Kids who have unstructured play in nature are less lonely.  They learn from nature many things, including resilience, surrender, and adventurousness.  They have less depression; they are more easily taught concepts such as science, when immersion becomes possible.  When we forego screens, we gain much more than people realize.  Nature also confers resilience in other ways, along with different types of life skills.  Because of its unpredictability, when you or your children are outdoors, you must pay attention with all of your senses.  This becomes easy to do after only a very short amount of time, as it is an easy habit to form.  


Something else that she focuses on at some point is the importance of boredom.  Refrains in childhood of, “I’m bored!” are perfectly natural and acceptable.  It is what your children do with their boredom that is most critical, because boredom can be the key to finding adventure.  If you have taught them the value of outdoor play, they will quickly learn to entertain themselves.  And if not, it is OK to be bored.  As humans, we should not need to be entertained at all times, and this need is not real.  People can become addicted to screens in the same way that they can become addicted to anything else where a physical addiction is not involved.  Kids will, if given the opportunity, use their imagination and sense of adventure, and they will find something fun to do.  Maybe they will build a fort, or watch frogs in the local pond, etc.  These are all things that will expand their minds. 


She also delves into the importance of following the seasons, but also of getting outside as much as possible.  Living in Michigan, she and her family are no stranger to snow, but to them, snow is not an impediment.  Even if there is snow on the ground, they still find ways to go outside for some time every day.  Even when it is raining, it is possible to enjoy some time outside, but most people prefer when it is not wet out to go outside.  


One of the things that that author spoke about was unstructured beach trips.  Just like so many of us, she usually brings a beach bag full of beach toys to the beach.  Toys for making sandcastles and other fun designs in the sand.  But on one particular day, when it was pretty much the last beach day (and was after the official end of summer), they decided to go to the beach.  Their beach toys were not with them, and so they watched as their kids learned how to play in the sand without toys and gadgets to help them do so.  


One thing to remember, which the author understands, is that there is a time and place for everything.  For example, she wrote her book using a device with a screen, probably a desktop or laptop.  This article is being written on a screen device as well.  There is no way to escape the ubiquity of screens.  But, when they are not necessary, they can be put away.  We can do something creative outdoors, whether with our kids or with other loved ones. 


Growing up in a time before people started to become scared of strangers, particularly when those strangers started doing bad things to kids and others (such as Staten Island’s Andre Rand, or the Son of Sam in another part of New York City, or the Night Stalker who terrorized people in California), we were allowed to walk around our neighborhoods, play in the street, and walk to the store without too much concern.  Of course, we were taught not to talk to strangers, but there was not the high level of fear there is today.  


The next generation of kids needs a similar  kind of freedom.  However, nowadays there are some additional requirements.  Most of the activities for younger kids will be under the supervision of the parents.  Up until a certain age, depending on the state you live in, kids cannot be left without parental supervision.  For most families, this is not a hindrance.  The same benefits conferred on children are also gained by their parents.  These include reductions of stress, greater cognitive ability, and more resilience.  


Learning to be resilient is more important than anything else as our kids and we ourselves hurtle toward an uncertain future.  How many of the jobs that are around today will not be here when our kids who are presently in elementary school enter the workforce?  Many of the jobs that our parents’ generation worked at are not even around anymore.  Remember human telephone operators? How about lamplighters, milkmen, ice cutters, and video store employees (or video stores themselves)?  While many fields of work have remained, there are many jobs that have been replaced by something totally different, requiring a new set of skills, or they have disappeared entirely.  In order to thrive in the years ahead, our children will need resilience to change, adaptability, and new sets of skills.  All of these can be provided by spending time outdoors, as the newest research suggests.  


For those seeking ideas for activities to do outside, you can take a look at the inside covers of this book, Until the Streetlights Come On.  Here are some of the ideas from the front cover that families have submitted: “Exploring tide pools and driftwood.” “Exploring different zoos nationwide.” “Early evening headlamp ‘dark walks.’” And many, many more.  As one of her podcast guests, Magda Gerber, says, “Childhood is not a race to see how quickly a child can read, write, and count.  It is a small window of time to learn and develop at the pace that is right for each individual child. Earlier is not better.”  


This is a concept that the author goes into in great detail in the book: the concept that a child will learn, no matter what you do.  Children, generally, want to learn if given the right environment and interesting things to learn about and play with.  This is something that time outside has in abundance.  So, if this book helps you to understand one thing, it is that time spent in the natural world will give kids that head start parents are seeking and think they have found in electronic devices.  Devices are not a replacement for outdoor time, and our kids will be more resilient, better adjusted, and have better mental health if we give them that time for unstructured play that is so critical in their formative years. 


This book is highly recommended, and I would give it five stars. 

  Banner Image: Until the Streetlights Come On cover.  Image Credit – Ginny Yurich


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