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Why play marbles when there's Xbox?

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BRISBANE -- Computer games are exhilarating, absorbing and possibly addictive, but if you were an intelligent eight-year-old, would you eschew Super Nintendo's Star Fox for a yo-yo?

It's a question parents across the western world might ask themselves as they indulge in periodic bouts of angst about today's kids being robbed of a "classical" outdoor childhood.

The latest round of nail-biting in Australia was sparked by a visit from New York author Lenore Skenazy.

Skenazy, who has coined the term "free range kids,'' is not so much about banning computer games as encouraging kids to get outside and take physical risks such as climbing trees -- an activity that has lost its allure since the advent of Gameboy.

To many parents, the villain is no longer the television set but the computer game, which serves as a modern-day Pied Piper, luring kids from childhood's sun-dappled fields into the darkness of the virtual Xbox world.

There's nothing new in this -- French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau was banging on about the need to get kids into the fresh air in his book Emile three centuries ago.

And every generation bores the next with tedious and often confected reminisces of daring, fresh-aired childhood adventures that left Enid Blyton's Famous Five resembling a bunch of stay-at-home pansies.

Parents routinely tell libellous fabrications to their offspring but the generation now in middle age can rightly claim with unchallengeable authority: "Things were different in my day."

Those of us born in 1970, for example, may still harbour bitter regrets that Sony was putting the finishing touches to Playstation just as we exited childhood.

From that technological marvel, the array of kids' entertainments has blossomed to the point where a six-year-old effortlessly commands 1,000 times the computer power that put Armstrong on the moon.

And who among us, if transported back to childhood, would squat contentedly in the dirt with our little satchel of marbles rather than confront the dark realms of Pokemon Mystery Dungeon?

Those who advocate tree climbing don't get it. We only climbed trees because of a lack of alternative entertainments.

Why endure the tedium of a hot Saturday afternoon fiddling with a rusted, unreliable go-kart when one can recline in the air-conditioned confines of one's bedroom playing Indianapolis 500?

Why confront the frustrating task of creating a sling shot out of discarded lumber and rubber bands when the Angry Birds app provides a reliable structure, complete with a field of pigs as targets?

Cowboys and Indians? Try Rome: Total War. It's a more sophisticated depiction of violent combat, less physically draining and can be played while sipping a chilled glass of, say, Pepsi.

Where is the hard data to back this curious belief that outdoor activity builds self-esteem in the young?

As a veteran of a rural childhood, I have abundant first-hand field evidence that exposure to the natural world can spark anxiety and feelings of inadequacy in a small child.

Climb a tree and you will fall and injure yourself, hunt for guava and you risk the fatal bite of a taipan snake, build a canoe from rusty corrugated iron and you'll surely be cut to pieces by those jagged edges and contract tetanus, before drowning in a flooded creek.

More fervent advocates of a classical childhood insist boys learn marksmanship and the manly arts of the hunt to build character and self-reliance.

And, upon reflection, it is true my one outdoor boyhood adventure that produced a fleeting surge of self-confidence involved a firearm.

Stealing an older brother's air rifle to spend an afternoon massacring native fauna sparked in me a joy I've rarely experienced in my adult years.

A sin to kill a mocking bird? I killed a tree load of Kookaburra but, sadly, suffered a fierce parental backlash, which only reinforced a natural inclination toward diffidence and timidity.

If I'd spent that day indoors playing God of War II, I may have grown into a more self-assured adult, and those unfortunate avians could have chirped on.

The past is another country and often a less pleasant one. Maybe we just envy these kids their computers and their 21st-century childhoods.

Michael Madigan is the Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 1, 2012 A12

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