Turning the Outdoors Into a Playground

Far from Mario Bros. and Minecraft, the real gaming begins

May 14, 2013
Outside Magazine
Henry (left) and Owen Doerr in

Henry (left) and Owen Doerr in Idaho    Photo: Anthony Doerr

July in Idaho, and my eight-year-old twin sons and I are sleeping in a yurt in the middle of Boise National Forest. We are—I’m guessing—100 miles from home, 30 miles out of cell-phone range, and ten miles from the nearest human. It is deeply, amazingly, unsettlingly quiet here. The hour before dawn comes on so still, so windless, that the sound of my heartbeat, shifting hairs in my inner ear, keeps waking me up.

Many environmental scientists write about scarcity. We’re running out of silence, amphibians, genetic diversity, fresh water. Yet one of the largest challenges my children face is too much access to too much stuff. Together my sons own approximately 47 trillion Legos; they play organized football and soccer and go to lacrosse camp; they have Mario Bros., Minecraft, Netflix, Monopoly; and their iPads allow them to do most of these things—build Legos, kick a soccer ball—virtually. Out here at the yurt we have two books, a package of Oreos, and some beef jerky. But rather than get bored, my boys seem only to get happier with every hour. They collect “Gandalf sticks” and yell “You shall not pass!” They ask, “If we catch a chipmunk, can we keep it?”

When the sun finally heaves up above the ridge to our east, we take our Batman fishing poles and go tramping down to the Crooked River, a gorgeous creek with deep trout-filled holes every half-mile or so. Before noon I help my son Henry release his fourth trout: spotted and brilliant and jackknifing in his palms as he lowers it into the water. “Thank you for letting me catch you,” he says. I am reminded: the world is always there, if I can only remember to take them out into it.

Anthony Doerr is the author of Memory Wall, a book of short stories. His second novel, All the Light We Cannot See, will be released in 2014.