Lenore Skenazy, author of "Free-Range Kids," has proposed this upcoming Saturday as "Take Our Children to the Park...and Leave Them There Day." The idea is that we take our school-aged children to the park with other similarly-aged playmates and leave them there (with instructions not to leave with any strangers...duh) for a set period of time, whether half an hour or an entire morning. What a brilliant idea!
While I may not practice this exercise on Saturday, I am already giving my 6 and 8 year olds more freedom to roam, and anticipate giving them even more freedom when summer vacation begins next week (yes, next week!). For a couple of years, they have been free to run down the alleyway behind our home to the neighbor's home at the other end of the alleyway to see if their friends are available to play. And they have roamed and explored the backyards of the vacant home next door and the mostly vacant triplex on the other side of us for years, as well. (If this doesn't sound that daring, keep in mind that we live in an urban neighborhood with tons of cut-through car traffic, as in 3,000 cars drive past our home each day, and we're a short walk from the nearest subway station. For years, we have also had a homeless guy, "Jake," living in one of our neighborhood parks. Because of this car and pedestrian traffic, I have friends who won't let their children play in their backyard alone unless it is fully fenced.)
Last summer, in the kid/dog/mom paradise that is Monteagle Assembly, TN (speed limit 14), my then 7 year old was allowed to pretty much free-range the entire gated community during our three week stay. He would bike himself from my parents' cottage to morning "games" (think dodgeball, kickball, and capture the flag, with youth staff to coordinate and oversee) and bike himself home two hours later for lunch. He was allowed to bike around the neighborhood in the afternoons with his friends and cousin. And get this -- the neighborhood pool allows children ages 6 and up to swim without their parents in attendance at the pool as long as the child passes a basic swimming test! I didn't send my son to the pool unattended last summer, but I may consider it this year. Think of the confidence this age and neighborhood-appropriate freedom builds.
With the addition of a super energetic puppy to our family this past fall, I have had to leave the kids unattended at home and the park out of necessity. One of our wonderful neighborhood parks is particularly hilly, with a playground perched at the top of a hill, unofficial dog park below, and ponds and Japanese garden on the far end (a 3-5 minute walk from the playground). I have left the kids at the playground while I let the dog off leash down the hill and walked him to the pond end of the park for exercise and swim time.
There is another less-manicured park in our neighborhood called "The Dell." It is a linear, secluded park with grass on one side, a creek in the middle, and hilly trails on the other side. I routinely leave the kids playing in the creek or swinging on the rope swing while I walk the puppy on the trails above. If you cross a street from one end of "The Dell," you enter a third neighborhood park, with grassy area on one end and a playground and tennis courts at the opposite end. I can easily see myself leaving the kids on the playground this summer while I walk the puppy across the street and into The Dell for off-leash fun.
At home, I make a point to exercise the puppy twice while the kids are at school -- typically a long walk that includes off-leash time in a neighborhood park or a drive to a nearby nature preserve for hiking and swimming, right after the kids leave for school, and a less strenuous but still substantial walk after lunch. I need to walk the dog a third time in the late afternoon/early evening when the kids are home, and -- please don't flame me -- I typically walk him around our long hilly block while I leave the kids at home playing happily or watching tv. (Waiting 'til hubby gets home isn't an option since he either gets home close to 7 when we're sitting down to eat, or is traveling for work during the week.) I leave a key in the front door lock for the kids so they can let themselves out in case of emergency, and they know where my cell phone number is written down, and can dial it. I can do the walk in 10-12 minutes, or less time if I jog.
As I head out for yet another dog walk...
here's to giving our kids more of the freedom we enjoyed as kids!