I have lots of memories of playing outside as a child without adult supervision. We built forts in the woods, walked to the creek, and played hide-and-go-seek until bedtime. All while our parents were inside making dinner or cleaning up dinner or watching TV. I honestly don't even know what they were doing. In a lot of these memories, I'm a bit older than my kids, but my younger siblings were always with me and I have one memory in particular I want to share.
I can't be sure of my exact age, but I know we moved from that house when I was 6. I know it was warm and my birthday's in the fall, so that makes me think I might have been 5. And that would make sense, because my mom was probably inside with my 3 year old brother and infant sister.
I decided to play cowgirl using my bike as the horse. And I would need boots and a hat, of course. I pulled some dress up clothes out of the playroom and went back outside to ride my bike wearing boots and a hat. The boots were way too big and I had a lot of trouble staying on the bike.
The yard was huge to me. I mean, it was like a field. I haven't been back to that house as an adult, so I have no idea how big it actually is. Our neighbor, who seemed miles away at the time, was sunbathing. I think she was a teenager, but I really can't be sure. Five year old memories do not translate well into adulthood.
So I tried and tried to ride the bike, but because the boots were so big my feet were never actually pushing on the pedals. The empty toes of the boots just bent up and applied no pressure to make the bike move forward. I fell over and over again.
Suddenly the neighbor was there beside me in her blue bikini.
"Are you having trouble?" she asked.
"I think your shoes are too big. Why don't you put your sneakers back on?" she suggested.
"But I'm a cowgirl." I replied.
"Well, how about when you're riding your horse you wear sneakers and change into the boots while your horse rests?"
I lit up at the idea. She helped me put my shoes back on, then walked back to her blanket and book. And I played cowgirl. Switching shoes each time I got on or off the horse. What a perfect idea.
For whatever reason, that memory is burned in my mind. When I think of playing as a child, it's always one that pops up. I have no idea how long I was outside without my mom. I have no idea what the neighbor's name was. But it seemed like she was my savior in that moment and it seemed like I was out there all day.
Fast forward to now. I don't like my kids to be out of my sight. I try to let them play on their own, but when it's not in the house, that's really hard for me to deal with. So I made a decision recently. I was going to force myself to allow them free play, on their own. If you've heard about the Silver Spring family that's been brought up on child neglect charges for allowing their 6 and 8 year-olds to play at a playground without adult supervision, you'll know the term Free Range Parenting. I'm not sure I'm as free range as some people, but I'm trying to be that, if just a little bit. I don't think my mom had a name for it.
I started letting Ainsley and Freddie go, by themselves, to the basketball court in our neighborhood. It's not far. They can be home in 2 minutes. I don't have to walk far before they can hear me call them. They know about strangers and never going anywhere with anyone unless we know. I quiz them on this before they leave the house. Every. Single. Time.
They don't get long. Maybe 30 minutes before someone is checking on them. So a couple of weeks ago, I walked down to check on them and they were playing with another girl in the neighborhood. They were building a tee pee. They had found huge sticks in the woods and dragged them onto the court. The situated them in the basketball hoop to create a structure. I was kind of amazed and I had to admit to myself that if I had been there with them, they never would have done that for a couple reasons...
1 - When I'm around, they expect me to entertain them. They want me to play with them. In the house they prefer to just watch TV than to play without me. And unfortunately, I'm the grown up so someone has to not play and make dinner.
2 - If I had been there, I would have nagged them to watch for dog poo, and not to play with sticks, and you can't use the hoop, and be careful in the woods.
Instead, they had been left to their own imaginations and own rules within the boundaries I had set. And at that moment, I was sold on the idea. I would need to push away my own fears and worries so that they could actually have these experiences.
There are rules. Freddie can not be by himself. He has to be with Ainsley. Ainsley is allowed to play outside by herself or with friends in 30 minute blocks. She has to stay where she tells us she's going and she's not allowed to go in any one's house. Even friends we know. When they are bike riding, Freddie has to stay on sidewalks unless a grown up is around. Ainsley has proven that she's very good about watching for cars, so she can ride in the street. We talk about strangers every single time they go out.
They've had so much fun with this. This is the first time, ever, that they've really spent time outside. We don't have a yard, so I've never just been able to let them play in the yard while I watch from the deck or the kitchen window. They're both covered with scraped knees and dirty feet. It reminds me of the way I played as a kid, without play dates, and bounce houses, and organized functions.
Here's the one big difference. The village is gone. That mentality that we should all look out for one another and bring each other up instead of pushing each other down. It's like what I ask my kids when they have to tell me something about someone else. I say "Are you telling me this because someone is going to get hurt or do you just want to see that person get in trouble?" We try and teach our kids not to tattle, but society has become one big game of tattling on one another.
That neighbor that came over to help me. I don't remember her ever talking to my mom. That doesn't mean it didn't happen...I was 5, what did I know? Yet she still watched out for me. She didn't call the police, she didn't knock on my mom's door and condemn her for her parenting choices. She saw a little kid having issues and she helped. Period. When I was a kid, my whole neighborhood watched out for me. Everyone on the street knew my family and if I fell or needed an adult, there were plenty around.
My kids won't have that and that's sad. I bet it was nice when you had a whole network of people to lean on if you needed it as a kid - or a parent. So instead, we'll teach them how to take care of themselves on these 30 minute excursions, and we'll teach them to watch out for one another and any other kid that's with them, and in the end I think they'll end up being better adults for it. Hopefully ones that don't tattle. Ones that know how to build a village.