As a child I was given freedom to dream, create, and play by myself. Whether the space was granted because my parents understood the importance of unstructured outdoor play or just needed me to occupy myself, I appreciated it. Come to that, I’m sure it was a conscious decision on their part. Both of my parents were allowed to explore without hindrance or restriction as kids, so they must have wanted the same for me.
One of my dad’s best memories of childhood is riding his bike to school in the first grade, even crossing a busy four-way intersection on the journey. Go back another generation and the independence extends even further. My grandmother recalls building a hut with her siblings in a vacant lot across the street from her house in Miami; her parents let her spend the night in it (!!) without a care of scorpions or fire ants, not to mention the strangers who might have lurked about.
Writing about that rusty trampoline got me thinking about my own other childhood exploits and adventures. One place I recall with fondness is a playground that was located near my dad’s old house in Marietta, Georgia. For the most part, it wasn’t the playground itself that captured my attention. Sure, there was a little merry-go-round, but we tended to use it for our own unstructured game of “flying monkeys,” which involved us seeing who could jump the farthest off it while it spun.
How to play FLYING MONKEYS:
1. Squat in the middle of a 1980s-era merry-go-round about the size of one of those Jazzercise trampolines.
2. Have your partners turn the merry-go-round as fast as they can.
3. When they yell “GO!,” you, the squatter, will attempt to stand. Fight the centripetal force pulling you back down to the center.
4. As you reach the edge, centrifugal force will step in and hurl you haphazardly off.
5. Dodge the metal animals that were meant to be sat upon and jump off the edge as far as you can go.
If I’ve described it well, it sounds as impossible as it was. Most times we would either fall right away or attempt to jump and end up splayed off it half way and need the spinners to perform an emergency stop. Regardless of the outcome, our end result would be to collapse in a heap of giggles.
After flying monkeys, we’d turn our attention to the surrounding wild. Unfortunately, the woods had been taken over by an impenetrable maze of kudzu vines and poison ivy right up to the edge where the mower clipped them. Somehow the creek had been spared that sad fate, so we’d march happily down to the water, where our real adventures began.
Sometimes we’d take the clay from the shore and make shapes. Eventually our works of art would harden into replicas of sandy red pea gravel at best or dried-up dog turds at worst. But at the time, we felt we were sculpting something good. We’d jump from bank to bank and wade in the cool, calf-deep water. When we tired of failing to catch water spiders, we would wander through the culvert to the shady unknown on the other side.
The excitement and trepidation of stepping foot into the slimy tube is one I will not soon forget. I would relive it all—the fear, the peer pressure, the anticipation, and the exhilaration—in a heartbeat. I remember how much colder it felt to go from the blazing Georgia sun into the depths of the dank, goose-pimply tunnel. My toes hugged the metal rungs as I tiptoed through; it seemed like forever until we would come out on the other side. I am certain we reverse-jockeyed for position on who would have to go first.
Once through the culvert, we fed off the energy of having survived the gauntlet by exploring the stream further. I have no memory of what lied beyond the culvert; the thrill of adventure was the only reward I required. Looking back, I can’t remember my dad ever checking up on us. I am particularly impressed with, and grateful for, his ability to let us go off on our own. I guess he figured we couldn’t get into that much trouble in our own neighborhood. It wasn’t like we were setting off on a 5-mile walk into the woods or anything, but it felt dangerous enough to me as a 10-year-old.
I hope I can manage to raise free-range kids, giving them the same space and trust I was afforded. In that vein, this summer I returned to my childhood summer camp–for the second year running–for my kids to attend and for me to be a counselor again. In the eight years between my stints as camp counselor, the mood has shifted ever so slightly toward helicoptering, even at camp. Kids are expected to report their exact location during any period of time labeled “free,” thus removing the sense of freedom from the equation.
I don’t blame camp administration for this change; they’re good friends and the same folks I’ve known for 15 years or more. I expect they must have endured plenty of parent complaints to have made the shift, since there weren’t any accidents that I’m aware of. Parents today simply expect they can keep tabs on their children 24/7, even while the kids are at camp. I understand the occasional need for an orthodontist appointment or an early trip to the beach, but why not schedule an extra thirty-minute window while the camp gathers your kid? Do you really want them to KNOW where the kids are at all times?
I myself love the idea of the kids being “lost” down in a mud pit or wandering a creek somewhere. Therefore, as a counselor I engaged in boundary-testing where I could this summer. Even though it took asking three people permission, gathering a cell phone and wilderness emergency bag, and making a list of who was going, I did end up taking a group of kids into the wild unknown for a creek adventure. After all, to the kids it’s just as wild as when I was taken on such excursions 20+ years ago. Maybe what they don’t know can’t burden them. And I’m happy to report that 30 years after I first stepped foot on camp property, kids are still singing about eating great green gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts and coming up with new verses about the fate of poor Tom the Toad. After all, what happens at camp stays at camp.