(Note: If you saw an earlier version of this post a while back, my apologies. I had some technical difficulties with it)
My writing rituals come and go. I once got hooked on a webcam of baby hummingbirds my uncle showed me (to my dismay, it has since been taken down). When I sat down to write, I checked on those scrawny, ugly baby birds, and I came to see them as mine. What I found most mesmerizing about that webcam scene was how the mother hummingbird parented. Mama bird zoomed off in a hurry to somewhere–gathering nectar, probably. She droned back in a flash, so fast in fact, I couldn’t even see her return trip. She fed the delicate liquid into their mouths while their lazy heads with still-closed eyes flopped around. Then she’d push the babies back down with her feet as she turned in circles and made herself comfortable on top of them to keep watch. What a mom!
As if divining my recent online birdwatching, Children & Nature Network wrote about how we can parent more like hummingbirds. I shared theirs and other tips for how you can raise free-range kids in an article at Natural Parents Network last week. I appreciated one of the commenters, who wrote: “…there’s room to disagree on which specific practices are unsafe for which children, but…the bigger problem is neighbors calling police or CPS rather than asking children and parents if they need help or expressing their concerns to them.” Thank you, Crunchy Con Mom, for elucidating my point.
I spend most of my writing time in a local coffee shop now. But in a way, it’s a similar background scene to the hummingbird webcam. I love being amidst all the humming busyness of the townspeople. That din is becoming my writing soundtrack, and it doesn’t hurt that they serve a wicked awesome ginger scone there.
AND, that place is all about me; when I’m there, I can fall into a flow where things like laundry and Instagram don’t exist. Pilates is that way too, but sort of in an opposite way. At the coffee shop, I am happy and feeling quite smug for having chosen such a great location to write. When I’m in Pilates (doing Pilates? Pilates-ing?), I’m wondering what kind of an idiot chooses such a punishing activity like Pilates for a Monday morning. But it must be good because I keep coming back for more.
I hope y’all do something special this week that’s just for you, even if it hurts a little bit. And give your veterans a hug from me.
I live in a dense suburban neighborhood named “The Heights,” so called for its perch on a gigantic granite slab. The primary boast of this area is its unparalleled view overlooking Boston. Our small sloping back yard, virtually no front yard, and lack of personal space result in frequent excursions to local playgrounds.
With an occasional rare exception, our town has standardized and regulated the equipment located at these spaces to a sterilized state. The town recently chose to dismantle one of the last of the old-school metal playgrounds, complete with too-high monkey bars and boiling-hot slide. It is currently being renovated.
That I would complain about such an upgrade probably says something about my spoiled nature, but hear me out. The primary reason for my dismay is I had noticed the teens congregating there. You know, these kids could use more places away from grown-ups to loiter and discuss the opposite sex. I wrote about this playground not long after we moved here (see here), and it seems even then I had a hunch it wouldn’t be long for this world:
I’m actually quite surprised the powers that be haven’t swung by to collect it all. The monkey bars are one giant cage that rises about 20 feet in the air, and the slide is a rickety, dinged up, old metal contraption that heats to an ungodly temperature in the summer. It makes me nostalgic for the playgrounds of my youth, back when we had seesaws and merry-go-rounds of death. Those were the days.
I suppose I could look on the bright side. Removal of the type of playgrounds I grew up with does afford me a certain “Back in my day” rant that I already seem to love so much. And hey, perhaps this banality is a blessing in disguise, for it forces my girls to think outside the playground to encounter new experiences.
When we arrive at the park, they run over to their favorite slide or swing and play on it for a short while. But then after a few minutes, they’ll hightail it to the woods surrounding the playground to find the perfect stick and rock for their collection or to play hide and seek. Their unbridled glee in exploring their surroundings makes my heart sing from my distant post on a bench or rock. I’ll close my eyes and be whisked back to my own childhood by the familiar smells and sounds of dirt and adventure.
Yesterday we went to a local swimming hole. But instead of swimming, the girls ran right over to a playground and stayed there the entire visit. They tested themselves on the two relic structures left, the highest of monkey bars and the rickety swings, and we were able to ignore them and have a few hours of peace.
I wandered over once to remind them of the boundaries. As usual, on my walk back to our spot farther down the beach, I could see the helicopter moms who were right up in their kids’ business side-eyeing me. I smiled silently and continued on to our blanket, knowing what they were thinking but just not caring. I mean, it’s a fenced-in playground at a swimming hole teeming with lifeguards and parents. I can barely imagine a safer spot, and yet parents still chase after their kids here. What gives?
Back in June, I shared my concerns about our parenting culture’s current obsession with risk aversion. I’m reading Lenore Skenazy’s Free Range Kids with the hope that delving into the topic in more depth will give me something to do about it. So far it’s both interesting and maddening, just as I’d imagined it’d be. I’ve also joined the Children & Nature Network, a movement focused on getting kids playing outside.
My curiosity took me online in search of what the federal government identifies as an acceptable level of risk. A quick lit review didn’t turn up much; while there are standards for families who have been afflicted with substance abuse and domestic violence, it’s more difficult to find an intentional guide to making childhood not more safe, but less safe.
One such place doing this difficult work is a country whose goal is to become “the best place to grow up,” the United Kingdom. Their risk assessment implementation guide gives pointers on how to “strike the right balance between protecting our children from harm and allowing them the freedom to develop independence.”
That’s what parenting is all about, right? Striking a balance between protection and independence. When it comes to play, I steer toward independence as much as I can.
After all, “to play is, intrinsically, to not do exactly what the grown-ups say,” notes Christina Schwartz in an article by The Atlantic urging us to leave our kids alone (not that article by the Atlantic, another older one). “Children,” she says, “have a knack for simply living that adults can never regain.”
Update (9-8-14): I am going to have to eat my words this time. We have been to the renovated playground several times, and it is beyond any of my possible expectations. There are even somewhat dangerous elements (I overheard one mom bemoan to her husband, “There are REAL rocks!” in reference to hear fears for her child’s safety. Really, lady?), like a (fake) boulder wall that includes spider-like rope webbing to another boulder. There’s also a track that runs around the perimeter, on which I have already seen one child practicing biking without training wheels. It’s adorable, it’s fantastic, and I was wrong. I love my town for being able to see the potential I could not.
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.
One element of my childhood that personifies of the old adage, “If you love something, let it go,” is the trampoline. Perhaps a more apt interpretation of a pre-1990’s childhood would be, “If you love something, let it go hog wild.” Our trampoline was not a fancy octagon equipped with padded springs and a safety net. It was rectangular, with older springs and no safety net. It even wobbled a bit from the uneven ground. Continue reading →