I had a blessed childhood, as many of us who were born in the '50s or '60s did. Not because it was a privileged childhood, but because it was a largely unexamined childhood. There were some expectations; we had to get to school on time, keep our grades decent, stay on top of our chores, and be home for dinner. But how we did that was pretty much our business. I grew up in a large city, so getting around on the bus was something that we all learned early on. Our neighborhood parks, empty lots and natural areas were open and thrillingly wild and we knew them well. We knew where to hide; we knew which tree forts to take over once the established owners grew up and went off to college. We spent whole days roaming the old musty aquarium, knew all the paths of the Japanese tea garden, and knew to avoid the hobo encampment in the park. We mostly stayed out of trouble, and were home in time for dinner.
Raising my own kids, I felt pretty strongly about allowing them these same freedoms. The scenarios of early Saturday morning soccer games and weekends spent in East Jesus on "select" sports teams didn't square. I value the strength and discipline that sports impart, but spending weekends on a rectangle of green turf wasn't enough. I want them to walk to school, take the bus around town, know their community. I want them to find the secret spots where nature pushes through the asphalt, where creatures find shelter and where seeds float on the wind and take root in random spots like downspouts and roofs. You just can't do that with Mom in tow.
Kindergarten teachers I know spend a lot of energy engaging their students — particularly ESL students — in conversation. On Monday morning they ask, "Eddie, what did you do this weekend?" and the answer is always, shockingly, "We went to Costco and shopped and I played some video games." This can't be good.
What if we all decided as a city or a state or even a nation that the world in fact is pretty safe, and that the skills necessary to navigate in it are attainable at an early age? Grounding ourselves in our communities and our "place" will help us become part of natural world, whether rural or urban. The things we worry about most (strangers, abductions, unthinkable things) occur at about the same frequency they did 40 years ago when my parents let me roam, but our perception is that the present risks are too great. What if our neighborhood schools were good and our kids could walk there? If we saw kids out in the streets everywhere, they might become safe.
I want kids to know the birds in their neighborhood and the paths of skunks and raccoons. I'd like them to know in their bones when the trees flower and when they lose their leaves. I want them to notice germinating grasses after the first rains and to pick ripe blackberries in the empty lots. I would like them to build castles for slugs and snails in the backyard. This kind of play requires time, and quite frankly, a kind of luxurious boredom that we no longer afford our children.