Mommie Dearest: What Happened To Child’s Play?

Show of hands: who else remembers roaming neighborhood streets unsupervised until dusk during your elementary school years?

I have crystal clear memories of being allowed to bike the three short blocks to my friend’s house (sans helmet!) after school for playdates —and not of the hyper-scheduled variety. We’d usually hang out in her backyard, poking sticks in holes or making forts with paint cloths we’d scavenge from her garage. Occasionally we’d run into the house for snacks, but if the weather was good, we’d most likely be found outside. Sometimes we’d make our way through the neighborhood, sneaking through backyards or meandering down sidewalks. We never got into any real trouble, and neither of us ever got seriously hurt beyond a skinned knee or two.

I’ve written before about how the childhood of my youth seems rather far removed from the one my son and his friends have. A combination of helicopter parenting, a lawsuit-happy society, and our growing withdrawal from a true neighborhood mentality seems to be fueling the more boxed-in and rigid rule-oriented childhoods we’re seeing.

Last year I wrote an essay for the New York Times’ Motherlode column about the right age to allow my son to hang solo in a local ski lodge. Many of the comments I received chastised me for even thinking about this potential hypothetical where my son hangs out in the lodge and my husband goes off skiing (in this scenario, I’m most likely back home doing something warm and cozy, since skiing is totally not my jam). Only a year later, all my “what if’s” now seem mostly unnecessary as my son has sprouted into quite the skier. He joins my husband for most of the runs and hangs out with friends in the lodge when he needs a break. Yet, I still recall all of those folks who shook their metaphorical finger at me for even contemplating whether it’s okay to leave a young child by themselves in a safe environment.

Compared to a new trends overseas right now, my son (who yes, still plays outside unsupervised!) and I seem downright conservative. In The Atlantic article “The Overprotected Kid,” writer Hannah Rosin describes The Land, a unique form of playground popping up in the UK:

“At the other end of the playground, a dozen or so of the younger kids dart in and out of large structures made up of wooden pallets stacked on top of one another. Occasionally a group knocks down a few pallets—just for the fun of it, or to build some new kind of slide or fort or unnamed structure. Come tomorrow and the Land might have a whole new topography.

Other than some walls lit up with graffiti, there are no bright colors, or anything else that belongs to the usual playground landscape: no shiny metal slide topped by a red steering wheel or a tic-tac-toe board; no yellow seesaw with a central ballast to make sure no one falls off; no rubber bucket swing for babies. There is, however, a frayed rope swing that carries you over the creek and deposits you on the other side, if you can make it that far (otherwise it deposits you in the creek).

The actual children’s toys (a tiny stuffed elephant, a soiled Winnie the Pooh) are ignored, one facedown in the mud, the other sitting behind a green plastic chair. On this day, the kids seem excited by a walker that was donated by one of the elderly neighbors and is repurposed, at different moments, as a scooter, a jail cell, and a gymnastics bar.”

Rosin goes on to describe a fire set by a 10-year-old — a common occurrence in The Land. She notes that there are attendants milling around who are there in case of any emergencies or issues, but that they’re not there to truly supervise or stop any play. While I may not have set fire to anything in my youth, I have had my fair share of playing with abandoned furniture and the like. In fact, The Land that Rosin describes sounds like the ideal play “structure” of my childhood, and I could see my son having a blast there.

At the same time, I can already hear the cries of outraged from those more hovery folks:

What about all that exposed metal? Somebody is going to get hurt!

It just seems so… dirty.

What if my child needs something? Who will help them?

Setting a FIRE?!?!

As somebody who still occasionally gets a side-eye at the local park when I’m not directly attached to my son or  heaven forbid! — allow him to climb a tree, I can’t imagine officially sanctioned spaces like The Land occurring here anytime soon, which is a shame. We live in a society that has slowly come to a place where children are overly structured: jam-packed with afterschool schedules of playdates, homework, lessons, tutoring, and extra-curriculars. When do kids have time to just … be? The appeal for places like The Land are two-fold to me. As a former kid, it just looks awesome and full of possibility. As a parent, it’s excited to see what kids can come up with when left to (mostly) their own devices. My social media feeds have been saturated lately over the notion of teaching our children “grit” in order to better succeed. I have to wonder – what’s more gritty than allowing them to create fires, build up worlds out of used tires and forge their own way?

Avital Norman Nathman blogs at The Mamfesto. Her book, The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood To Fit Reality, is out now. Follow her on Twitter.

[Image of a little girl playing via Shutterstock]