Help Needed: How to Find a Free-Range Neighborhood?

Hi Readers! Here’s a question I’d love you to weigh in on — as would the writer, Maya. (And — totally off topic but too cool for me not to mention is that when I saw Maya’s unusual last name I asked her if she could possibly  be related to a woman who shared it named Marie who, about 70 years ago, was my father’s mentor, teaching him interior design in Chicago. So Maya went and found her husband’s family tree and there on one of the branches was his great aunt, born 1900, in the Chicago suburb of Evanston. Name: Marie. Profession: Interior designer!) – L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: My husband died a few months ago, and after I do a possibly-crazy 3-6 month long road trip with my 20-month-old, I’m going to relocate.  As a sole parent, I’m going to have to be even more Free-Range than I may have been otherwise.  It seems that half the battle is settling in a neighborhood that already has Free-Range tendencies.  I’m looking for tips on how to spot a Free-Range neighborhood, especially when you don’t know anyone and have to look for outward signs, or do some investigating that won’t get you arrested.

The ideas I have so far:
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1) Drive near the schools in the morning or afternoon and see if lots of kids seem to be walking.
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2) Hang out at the park (with child) and see if the park is used and if it used by unescorted children.
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3) Visit the local library after school hours. [Bonus points if library is in walking distance to school or neighborhood!]
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4) Look for sidewalks [not sure how critical this is]
Any other ideas for signs of a Free-Range neighborhood, or other ways of investigating and finding one?
Thanks! – Maya
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Lenore again: I’d like to hear these, too. And Maya, very sorry about the loss of your husband. Very glad to help you find a community to provide support! – L

Ideal: A neighborhood where kids get to DO things.

84 Responses to Help Needed: How to Find a Free-Range Neighborhood?

  1. Eliza December 13, 2012 at 8:26 am #

    I live in a real great street. When you turn into the street, we know to slow right
    down as kids are playing or riding bikes, scooters, skateboards etc up and down the road, eapecially now it’s summer here. The best part is because im able to and from work, when I’m coming home, the kids say hello and then run home. Parents have told their kids that as soon as they see me walking home it’s nearly tea time and they need to be home (they don’t like it when I leave work early)

  2. Andrea December 13, 2012 at 8:41 am #

    As you drive around looking for houses, check if you see kids walking by themselves or in pair. Kids biking alone and in unaccompanied pairs and groups is great. I saw an approx 11 year old boy and his younger sister walking home from a 7-11 together. I see pretty small kids walking home alone from the school bus stop, no parents waiting at the bus stop. Our community also does a ton of block parties. It contributes to being a free-range neighborhood when you actually know your neighbors. My oldest is not yet 5, but so far, all signs point to having found a free range community.

  3. Warren December 13, 2012 at 8:42 am #

    We live on a dead end country road, and the kids are always out playing street hockey, or riding their bikes, going from house to house, yard to yard. The cool thing is having neighbor’s kids coming and asking then taking our dogs for walks.

  4. AW13 December 13, 2012 at 8:51 am #

    We have three parks within walking distance, and when we were looking at houses in this neighborhood (we looked at two, so we spent a lot of time here), there were always kids out and about, riding bikes, playing in yards, playing at the parks, etc. I also used to see a lot of kids walking to and from school, and (now that I’ve lived here longer), I see the kids from the 5th grade “working” as crossing guards in the mornings and afternoons, which says to me that not only do a lot of kids walk, but also that the school expects and supports this behavior. (There just aren’t a lot of cars waiting in front of the school at the end of the day.) But also? The kids looked happy. They’re all over the neighborhood, running through yards, coming over to introduce themselves, etc. So I think your suggestions are right on track. I’d also recommend talking to people in whatever neighborhoods you think look promising.

  5. Melissa December 13, 2012 at 8:53 am #

    I’m not sure about walking to school, etc. (although I see most kids walk unattended to/from the school bus stop) but in our neighborhood the cul-du-sacs are alive daily with tons of kids outdoors playing with little adult interaction. I don’t know if it is because the adults feel they’re safer than a main street or what. It seems to be all ages too – 3 year olds to teens! We are in the western Chicago suburbs.

    Also small midwestern towns seem to be good for free range. Never realized I was free range growing up but I guess I was. It was just the way of life – 80s – and things don’t seem to have changed much there in my hometown of fewer than 5000 people. There’s lots of free space, room to ride your bike, the schools still have bike racks, everyone knows everyone!

  6. Kerry December 13, 2012 at 9:02 am #

    Go to the local grocery store and, if it won’t upset your kid, leave him in the cart by himself and walk 10 ft or so away and see if anyone reacts. My toddler escaped from me in the library one day for about 10 seconds, and immediately someone came and asked where his mommy was. (My neighborhood is pretty free-range, but not so all of my community.)

  7. Andrea December 13, 2012 at 9:06 am #

    We’re just west of Chicago too! Maybe we’re just a free-range kind of metropolitan area.

  8. Liz December 13, 2012 at 9:16 am #

    Is anyone willing to share the city or state in which their free range ‘hood resides? I don’t see much of it in Northern Illinois, so wondered where this utopia exists.

  9. Uly December 13, 2012 at 9:16 am #

    As a general rule of thumb, I find that the poorer in money a neighborhood is, the richer the kids will be in terms of free or unsupervised time.

  10. Hittman December 13, 2012 at 9:22 am #

    Stop and listen. Do you hear kids playing, laughing, having fun, or is the neighborhood silent?

    Look for fenced in yards. The fewer, the better.

    When you see kids, are they dirty? Not the kind of dirt that shows neglect, but the kind that shows they’ve been playing without worrying about staying pristine. Kids should get dirty – it’s good for them. Occasional scrapes on their knees or elbows is also a good sign.

  11. Erika December 13, 2012 at 9:25 am #

    Look for lots of kids/families on the street you want to be on. We had a ton of sidewalks in our last neighborhood (small midwestern city), but no other kids on our block. There were a bunch of kids a block or 2 over, but it was just far enough that we were never really part of that dynamic. Ironically, we’ve moved to the suburbs, in a neighborhood with very few sidewalks and a town that could be the poster town for helicopter/hothouse parenting, but my kid’s best friend lives less than a block away, and they spend entire days roaming the neighborhood together, only coming inside for snacks and bathroom breaks. I would never have thought we’d be *more* free range here than we were before, but we are. Sometimes it’s just luck.

  12. Sarah O December 13, 2012 at 9:45 am #

    I think the signs might vary from area to area? I live in eastern Georgia, and I was told that walking was a sign of low status (maybe because it is so darn hot?). We rented a house close to the park and grocery store because I wanted to get out with my baby during the day. I could count on one hand the people I encountered walking during the day, but I *did* see a lot of kids walking to and from school. When we moved to a larger house just before the birth of our second, we had people tell us we had been living in the ‘bad’ part of town and that the parks we had been going to were ‘terrifying’ (they had metal structures, no bathroom, and *gasp* sand under the equipment).

    Conversely, when I was growing up in the Midwest, the neighborhoods close to the park were the desirable neighborhoods and kids wandered all over town. The town has expanded in the last ten years, and that isn’t quite so true anymore.

    We are getting ready to make a decision about whether to relocate here permanently, or to move to the suburbs where I grew up, or the small Midwestern capital where my husband’s family lives (literally all of them are within 2 hours of each other). One thing we look for in suburbs is whether they are small enough that there is a tight community. In the urban areas we look for walkability. As long as the kids have a sidewalk and a good crosswalk system, I find a lot of parents who would normally be reluctant are willing to allow to kids to walk in groups places if they feel they are safe from cars.

    I’m so sorry for your loss, and I hope the road trip brings you what you need.

  13. Liz December 13, 2012 at 9:52 am #

    We will also soon be moving across the country and looking for a free range neighborhood.

    We’re moving to Oak Park, IL – any thoughts on that? I see some posters who are at least near there. I grew up in N. IL and had an extremely free range childhood and would like to give my kids something close to that.

    For our current place, we also looked for kids playing and biking alone. Then we “recruited” nearby parents receptive to the idea. My daughter started walking a block and a half to her friend’s house when she was five.

  14. Heather December 13, 2012 at 9:53 am #

    We live in a neighborhood of townhomes, so we literally share walls with our neighbors. Being in such a densely populated spot makes it easy to get to know your neighbors. Limited backyard space means that everyone just heads out front to the communal green spaces. We are truly a village and look out for each other’s kids. I don’t know about other places, but the best time to find all the kids outside and get an idea of our free-ranginess is to come by around 4pm on a Friday. We call it Aloha Hour here, and it just seems to be the one day a week where everyone is home and nobody has any activities to go to, etc. Kids walking home from school is a good indicator as well. And if you see lots of parents at bus stops or waiting in their cars at bus stops, then move on. If all the parents are in their cars waiting, it means they don’t even know each other well enough to shoot the breeze while they wait. You don’t want that.

  15. April Davonia December 13, 2012 at 9:55 am #

    I’ve found that living in an older neighborhood helps. In my neighborhood, it seems that these families grew up here when they were kids and so their own free range experiences helped. Our landlord lived next door to us and he said that he grew up here and had no problems with my boys running around by themselves. He said it was a great place to do that. They were 7 & 9 at the time. It’s been great.

  16. Kate December 13, 2012 at 10:04 am #

    I agree with Uly. We used to live in more of a “blue collar” neighborhood and kids were always around – playing in eachother’s yards, riding bikes, etc. They were also around more in the summer because the parents didn’t have as much money for camps and other scheduled activities. Now we live in a more upscale neighborhood and while a lot of kids live here, you just don’t see them out playing because their days are filled with scheduled activities, lessons, etc. And it’s a ghost town in the summer because everyone seems to have a second home somewhere else. I miss the old days!

  17. Tom H. December 13, 2012 at 10:25 am #

    Look for a child-friendly cohousing neighborhood.

  18. Maria December 13, 2012 at 10:26 am #

    As everyone has said, look at sidewalks and parks. Are there kids playing in yards? Are there kids unescorted in parks? Are there kids walking around in groups? Also, look to see if you can see people, period, in the neighborhood, especially after 4 pm and over the weekend, when school is out. No humans of any age on the streets or in the parks, escorted or unescorted, is a very bad sign.

  19. Amy December 13, 2012 at 10:29 am #

    Definitely try and spend some time in the neighbourhood after school and see what the streets are like. But be conscious that free-range-ness varies from block to block — as another commenter said above, if you’re on a block with no other kids it doesn’t matter what’s happening two blocks over because you won’t be over there.

    We lucked into a free range/playborhood block and this is what I’ve learned. You want a shortish block — ours only has six houses on each side — preferably quiet enough that the kids can cross the street by themselves when they’re five or six. You want at least three other families with kids in the nearby houses, preferably a range of ages but a couple the same age as yours — look for bikes, skateboards, strollers on porches. In Canada you can always look for a street hockey net — probably a basketball hoop works in the US? You want a couple of older kids, too, to be responsible and to lead games. You want a climbable tree — there is only one really great tree on our block but it draws all the kids, even the ones who don’t like each other. Look for hopscotch on the sidewalk.

    And yeah, if you go too upscale all the kids will vanish in summer because they’re at camp. We are a pretty affluent block but we’re also mostly in agreement about the value of free, unsupervised play. In fact, my new neighbour who just moved in is completely sympatico (and has added two lovely little boys and a dog to our neighbourhood mix!) I think our street basically stinks of free-range-ness now!

    And remember, it’s not necessarily the city or the neighbourhood, it’s the actual block. Listen to your gut.

    Good luck!

  20. April December 13, 2012 at 10:34 am #

    We recently moved out of state to an area we didn’t have much time to explore. The first thing I noticed about our new area was the “Watch Children Playing” signs on every street. We ended up loving the house we looked at & moved a month later. While we spent a whole day moving in I heard lots of children playing outside one street over. This was a good sign. Our small neighborhood is sectioned off from a larger town and is all residential. The yards are big & mostly unfenced. We’re buying our 11 yr old a new bike so that he can ride the neighborhood during the summer & I’m excited for him. We didn’t have this where we lived before.

  21. CrazyCatLady December 13, 2012 at 10:35 am #

    Go to the neighborhood on a Saturday and see how many kids you see outside playing.

    Drive through any day and look for: bikes and toys out front, evidence of sidewalk chalk, homemade free forts.

    Call the local schools and ask about policy for walking to school or to the bus stop.

    Drive through an area right before the school bus is to come by – see how many kids are standing alone to wait for the bus. If you don’t see kids, they are probably sitting in cars or being driven to school.

    Look for evidence of trampolines. If in the front yard that is an added bonus as it means neighbors have access.

    Go by local parks on a weekday afternoon after school lets out. See if there are kids out playing. Friday may be the best day for this. Be aware that parents may be there to socialize with other parents, not so much to watch the kids. If you can stop and play you will get an idea of if this is the case or not.

    Find out if the area has walking and biking trails. See how much they are used.

    If it is snowing, see how many kids are at the local hill sledding. See if the town has free public ice skating rinks if you are in the north. Look to see a general ratio of kids to adults on a weekend.

    If there is a public pool, call and see what ages kids can come without parents.

    Call the library and ask what age kids can be there without a parent.

    Good luck in your search, both for healing from your loss and for a new perfect home area.

  22. cathy December 13, 2012 at 10:37 am #

    we live in co-housing, which is perfectly designed for free range lives. my 3 and 5 year old are free to walk to their friend’s house in the next community (really, a 4 minute walk on a pedestrian path) and can play outside on their own. they can also go to the little playground area by themselves. the older kids around here set off in packs to explore the woods and build tree forts. i have no idea what your situation is, but if you are passing through massachusetts, come visit! we are in berlin, ma, and there are still a few 40b (lower income affordable units) for sale here.

    also, to echo what others are saying, i grew up on a dead end suburban street and we (the whole gang of kids who lived there) had free range of the street at a very young age (clue: we were still swimming in just underoos then ;) and could walk together in groups to the playground 1/2 mile away also at a very young age (the one catch was we had to cross a busy, winding street to get to the playground so we were a little older before we could do that). i also remember riding my bike to the next town to swim in the public pool there around 6th grade. i think the bikes and scooters scattered all over the neighborhood. as well as kids running around without grown-ups in sight, were the best give-aways that our neighborhood was pretty free range….

  23. Kate December 13, 2012 at 10:43 am #

    I find sidewalks to be a big indicator of free-range-ness — also, accessibility to parks, neighborhood shops, and elementary schools. We have all these things, and not only are there a lot of families in our neighborhood, but kids are always seen out and about with friends.
    Even if there are a lot of parents around at school pick up/drop off, at the park, etc., check and see what the parents are doing. Are they obsessing over what their child is doing on the playground? Or, are they chatting with other parents? Parent pick-up is big after school in our neighborhood, but it’s so the parents can have some grown-up time together while the kids play, which is something I really like.

  24. Christina December 13, 2012 at 10:53 am #

    RateMyStreet and Walkscore are good sites if you are moving to a new city. Also the “Not for Tourists” guides from NPR have proven surprisingly valuable to us when relocating. We have learned through experience that neighborhoods with sidewalks will tend to be more free-range than those without. We also found that the more diverse neighborhoods tend to have more free-range families. By “diverse”, I mean a mix of blue-collar, artist types, multiple ethnic groups and LGBTQ friendly. For example, in NY I lived in Park Slope before it was “discovered”. Now, I live in Chicago in Logan Square. We picked the neighborhood using the various methods mentioned above, and are very likely to remain here for the foreseeable future.

  25. Leslie December 13, 2012 at 10:53 am #

    I am a single mom and I live in Co-housing in Colorado. I would suggest that you Google co-housing and check out some of the communities.

    Where we live we have 42 houses on 42 acres. We park our cars down below our houses so the kids have the pedways to run and play. The kids have amazing freedom to come and go as they please.

    I’ve got an amazing support community and rarely have I had a babysitter. We share time and food along with sharing many community events.

    It has been the most amazing place to live for me and my daughter.

  26. TRS December 13, 2012 at 10:55 am #

    Live in a neighborhood with big families. If you have more than 2 kids you have to be free range to survive.

    I would also live somewhere with sidewalks and near a swim club.

    Unfortunately I did not pick my neighborhood well. There is only one way in and out to a 6 lane road. We back to a National Park and that is nice but my kids can not walk to the library, pool, school…… They rely on me to drive them everywhere! The kids that live next to the swim and raquet club we have a membership to can ride their bikes and walk to the pool to just hang out, swim practice, tennis practice, or just to play tennis with friends. I lament I did not pick a house near a swim club.

  27. Lisa December 13, 2012 at 11:22 am #

    It always warms my heart when I see 11 year olds with their skinny, prepubescent arms pushing a lawnmower by themselves! Also, look for youngsters walking their dogs by themselves.

  28. Tiffany December 13, 2012 at 11:27 am #

    Find a place where being outside is valued!! I live in the suburbs of Denver, and so far almost all my friends with kids AND the parents in my own neighborhood are practically Free Range by default. People in Colorado love the outdoors and want their kids to love it too, so they just unleash them into the wild automatically. That’s not to say Coloradans are all totally Free Range – there are plenty of overscheduled kids, but at least when they are home they go outside!

  29. Lindsey Drake December 13, 2012 at 11:31 am #

    Take the time to sit at the house you’re considering for at least an hour if you can manage, during the 5:30-6:30 hour. Watch the traffic patterns to see how high traffic your street is and what the drivers do at stop signs and intersections. I love for my daughter to go outside but I worry about the idiot drivers. Only 1 in 20 stops properly at the stop sign (I’m on the corner, it’s in my yard).

  30. Yan Seiner December 13, 2012 at 11:32 am #

    Look at the schools. If they’re “campuses” located outside of residential areas, with oceans of parking, then you’re probably in a place where few people walk.

    If they’re neighborhood schools with small parking spaces and the buildings have wide sidewalks that connect to the street sidewalks, then you’re in a walking neighborhood.

    If the schools have bike racks that are full of bikes, then kids bike to school.

    Talk to the school district and see what they offer; do they have a safe routes to school program? Do they promote walking to school? What is the school bus policy?

    Look for a place to live that’s centrally located to several schools and parks, within walking distance if possible.

    Also look at the livability index; cities like Denver, CO, Eugene, OR, Seattle, WA score high on alternative transportation and walking/biking infrastructure.

  31. Molly Eness December 13, 2012 at 11:37 am #

    I agree that blue-collar neighborhoods are more free-range.

  32. Michelle December 13, 2012 at 11:43 am #

    We just recently moved to our new Free Range neighborhood and how did we find this gem? Our realtor!! Our realtor specialized in walking neighborhoods and had kids themselves. Once you have decided on a city see if you can find a realtor who holds the same values and ideals for what you feel is a good neighborhood.

  33. WendyW December 13, 2012 at 11:57 am #

    I would avoid the typical “suburbia”. Either a down-town or a small town will be much more walk/bikeable, and therefore more free-range-able.

    Currently we are in a small town, about 15,000, which hovers on the edge of free range/helicopter. In the older parts of town you see all the FR signs mentioned above. We live in a newer neighborhood on the edge of town, and while the younger families lean more FR, the original families here were NOT, much to my son’s dismay when he was little. Financial demographic seems to be a strong factor here.

    Also, I would not automatically take kids in a cul-de-sac as a good sign, depending on the age of the kids. If they are LITTLE kids, it might be FR, but I often see older kids who SHOULD be out exploring the neighborhood still confined to their little circular world.

  34. Rhiannon December 13, 2012 at 12:03 pm #

    I’m on the same hunt – I’ve been using satellite maps to check for trampolines and play equipment in the backyards, bikes on the street, etc.

  35. Alison S. December 13, 2012 at 12:15 pm #

    I agree with the posters who mentioned dead-end streets. Pay particular attention to cul-de-sacs because the mentality tends to be surprisingly more welcoming and accomodating (I surmise this is because people face a collective central point and therefore are more psychologically accountable to one another – environment has a huge impact on behavior).

    Also, research the neighborhood on the internet. See if there are any subdivision blogs. If you find one, check for indications as to whether it’s pro-Free Range or anti-Free Range. I run a blog in my subdivision. I go out of my way to be pro-children.

    If there is a HOA or POA governing your target area, you can also check their online material and newsletters if they publish them, but that’s not necessarily diagnostic. HOAs and POAs are legal entities with big fat insurance policies covering their homeowner collectives, and liability-wise, they probably have little choice but to maintain anti-Free Range stances.

    Good luck to you!!

  36. lsl December 13, 2012 at 12:32 pm #

    Christina mention Walkscore, here’s the link http://www.walkscore.com/ It gives you a % score based on how many amenities (shops, parks, etc) are within 1 mile of any address. Find out if there are bus stops nearby (some of these are available through the walkscore site, but not all), & what the bus system’s policies re kids are.

  37. Neil M December 13, 2012 at 12:43 pm #

    Maya, many condolences for your loss.

  38. mollie December 13, 2012 at 12:54 pm #

    When I read the comments from those fortunate to live in co-housing, I feel such a huge pang of longing for myself… one is getting built here where I live, and I’m part of that, but oh, to have had that option when I was single with two young children… what that would have done for my mental health and overall well-being… I’m near tears, thinking about it.

    I do hope you explore co-housing options, and if you are free to choose your region, you may find something quite amazing indeed.

    It’s one thing to long for community while we raise children with a partner. It’s another level of urgency when we are raising children alone. We all need community, and I think single parents MOST OF ALL.

    Warmest wishes to you, Maya. May you find joy, peace, connection, support, laughter, and thriving.

  39. John December 13, 2012 at 1:02 pm #

    We live in a far north suburb of Chicago. Aim for ethnically diverse neighborhoods, and as another commenter pointed out, poorer neighborhoods. Unfortunately, those tend to be one in the same. The neighborhood I live in has relocated Mexicans, Polish, Albanian, Columbian and a few others sprinkled in and it is definitely a free-range mindset. My 5 year old runs from house to house unfettered disappearing into a neighbors house for an hour to play with other kids his age and my two year old plays in our unfenced-in front yard. We have great neighbors and a great community and my kid has picked up some polish and spanish along the way as well.

  40. elsiroomom December 13, 2012 at 1:04 pm #

    I’m so sorry for your loss.
    Sidewalks are a key – we would be even more free range if we didn’t have to worry about crazy drivers on curvy suburban streets. Cul-de-sacs are a good option for kids to play outside – I would not have known to seek that when we were house shopping, but since we happen to live on one, in a neighborhood without sidewalks, it is huge for us.
    Walkability is nice for you and for your child – easy for you to enjoy walking to get to things, AND easier to let them take those first outings if there is someplace that is a manageable distance.

    Last but not least – my parents actually knocked on doors and asked people about the neighborhood before moving in – not sure how people would take that “these days” – but maybe you can ask the realtor or rental agent about talking to current or former residents and what they know about the neighborhood.

  41. Lollipoplover December 13, 2012 at 1:10 pm #

    It doesn’t matter what kind of housing you live in (condo, house, co-housing), try to do a “bird’s eye” view of the property and see how much green is around it. A well-planned community will make the most of the outdoor space for its community members to enjoy. We are lucky to have a golf course around us as well as extensive bike trails and sidewalks that connect to nature preserves and community parks. Our development also has a huge community pool on 5 acres with basketball, tennis, and wide open fields for kids to play freely.

    As for the cult-de-sacs, we live on one and love it. Kids can organize hockey games and ride bikes everywhere. Our development is organized with a bunch of small cult-de-sacs off of the main roads. Most of the kids around here walk or bike to play together. Our school (k-6) is easy to access with bike paths. The suggestions to view a potential school at arrival/dismissal are great. Kids can be independent if we provide the infrastructure.

  42. Ann December 13, 2012 at 1:13 pm #

    On a pretty day with nice weather, drive through the neighborhoods. In mine, on a nice day, you would see kids on bikes, scooters and skateboards, cruising around from house to house unescorted. You’ll see bikes parked in the street in front of a house, you’ll see a lemonade stand on the corner with no adults overseeing it. You’ll see kids jumping rope or playing hide and seek. You will likely see some adults outside mowing the grass or raking leaves, but you will NOT see adults walking the kids to friends’ houses, overseeing the playtime, or working at the lemonade stand. I think our neighborhood could easily be recognized as free range by just driving through on a nice day.

  43. Stacey December 13, 2012 at 1:33 pm #

    Sidewalks… ARE one of the most important things to look for because none of the other amenities are accessible to kids without them (unless you drive them)
    http://southgeek.blogspot.com/2012/07/virtualactuality-attheir-core-i-believe.html

    You might also want to look for front porches. They are usually co-located in neighborhoods with sidewalks..
    this is code for “older-pre WWII” design.

  44. AHLondon December 13, 2012 at 1:58 pm #

    Yard to house ratios. Neighborhoods with houses that take up most of the lot suggest hot house parenting. If parents prefer bigger yards, that’s likely because they let their kids play outside. Similar for old to new construction. If kept older, smaller houses instead of tearing down for big new ones, suggests priorities aren’t on “things.”
    Also, in case you haven’t thought about it, because of your loss, you will need some companionship yourself. Finding other free range parents will be helpful (we tend to stick together) but do look for clues for the type of adults you would like to be around.

  45. Brian December 13, 2012 at 1:59 pm #

    Sidewalks also are a sign that the community was built to be walkable/bikeable.

    I would also suggest stopping in the local pizza/burger/candy place after school lets out. Are there kids in there by themselves? What is downtown like when school lets out? Lots of SUVs or lots of kids walking through with back packs?

    One other thought is not to put too much stock in answers that people give you to questions like “how much freedom do kids get.” You have to try to develop some more specific questions/criterion. I am having trouble thinking of specifics.

  46. Alma December 13, 2012 at 2:47 pm #

    I think Oak Park, IL (I’m a resident) is moderately free-range, particularly South of Madison Ave, where the homes are more modest, closer together and where more younger families live. You definitely see lots of kids playing in their front yards and roaming from backyard to backyard (although they’re mostly fenced).

    I let my now 8 year old start biking around the block at age 5 and ride to her friend’s house a few blocks away when she was 7.

    We do have lots of block parties and neighborhood elementary schools, and I think that helps with the comfort factor.

  47. Alaina December 13, 2012 at 3:04 pm #

    Talk to people. I’ve had people knock on my door three times because they were considering buying a house on the street and they wanted to know what the neighbors were like. That can help if the other tests are ‘off’ for a superficial reason– temperature above 100 or low enough that kids are sent home with info on avoiding frostbite, birthday party at an amusement park, half the street sick with the flu.

    It also helps if a neighborhood’s open to free-range but isn’t actually doing it right now; my neighborhood currently has people with kids in college or kids under three. Running around with a mixed group is far different than toddlers and adults!

  48. Maegan December 13, 2012 at 3:37 pm #

    I was just thinking about how I lucked into a free range neighborhood. I chose my neighborhood because it is close the center of my city, but also affordable. It had a bad reputation for many years, but it’s actually very nice, extremely safe, and filled with charming 1940s houses like ours. I realized the other day that kids are always walking around alone. Teens ride the bus into town. And I think it’s partly because it’s a “poorer” neighborhood. It’s also multi-cultural. And its proximity to downtown makes it more walkable. While remaining as politically correct as possible and saying again that I love my neighborhood for a number of reasons, I suggest looking for an area that is culturally diverse (because many other cultures are more open to free range ideals), and one that is affordable (because many of the parents may be working, rather than spending a lot of time driving their children around).

  49. Kathy December 13, 2012 at 3:46 pm #

    You might find that some areas are a mix…pockets are free range, while other areas are more helicopter-ish. Case in point: In my condo community, the kids all play outside together, but just a few streets away there are no kids to be seen. If you find a neighborhood that you like, seek those little areas out where the kids are outside playing together!

  50. CrazyCatLady December 13, 2012 at 3:49 pm #

    Bus stops! If there is public transportation, see how far it is from where you intend to live. If it is several miles, then no one will be walking.

    Most certainly check the rules for HOAs and such. There have been instances mentioned here where they said the kids were NOT allowed outside without a parent until age 13 or some silliness.

    With apartments and condos, check for a play area that actually has stuff for kids to play on. One of my co-workers was told the apartments had a play area – it was grass between the apartments where there was nothing to play on, and adults who yelled when the ball got too close to their porches (as there were no railings.) The nearest playground was over a mile away.

  51. Maegan December 13, 2012 at 3:50 pm #

    We are west of downtown Salt Lake City, UT

  52. CJB December 13, 2012 at 4:01 pm #

    I like the four items listed in the article.

    Definitely go to the school about the time they are letting kids out and see how many are headed home on foot and without adults escort!

    As you are driving around, look for child debris in the yards. Bikes, skateboards, basketball hoop, basketball. Anything that speaks to kids having been outside recently.

    AGREE on the check for local public transportation – AND kids using it. Buses are good, however as we read with the lady in MD recently who let her daughter ride the public bus to school and the school (not the bus) got upset – they are no guarantee.

    Try to check the neighborhood out on multiple days. A School day to narrow your search, then the weekend to see if folks are out and mowing their own yard / tending their garden / washing their car. If PEOPLE are outside, then the chances are high that the kids are outside.

    On my street we try to wave to every car that drives past while I am outside, and a few neighbors have gotten so that they honk when they pass if we are not outside! I think this helps the neighborhood on multiple levels. If the folks in that car happen to be up to no good – I just saw and waved at them. Perhaps they will think twice before doing anything.

  53. Julie December 13, 2012 at 4:29 pm #

    I live in what should be an excellent free-range neighborhood. It’s a good school district, in which the students are encouraged to walk and has NO busing services at all. (So students either walk or dropped off.) We have a community pool and the park is quite literally around the corner.

    BUT…the kids aren’t out! They’re at the park sometimes with their parents, but you don’t see them much out on the street or playing the front yards. My son doesn’t really want to go to the park alone because he’ll be there by himself! (Other kids seem to be largely in after school care and in organized sports/classes/camps, etc.)

    Based on what’s lacking in my own neighborhood–which is deemed “family-friendly” and certainly has children around somewhere–look for signs of children in the FRONT. Bikes or basketball hoops or even just muddy rain boots on the front step. Does it look like kids come through the front door or is it more likely that they’re always in the backyard and not out and about?

  54. Maegan December 13, 2012 at 4:38 pm #

    FYI, I didn’t find Walkscore to be very accurate. My neighborhood got a low score, even though the center of the city is a 10-minute bike ride away and people walk by my house throughout the day to get to the bus stop on the corner. You can be downtown in 5 minutes or so via bus. There is also a park 1/2 block away.

  55. Captain America December 13, 2012 at 4:56 pm #

    I’m pleased to see so many Illinoisans here. One idea might be to check with the League of Illinois Bicyclists and see if they have some note of bicycle-friendly/ pedestrian friendly towns. One major emphasis for Chicago infrastructure has been developing more non-auto transport. So presumably this may mean more kid-friendly. Other than that, find the suburb with the lowest mean age; younger kids in a community may help prompt more kid-appropriate rules.

  56. Captain America December 13, 2012 at 4:57 pm #

    AND brand-new subdivisions mean younger families with children, rather than older “established” neighborhoods where the kids are all gone and they’re settin’ out ramps in front of the house.

  57. AW13 December 13, 2012 at 5:18 pm #

    I’m wondering if SES might be a larger factor than I’d realized. It seems like neighborhoods that are middle, lower middle and lower class have more frk roaming about. My neighborhood is a real mix, but the houses are all older houses (ours was built in 1941, if that gives an idea, and most of the others are around the same age). Anyway, I don’t live in IL, but I do live on the boarder (about 2.5 hours from the Western burbs of Chicago), and I agree with what someone else has said: the midwest, on the whole, does seem to be more free range than other places in the states. Maybe we’re more practical? ;)

  58. DH December 13, 2012 at 5:45 pm #

    As several other people have mentioned, it seems like the whole helicopter movement hasn’t gotten as big of a hold around Chicago and its suburbs as you might expect. We’re in a northwest suburb, and while most the kids do ride the buses (our schools cover large areas and sometimes are located away from the neighborhoods) I’ve never lived in a place in or around Chicago where I haven’t seen even youngish kids out and about regularly.

    Nobody in my suburban neighborhood blinks at 5 and 6 year olds running around unsupervised.

  59. Donald December 13, 2012 at 6:06 pm #

    When my parents looked for a house they wanted one on a court and not a road or street.

  60. Dulcie December 13, 2012 at 8:43 pm #

    From my experience, I agree with a lot of what I’ve already read in previous comments. Lower income neighborhoods are definitely more free-range and everyone is much more laid-back. When you can’t afford tennis lessons, ballet, piano, etc, your kids have to find their own ways to keep themselves occupied. Small mid-western towns also seem more free-range than what I’ve heard about places on either coast, I know mine is.
    I’ve lived in 6 houses in the last 7 years, ranging from a Wisconsin farm house on a dead end road, a skeevy-looking (very free-range) subdivision in Hawaii and a multi-million dollar beach front home (where we never saw another living soul walking in the neighborhood in the entire 6 months we lived there). I’ve been around the block quite a bit, so to speak, and I would always choose a blue collar neighborhood over a ritzy subdivision any day…and don’t even get me going on HOAs! YUCK!

  61. CM December 13, 2012 at 9:02 pm #

    We have a green area in our neighborhood the kids all play ball on, but having moved multiple times before kids and after I will say that the best advice I ever got was to meet neighbors first. You get a real feel for the area that you’re going to be if you meet a few people on the street. They can tell you the things that realtors can’t.

    You can also tell how involved a community is by visiting the schools. I just moved 2 years ago and visited 6 schools in the area. All of them looked the same on paper, but people tended to have preferences about which was better. Actually walking the halls was very eye opening. The ones that were considered ‘great’ schools tended to have hyper-involved PTA parents (the helicopter type that competed for room mom positions). The ones that were still good on paper but weren’t as popular tended to be more diverse. If you go in the mornings you can see how many people walk to school. A big walking community = more free range parents.

    Also, check out the grocery stores. Not so much free range, but very telling about a community. Is there a big organic section? Is there a big ethnic section? Do you see the foods you eat regularly on the shelves and does it appear that they turn over frequently? This was something I never considered before, but discovered was very important when we moved. People who eat like you, think like you. When the one grocery store in town that carries the ingredients you grew up with goes under and all that’s left on the shelves the last day they’re open are the foods you buy? Yeah, you’re never going to see it again. Food is a much larger part of childhood than just sustenance. It’s memories and family and culture and probably does have a place to be explored in free range philosophy. I’m going to quit now because I can’t even wrap my head around all of the run-on sentences that I just spewed. Sorry about that.

    I won’t link directly, but you can search for a few of these helpful web sites:
    Sperling’s is actually a good place to start when you’re looking at communities. You can see a lot of demographics and compare zip code to zip code. You can also look at walkscore to gauge how walkable a community is.

  62. Jenna K. December 13, 2012 at 9:35 pm #

    It might be harder to get an idea in the winter though. Our neighborhood is very free range–in the summer, kids from as young as 3 and 4 up to about 11/12 are outside playing, riding bikes, walking dogs, etc. They all play with each other, going from house to house. But in the winter, it’s pretty dead. It’s quite cold, hovers around 30 most of the time, so most kids don’t come out and play this time of year. Same with the parks in the area, which in the spring/summer/fall are teeming with kids who’ve ridden bikes or scooters over without their parents, but in the winter they are empty.

  63. pentamom December 13, 2012 at 10:34 pm #

    Half tongue in cheek, half serious: find a safe, middle class neighborhood within the borders of an impoverished, crime-ridden city. This won’t guarantee that there will be lots of free range families around, but it will mean that people will know that it’s ridiculous to expect the cops to respond to “children walking down the street” calls, and that no school administrator would be daft enough to insist on mandatory pickup by car.

  64. Per December 14, 2012 at 8:25 am #

    If a free-range neighbourhood is the top priority for deciding where to live, then moving to Europe is the simple solution. A 20 month old has absolutely no problem picking up a second language, and adults in most of Europe speak good enugh English that communication is not a problem.

    As a bonus, the childhood obesity rate in most of Europe is less than a third of that in the US (though this could be a consequence of the free-range issue.)

  65. Stephanie December 14, 2012 at 8:36 am #

    Sidewalks are so important- my outer suburb of Boston has lovely houses and large yards but no safe way for my kids to walk to school, the library, friends, activities or the two miles to the bus stop to the commuter rail. Knowing what I know now sidewalks are non negotiable when we move. We have been here for six years, supposedly there are other children on our street but I have never seen them. Ever.
    Cohousing looks lovely- I have friends who live in cohousing in MA and another looking at a group in ME. The kids seem happy and get to run around in a pack.

  66. EB December 14, 2012 at 9:02 am #

    Oak Park is very free range. Also multicultural, mixed-income, and there is active discouragement for picking up/dropping off kids at school. The few kids who live too far can take school buses to school. Being pretty urban, there is no “wild” space, but every kid lives in walking distance of a park.

  67. Jennifer December 14, 2012 at 9:56 am #

    We chose our particular neighborhood because every time we drove through in search of “for sale” signs we had to go slowly to give the kids time to move themselves out of the street where they were playing hockey or riding bikes. And it was obvious that said kids came from several families, not just one or two. It’s 7 years later and the kids who were playing street hockey then are now in high school or even off to college. But there is a new crop of school-age kids (including mine) playing out front and hopping from yard to yard and a rash of younger siblings toddling along behind them.

    We aren’t near our zoned school, so my kids ride the bus. The stop is a quarter mile from my house and my kids (even last year when my youngest was in kindergarten) walk without any grownups.

    Our walk score isn’t great–it’s about a mile to walk to the city bus or any stores. The pond, however, is MUCH closer and far more interesting to the kids anyway. And we’re in a fairly affluent area. So on paper, we might not seem like we’re free range, but if you drive by you’ll see it.

  68. Jill December 14, 2012 at 10:33 am #

    I’m so jealous of everyone living in FR neighborhoods. I live in suburban Connecticut purgatory. When we were looking for a new house, I thought that playscape = children = friends. Not true. Literally three doors down are two children with a big fancy playscape and an in-ground pool, and all this means is they never have to leave their yard or mix with the riff-raff.

  69. Vicki December 14, 2012 at 2:22 pm #

    I’m so so sorry for your loss. I can’t even imagine…

    My husband has two children from his previous marriage, and when we met, he was working hard to cultivate a free range attitude in the neighborhood. His reasons are more “outside vs screens” rather than free range, but the final product is the same. He worked hard when his kids were little (3 and 5) to knock on doors, have other parents sit on their porches while the kids play in the cul-de-sac we live on. As his kids got older, they would do the door knocking. Now they are 8 and 10 and they play all around our cul-de-sac, alley behind it, and in and out of other kids’ houses. Our neighborhood has the bones for free range (walking neighborhood, near a downtown walkable area, green space and parks, lots of kids, library, etc), but no one was doing it until my husband instigated it. If you can find a neighborhood you like, you can also cultivate the feelings of free-range-ness. And since your child is so young, you can build the free-range-ness as s/he grows. We have a toddler, almost 2, and we walk a lot with him, make sure he knows the neighbors, play in the cul-de-sac, etc. We don’t let him play alone, but when he is older, he will have the confidence and knowledge (and a couple little friends) to play and roam!

  70. Lea December 14, 2012 at 3:32 pm #

    Just my two cents on sidewalks, they aren’t necessarily a deal breaker. Our street does not have sidewalks and does have pretty good sized front yards and is pretty good. Bikes in yards, hockey nets in the street, basketball hoops set up at the curb are good signs in summer. We have a long cold winter here, but there are still kids out (in their snow gear) climbing on the mountain of snow that the graders pile up in the middle of the cul de sac. So for a northern climate, I would suggest looking for snow forts and other evidence that children are still recreating out of doors even in the winter.

    Also proximity to school. Our local elementary school is a few blocks down a rather large street with fast traffic. But there’s a crossing guard in the morning and a bike path on one side and a sidewalk on the other, so kids within walking distance can easily walk. From our neighborhood at least, they tend to gather up on our side street and then walk in a group down the larger street to get to the school, so it’s not necessary that parents make the walk with them.

    Libraries could also be a good indicator. Our library has a policy that children under 8 must be supervised. Which means that they are cool with 8 year olds being at the library alone. In other communities we have visited that age is higher.

  71. Lisa December 14, 2012 at 5:52 pm #

    I’m on Long island. I’m sure there must be free range areas, but I don’t know where they are. We have sidewalks but nobody walks anywhere. Just the occasional jogger or dog walker. When we moved here 11 years ago there were 3 families very close by with kids the ages of my kids (then 5 & 8) and thankfully the parents were fine with them all playing out front. Now those kids are mostly off to college and I have a 9 year old who has nobdy to play with. Breaks my heart.

  72. Captain America December 14, 2012 at 9:18 pm #

    I used to like Oak Park. But now I’m more into something like an Elmhurst or Batavia; the whole Fox River valley scene looks pretty good.

  73. celiadelia December 14, 2012 at 10:08 pm #

    Absolutely go for blue collar. In my town the kids are always outside. I live in Bristol Borough PA. It’s a teeny and very friendly town.

  74. Steph Armstrong December 15, 2012 at 12:00 am #

    I am so sorry for the loss of your husband, my heart goes out to you. Still! I don’t know where you are but in my fantasy-land I would so love to have you move into my neighborhood. I live in a twenty-year-old neighborhood in Elk Grove, California and ALL the parents for several blocks around are very “free range”. Our kids go outside, build forts, go to the nearby park, ride bikes, have Nerf gun battles and play until the streetlights come on and it is SO RELAXING for us parents. I live in a cul de sac and, sure, every so often us parents will cruise through our living rooms and check the street to make sure the kids are ok but overall everyone is pretty laid back. And nobody gives the other the stink-eye when we set our kid out on a bike to go to swim practice or karate on their own. Sure the houses could be bigger, or newer, or nicer but I will give up granite countertops and a three-car garage any day in order to give my kids the type of freedom and childhood play they have in our little neck of the woods. :)

  75. bobca December 15, 2012 at 8:17 am #

    Look for a neighborhood close to schools…one that has a good number of children. You can do that by driving through neighborhoods you might choose when it is school bus time.

    During after school and weekend periods, drive through again, on a nice day. Look for a good number of children outside playing, walking, riding bikes. If there are none, or almost none, but there were many at the bus, you are likely in a neighborhood where children are overprotected.

    That said, you should not feel pressure to raise your children like your neighbors do. It should not be hard on you. Your children will be challenged to set their own “play dates” though. In my experience, overprotective parents tend to prearrange all play dates and activities, to the point that their children have no freedom to make their own decisions.

    My daughter suffered through that until she was 10 years old. Many families then began to let their children make decisions. Most still did not, but that became their loss. Before that period, she would make plans with a friend, but the parent had already set things up. The parents in these instances always forced their own plans ahead of their child’s.

  76. Jenn December 15, 2012 at 8:23 am #

    We have new neighbours and they told me that one reason why they bought the house is because the day they came for the Open House, my son happened to be having his birthday party. Out of our front door burst 6 eight year olds wielding light sabres (and my 5 year old daughter tagging along behind them). She said they knew right away it that even if the house wasn’t perfect, the neighbours were and that mattered more to them. I would say look for signs that your neighbours use their yards. Kids playing outside, toys left out, chairs on the front porch with drinking glasses left behind. We have a basketball net on the front driveway that has become a beacon for the neighbourhood kids but I have seen some that lay untouched.

    Our neighbourhood is pretty pedestrian friendly but what makes people walk in our neighbourhood is that people have places to go. One neighbourhood near us looks pedestrian friendly (sidewalks, parks) but no one is out walking. The reason is that there is no where to walk to! Look for libraries, community centres, pools, stores, and small offices in the vicinity because people are more likely to walk if they are accessible.

  77. Jenn December 15, 2012 at 8:26 am #

    I forgot! Gardens! If you have a garden, you often have to be outside tending to it (unless you can afford someone to water it every day!). We have a vegetable garden in the back (and a small flower and herb garden in the front). We’re outside tending to it but when our harvest comes in and sometimes we have an abundance of tomatoes or lettuce, we leave them with our neighbours who have been admiring our work.

  78. Nic December 16, 2012 at 5:30 pm #

    What are the attitude of schools and preschools to play,exercise and walking to school?

  79. Nicole December 17, 2012 at 6:43 am #

    I walked up to the kids playing outside in a group in my (now) neighborhood, introduced myself and explained that I was looking at that house for sale, and asked them if they liked their schools. The fact that all of them seemed comfortable/allowed to talk to me sealed the deal.

  80. Gen December 17, 2012 at 8:57 am #

    Agree with all of the suggestions above – I went through a divorce 4 years ago and wanted to find a new place where my kids could get to school, stores, libraries, friends house etc by themselves safely (via walking or bike).

    That would be my suggestion – look not only for a town with kids out playing, but where your kids can “do for themselves”, like getting a haircut or picking up milk on the way home from school. A place where stores, shops and businesses are close enough to walk, and where the local businesses won’t freak out if your kid shows up unescorted to pick up the pizza.

    It also nice that my now teenage sons hang out at a local diner after school with their friends, instead of having to drive them to the mall, etc.

    Its good for them to be independent, and its good for you as a single parent not to have to drive them everywhere. Take care of yourself as well!

    I live in Perry, MI – about 5000 people, average boring midwest small town, decent schools, older homes, blue collar crowd, close enough to a major university to get “culture” when we need it.

    Good luck on your search, and bravo for you for making it a deliberate and thoughtful one at that – your work will pay off!

  81. BLH December 17, 2012 at 9:09 am #

    Check out Mike Lanza ‘s blog playborhood. I think he outlines things to look for…..

  82. JTL December 18, 2012 at 1:43 pm #

    “Yard to house ratios. Neighborhoods with houses that take up most of the lot suggest hot house parenting. If parents prefer bigger yards, that’s likely because they let their kids play outside.”

    This is the exact opposite of my experience. When each house has very little of its own yard, the children have to play in the street or the neighborhood parks. But when each house has lots of yard, it’s much more likely that each family will have its own playground equipment for its own use. So while the kids might still be outside, they aren’t venturing out of their own individual yards.

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