HELP NEEDED: Mom of Girl, 11, Wants to Go Free-Range, Needs Some Neighbors to Do The Same!

Here’s a note from a mom containing some common questions:

Dear Free-Range Kids: I would LOVE to allow my very active 11-year-old to go out and play like I used to.  You are probably going to roll your eyes or heave a heavy sigh when you read my concerns, but here they are.

I don’t roll my eyes. I know it’s really hard to give kids a plain old childhood!

Things ARE very different than they were when I was a kid.  For one thing, when I was a child, we lived on a block where all of the kids went to the same school, so we all knew each other.  In my current neighborhood, the children go to many different schools.  There are two public school options here and too many private schools to count, as well as homeschooling.  If fact, it is so diverse, that one of the first questions I am asked by other parents I meet is “Where does you child go to school?”  I doubt anyone ever asked my mom that; everyone knew that an elementary aged child in that neighborhood attended Johnson Elementary.

Note here: I know and agree that with kids going to many different schools it IS harder to get a local coterie together. That’s one reason I try to get ALL neighborhood kids to go to the local park at least on Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day. I’d suggest trying something similar on all Saturday mornings for the rest of the summer: Send a local notice that your kids will be at the park, and maybe that you yourself will supervise, at least the first time, giving parents a chance to drop their kids off.

Which brings me to another point, which is that when I was a kid, most moms were home during the day and they knew each other.  No matter where the kids were, a parent was at least within distance of hearing any screams or shouts for help.

Where I now live, most families are two income which means that no adults are around.  I wave at my neighbors as they pull in and out of their garages and that is about it.  I don’t know them, or their kids.

This is something I hear this a lot — always framed this same way: When kids are screaming in pain or terror, there is no one around to help them anymore.

Our psyches and our kids would benefit if we broke the habit of framing childhood freedom in terms of only worst case scenarios. I really can’t  one time as a kid when we were playing outside and something so terrible happened that we weren’t able to handle it. Most kids rise to the occasion when there’s a scrape, or someone forgets their lunch, or there’s a squabble. But our society insists we keep looking at childhood not just through the lens of risk — “What could go wrong?”– but through the lens of disastrous, unlikely, Sharknado risk. At which point, by the way, usually there’s some kid with a phone, or a stranger with a phone, who can call 911 if necessary.

And not to beat a dead horse, but there also seem to be lots of parents at home these days, because they work remotely. (Like me.)

I have posted messages on our Next Door Neighbor app, and either I am the only SAHM here or, if there are others, they are uninterested in getting to know each other.  Also, when I was a child, my parents knew that they could count on the other adults around to hold the children to a standard of behavior that used to be common.  Now, everyone has such diverse ideas about what is acceptable, there are adults who have actually encouraged and enabled my older children to do something that they KNEW we would be opposed to.  That is the state of the “village” I am in.  Suggestions?

Truly I understand your frustration, especially when you have been reaching out and getting radio silence. Is there maybe a way to get an article in the local paper: “Mom seeks other Free-Range Families”? Or maybe you can find some fellow Free-Rangers by trying my freerangefriend.com widget? It’s free. You just put in your Zip Code and see if there’s anyone else nearby. What if you volunteered to run one free day of end-of-summer “camp” at the local park and said anyone could drop off their kids? And then told the parents that if they want it to happen again tomorrow, one of THEM has to volunteer? Or they have to send a teenager?

And readers: If you have any solutions that have worked in your neighborhood PLEASE SHARE! The summer you save may be your own!  L

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Is there any way to bring this scene back to life?

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21 Responses to HELP NEEDED: Mom of Girl, 11, Wants to Go Free-Range, Needs Some Neighbors to Do The Same!

  1. Linda August 2, 2017 at 12:15 pm #

    How about hosting an “it’s good to know your neighbors” outdoor gathering some weekend before the summer is over? Check out this inspiring blog post about a mom who solved this problem with a flyer and some cold beverages!

    http://outdoorafro.com/2012/10/its-good-to-know-your-neighbors/

    ‘Before leaving, my previously skeptical neighbor expressed amazement, and said, “In all the years I have lived here, this has never happened – you did a good thing.” ‘

  2. AmyP August 2, 2017 at 12:21 pm #

    Here are my thoughts. For me, it brought me great comfort to see children around the neighborhood without adult supervision. This helped me feel better about sending my own out into the world. But, with that being said, somebody’s child has to be the first, right? So, there aren’t children outside on their own. Maybe that’s because their parents have some of the same reservations as you. If they see your children outside on their own they may get the comfort level to do so themselves and it becomes more common in your neighborhood and then there are lots of children to play with. And they will look after each other. If you can afford it and are okay with it, your child could have access to a cheap cell phone. I don’t think that’s required and I’m okay with kids going without it, but if it will help ease the anxiety then that’s an option. But either way, I say send the child out on their own regardless of whether there are other children outside or not. The idea would be that eventually the other kids would come out. And in the meantime, some solo time is okay too. When I was a child I was raised free range, but I also have anxiety issues, so for a long time I played solo with my own imagination. I appreciated being allowed to leave the house solo just the same. Also, I am still quite the anxious person so it was very hard for me to allow my kids to do certain things. I did in fact think a lot about bad scenarios. But I realized I had to put that aside, because I’m aware that anxiety is my issue and not my kids and I have to do the right thing by them. With that being said, every time they do something on their own successfully it is a win for both of you. The child has that wonderful feeling of independence and the anxiety level for the parent (if there is one) goes down each time. Good luck.

  3. Mike Lanza August 2, 2017 at 12:23 pm #

    I wrote a book about this very problem. Check out Playborhood.

  4. Mindy Stricke August 2, 2017 at 12:24 pm #

    Here in Toronto, I started a group called the Toronto Free Play Co-op. The point was to find other people in the neighbourhood who are on the same page as far as being free range and valuing free play. It’s worked quite well–there is power in numbers, and in having these conversations.

    We started last summer by doing a “loose-parts play” at the park with a pot luck on a weekly basis last summer. We also rented a fire pit in the winter and got the kids outside then. And just knowing other parents who feel the same way has been great. My 8 year old now plays with some of her friends at the park without adult supervision (of course there are lots of adults around with younger kids, just not us), and now I know I’m not the only one who feels it’s important to have this independence. And even when we’re doing something as a community with all of the parents there, its so nice that it’s a different “culture”–there’s no hovering, and the parents let the kids work things out. No recriminations.

    We also connected with our local play advocacy organization which really helped (EarthDay Canada, and their EarthPlay program). We’ve supported them in starting a StreetPlay pilot so kids can play in the streets (it involves weekly street closures). Of course not all places will have this kind of institutional support. But without starting the group in the first place we never would have connected with EarthDay and never would have known what was possible.

    We started with a Facebook group, which is what I recommend. It’s an easy way to get started and find like-minded people in your area, and then you can decide what comes next as a group.

  5. James Pollock August 2, 2017 at 1:43 pm #

    I think one of the challenges is that there are more fun things to do indoors than there used to be.
    In my own lost-forever youth, I had Legos at home, and Hot Wheels. But the TV had five channels, only one of which offered programming targeting kids at any time other than Saturday morning. Nobody had computers, and almost nobody had a videogame system (and the ones that did had very limited games)
    Today’s kids have way more stuff to do indoors. There’s cable TV, with at least a half-dozen channels with kids programming on ALL THE TIME. There’s videogame consoles… so many games to play, and you can play against another person without leaving the house. There’s the Internet, and all manner of fun things to find on it. And kids have phones of their own. It is entirely possible that, given a free choice about what to do with their time, a kid will choose to stay inside, especially if there are local conditions that make going outside a PITA. Where I live now, it’s rain. It certainly CAN be fun to play outside in the rain, but…that’s not the way most people will see it. When I lived in Texas, it was heat… 100 outside, 72 inside. Let me think about where I want to be (and, of course, sunburn. Other places its cold, or overrun with mosquitoes, or dark. People build houses because they want to be inside them!

    Then, there’s the “organized activity” issue. In the suburbs, at least, activities get scheduled. There’s only so many athletic fields, and the competition for them is fierce, so they get scheduled. There’s no pick-up game down at the schoolyard, the Wolves have reserved the field from 4-5, the Bears have it from 5-6, the Eagles have it from 6-7, and the Tigers have it from 7-8. And the pickup game wouldn;t have enough players for a game anyway, because Eddie’s on the Wolves, Taylor is on the Eagles, and Jeff, Mike, and Alex all have Scouts tonight., and Tom doesn’t even get home until dinnertime.

    My local parks district offered structured unstructured play. You could sign your kid up for basketball or soccer or gymnastics. But they also offered “drop-in rec center”. The center staff would build a game around whoever showed up, using whatever resources were needed and available, and then they’d have other kids join in as they showed up. So, they might start out just shooting baskets, then switch to HORSE when more kids showed up, then to basketball. Then, when the kids got tired of baseketball, there might be a game of tag or hide-and-seek. That was the closest thing to the way free play happened when I was a child, that was available when my daughter was a child. There are a few groups of children who play outside, in the neighborhood, but there’s one group that’s all siblings, with no more than 1 or 2 guests, and one that pretty exclusively skateboards, as best as I can tell.

    All this adds up, alas, to the advice that trying to get all the kids in the neighborhood playing together outside may be a lost cause. That’s not necessarily bad, just different.

  6. Heartfruit August 2, 2017 at 2:08 pm #

    One of my neighbours organized a “neighbourhood play date”. They advertised with flyers and posts on local FB groups. And encouraged families to all come to the park at the same time on a Saturday afternoon. My daughter is older so we didn’t attend but I walked past the park while it was on and it looked well received. While not quite a “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day” it might be a great step towards meeting your neighbours and having your kid make friends with local children who don’t go to the same school.

  7. Rebel mom August 2, 2017 at 2:51 pm #

    I’ve run what my husband jokingly calls a free babysitting service since my kids were tiny. It’s important to me to make sure my kids have free unstructured playtime with friends so I make it happen. Host the play date every single time? No problem. Feed the kids multiple healthy meals and snacks? Yup. Call, email and text to set up good times to meet even though the other parent never does any legwork? Sure thing.

    I’ve never worried about the other parents shouldering part ofthe burden bc honestly most don’t have free play as a priority so they’d just drop it. If I have to drive a half hour each way and do drop off and pick up so my kids can run around with a buddy all day I’ll do it. Sounds lame but the alternative is worse (ie no free play with friends). I can’t change the world but I can change the little space of world my kids live in.

    Sorry this isn’t more hopeful but it’s a realistic way of dealing with free play and making it happen.

  8. Workshop August 2, 2017 at 3:42 pm #

    Step 1: Go to grocery store and buy flour, sugar, eggs, vanilla, chocolate chips, baking soda, etc.
    Step 2: Bake cookies.
    Step 3: Take cookies to neighbor, explain who you are, where you live, and that you’d like to begin to become neighborly.
    Step 4: Repeat steps 2 and 3 with other neighbors.
    Step 5: Repeat often.

    We become friendly when we interact with people, asking for and giving favors, establishing bonds of trust and friendship.

    I have two neighbors who I interact with quite a bit because our property lines are together. I interact much less often with the people across the street because we don’t see each other. I recognize “going outside and doing stuff” is not the mode of operation people use anymore, but heck . . . go to a neighbor and ask if he/she needs help pulling weeds or trimming. Ask to borrow a lawn tool. Ask for advice on flowers because this particular neighbor does a great job with plants.

    Find a reason to talk with people face to face. Once we do that, we’re much more likely to continue interactions with them. Note that this is why car salesmen don’t like to quote prices over the phone, because it doesn’t establish a bond. Go door to door, talk face to face.

  9. Stacey August 2, 2017 at 4:25 pm #

    OH sure.. yeah…
    “Step 1: Go to grocery store and buy flour, sugar, eggs, vanilla, chocolate chips, baking soda, etc.
    Step 2: Bake cookies.
    Step 3: Take cookies to neighbor, explain who you are, where you live, and that you’d like to begin to become neighborly.
    Step 4: Repeat steps 2 and 3 with other neighbors.
    Step 5: Repeat often.”

    Until…. Well, my child is gluten-free, mine is allergic to…xyz… my child is eating only organic, locally sourced vegan products… so on and so forth.

    Cookies are so mid-century…. Food particularity…. another thing to be special about…

  10. test August 2, 2017 at 4:50 pm #

    I think that 11 years old are getting to the age when they don’t just play around. They go out to do something, even if that something is talking with friends. At that age, they are starting to need a goal, reason or specific activity they are going to do. Biking to library or club or place where something or socialization can be done for example.

    You cant control what other people allow to children. I don’t know what points of differences are, but even if you encounter freerange community around, changes are some of those people will allow children to do things that you don’t. After all, being outside alone is something freerange parents encourage and others see as wrong.

    Being without supervision and being controlled by other parents is not the same. I guess I am lucky that overwhelming majority of parents when I was child worked, so I did not grew up with expectation that bored moms supervise other peoples children outside. Even if they did not worked, they were inside at home or on playground with very small sibling while 11 years old already preferred places without supervising adults.

  11. Anna August 2, 2017 at 5:04 pm #

    One thought about the no-moms-at-home any more problem: at least in my neighborhood, there’s an awful lot of older ladies (and a few older men) who are home most of the time, many of whom are still quite active and fit. I’ve told my son that in case of some crazy emergency like me falling off a ladder or some such thing, he should go first to the door of our very friendly elderly neighbor who we chat with every day when she walks her dog. When you think about it, a fairly large percentage of the population is retired, and surely there are at least a few in every neighborhood.

  12. Meghan Shaw August 2, 2017 at 6:42 pm #

    Back in 1992, when I was 12 I babysat other kids and sold Girl Scout cookies to my neighbors going door to door. Perhaps this 11 could knock on her neighbors doors and ask kids to go play!

  13. lollipoplover August 2, 2017 at 7:26 pm #

    “most moms were home during the day and they knew each other.”

    On my street, there are 5 parents that work from home (including me).

    I second Workshop’s advise to bring some cookies and introduce yourself to neighbors. Any homemade item will do (even a surplus of tomatoes from the garden are a good icebreaker).

    You will be pleasantly surprised at how other parents are willing to find nearby free play for their kids. We have a few helicopter parents in our neighborhood, but I’m happy to say they’ve been worn down by positive peer pressure to let the kids just play. I’ve always told all neighborhood kids and parents that they can call me anytime for an emergency and I’d be happy to help out. One working mom/helicopter mom needed me to pick up her sick kid from school while she was away and I did it immediately. Now the kid (8) bikes to school with my daughter.
    Another neighbor asked if her 6 year-old son could bike *alone* with the group of bikers to school each morning and if someone could text her that he arrived safely as that was a worry of hers. Done!

    We need to stop critiquing other parenting methods and instead work together to let these kids have a decent childhood. Sometimes it starts with cookies…

  14. Ater August 2, 2017 at 8:12 pm #

    My boys (4 and 3) have been playing outside alone since we moved into this house a couple weeks ago. Honestly most of the appeal of this house was the giant yard that they could play in, and they’ve done a fantastic job of being responsible and proven themselves to be excellent free range children. Not to mention how much happier and better behaved they are now that they can go outside and run off all their energy… They are the only children I have ever seen outside in my neighborhood. I see evidence of children, but no actual children.

    One an unrelated note, today the elderly neighbors behind us offered the boys some tomatoes from their garden. It was great.

  15. Jessica August 2, 2017 at 9:11 pm #

    The SAHM thing is real. I know many people work from home, but not in my neighborhood. Because I know my child’s friends (everyone here does attend the same neighborhood school), and I know their parents. Now that it is summer, they are ALL in daycare/camp (they’re 5 and 6 years old, so they aren’t home alone all day). I know it SEEMS like there would be other children on our block home between 10:00am and 4:00pm, but there really truly aren’t. Believe me, I’ve checked!

    I know some other SAHPs, but they do not live nearby. We arrange get-togethers. People constantly roll their eyes at the term “play-date,” but that is what we do. My friend comes to have coffee with me, she brings her boys, and the three of them play outside alone together. Yes, it’s scheduled. No, it’s not the same as just sending him out at random times to find playmates. But times change, and our arrangement results in them having great, unsupervised playtime together.

  16. Jessica August 2, 2017 at 9:13 pm #

    Anna, that’s a good point! Where there aren’t children around, there are almost certainly retirees.

  17. SKL August 3, 2017 at 1:00 am #

    When I was a kid, my parents both worked and most of the kids on the street, or even in my own family sometimes, went to different schools. When I was 6, I went to the Lutheran school, 1 brother went to the regular public, my other brother to the gifted public, and my younger sister was in preschool. My next door neighbor went to the Catholic school. The girl across the street went to the special needs public school. Yet we all played together outside of school. There is no need for a school connection in order to play in the neighborhood.

    My kids’ 2 closest neighbors also go to different schools than my girls go to. The girl next door often has her cousins over, who attend still another school, and yet all the kids manage to play together. They play all sorts of games, invent various projects or just go explore in the ravine out back. Who wants to talk about school during free time anyway?

    When the family next door moved in, my kids felt shy for a while, but then one day my eldest (then 7 or 8) grabbed her jumprope and started jumping toward the neighbor’s house when the kids were outside. That prompted the neighbor girl to say hi, and the rest is history. So, the answer is to tell your kids to go play outside along the street and be friendly.

    It was a long time before I let my kids go into the neighbors’ houses. I am very introverted and don’t know any of my neighbors, but more than that, I could not reciprocate as my house was a mess until we finished a big construction project. Finally I did let the kids go in though. They were big enough to speak for themselves and tell me if anything didn’t seem right; and my house was reasonably decent for kid visitors.

    As for the SAHM stuff, I don’t see what’s so special about that. I don’t believe school-age kids need to be supervised all the time. I certainly was not, and my kids are not. That said, there are always enough people along the street who are home outside of school hours, usually because they are retired or because they are teachers. I am fully confident that if my kid started screaming in distress, someone would hear and check it out. And like many middle-school kids, mine also have cell phones which they take if they’re going out of earshot.

    Actually, I believe the neighbors look out for my kids, because I made the effort to walk them around the neighborhood since they were tots (still cute LOL), so people have a bit of a connection with them. They know who my kids belong to and would notice something amiss. But even if nobody was home, I’m not going to keep my kids indoors because “something might happen.”

    The absence of SAHMs (and also the prevalence of extracurriculars) does mean that many school-aged kids aren’t home at all until dinner time or later. Luckily for my kids, their neighbors happen to be home immediately after school dismissal – much earlier than my kids are dropped at the bus stop – and they play outside. My kids are the ones who are frequently elsewhere doing sports etc.

  18. sexhysteria August 3, 2017 at 1:32 am #

    Let go of the “stranger danger” myth. The worst injuries are committed by parents. Kids are safer by themselves.

  19. Emily August 3, 2017 at 12:08 pm #

    OH sure.. yeah…
    >> “Step 1: Go to grocery store and buy flour, sugar, eggs, vanilla, chocolate chips, baking soda, etc.
    Step 2: Bake cookies.
    Step 3: Take cookies to neighbor, explain who you are, where you live, and that you’d like to begin to become neighborly.
    Step 4: Repeat steps 2 and 3 with other neighbors.
    Step 5: Repeat often.”

    Until…. Well, my child is gluten-free, mine is allergic to…xyz… my child is eating only organic, locally sourced vegan products… so on and so forth.

    Cookies are so mid-century…. Food particularity…. another thing to be special about…<<

    Stacey, I've been a vegan for six years, and I was a lacto-ovo vegetarian for nine and a half years before that, and I've known people with peanut allergies, celiac disease, you name it…….and I'd still appreciate a gesture like that, because the cookies aren't the point. It's possible to say, "Oh, I can't eat those cookies, because I'm [vegan/celiac/whatever], but yeah, I'd love to get to know you/get the kids together. Is Saturday morning at the park okay?" Some people bring baked goods over to meet new people, because they feel weird just knocking on doors for no reason (or, they feel like wanting to get to know someone isn't a good enough reason), so the baked goods make it easier.

    Also, I don't agree that having dietary restrictions is being "special." I'm a vegan because I don't want animals to be killed and exploited, but other people have dietary restrictions for medical reasons; for example, I've known many people through the years who had life-threatening peanut allergies, and carried Epi-Pens. That wasn't being "special," even if some people say that my veganism is. But, my point is, the possibility of people having dietary restrictions, shouldn't be a deterrent to building community, because there are so many things you can do together that have nothing to do with food.

  20. Mel August 3, 2017 at 4:41 pm #

    Actual advice- I find the Next Door group skews a bit older. Check for local parent Facebook groups. I constantly see posts for ‘looking for playmate for kid’ or ‘going to local park at 2pm, come on by’. The kids are usually a bit younger, but worth a shot.

  21. Claudia August 14, 2017 at 2:54 pm #

    Like any parent, I want my child to be safe. However, I don’t want to raise her in an atmosphere of fear. Striking a balance between safety and freedom is what I hope to be able to do.