It Used to be Lonely for Kids INSIDE. Now It’s the Reverse

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This post comes from Mollie Shaw, a friend, frequent commenter, and Free-Ranger who is a writer and marketing consultant in British Columbia. Maybe it will resonate for you the way it did for me:

Dear Free-Range Kids: I can remember feeling lonely as a young child in the 1970s.
 I have vivid recollections of being inside my house, on a weekend, or a long summer day, “nothing” on TV (the three major networks and fuzzy reception of PBS). If I had called all of my friends (I don’t think my mother ever made a call to another parent trying to “arrange” for me to play somewhere or have a friend over) and couldn’t find a connection, then I was at a loss. What to do?
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Go outside.
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Sure, there were times when we kids wanted to be inside watching TV, when there was something “good” on, and Mom would shoo us out the door to get some “fresh air.” When video games came into fashion in the 1980s, there was a definite shift toward indoor time with friends.
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Still, if you were alone, it was lonelier to be inside than outside.
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So I’d go outside. At least if I went outside, there was a chance I might run into another kid. That wasn’t going to happen inside my house. Those random social encounters only happened outdoors, and sometimes I would even encamp myself on a neighbour’s driveway, waiting for their car to return, so I’d be the first face they’d see.
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But here and now, in the 2010s, outside is the lonely place to be. The chance of a spontaneous social encounter with another young child is basically zero these days. No, there aren’t other kids in the street, outside in their yards, playing at the park. There’s no point in going outside if you’re alone, and connection is what you’re after.
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Nope, for that, you’re better off with Snapchat or Instagram. Indoors. Where the wifi is strong, and the walls can protect you from the randomness and hugeness and loneliness of the outside world. With a small device in your hands, you’re much more likely to connect with your buddies. They’re all at home alone too, hovering online, and that’s where you’re more likely to find them, since they’re not out shooting hoops by themselves, hoping that the rhythmic bang bang bang of the ball on the pavement will draw others outside to play with them.
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Our kids have been trained well. They won’t go outside without us, because it’s too lonely. Maybe we’ve told them it’s dangerous, too. Dangerous and lonely. Would you go outside, if that’s how it felt to you? An empty, scary nothingness with zero social connection possibilities?
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We wonder how to get our kids to “like” going outside. No one had to convince me, when I was a child. If I knocked on doors and made phone calls and no one was available to play, I knew that I’d better hang around outside, where they could find me.
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As I waited, I would inevitably start studying bugs in the grass, or looking at the odd shapes of the clouds, or making a tiny pot out of mud. The meditative qualities of encountering the tamed-down “wild” of suburban Ohio were no doubt a good thing for me. A thing that hardly any child, anywhere in middle-class North America, experiences anymore.
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Because inside is comfortable, safe, and social. Outdoors is lonely, dangerous, and boring.
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What a quick and complete change in childhood. – M.S.
It sure is. So let me put in a plug for two things. First, this coming Saturday is our annual TAKE OUR CHILDREN TO THE PARK…AND LEAVE THEM THERE DAY — the day parents are encouraged to take their kids to the local park at 10 a.m., in the hopes that other families will do the same. Then, if the parents think their kids are old enough (7? 8?), they leave them there to figure out how to have fun with other kids, without an adult directing them.
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Second: As summer approaches why not try out freerangefriend.com? It’s a free service that helps you find other people nearby who ALSO want to send their kids outside.
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And feel free to suggest any other great ideas for making a neighborhood a neighborhood! – L.

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You're never alone, with a phone.

What is this strange creature doing outside? 

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23 Responses to It Used to be Lonely for Kids INSIDE. Now It’s the Reverse

  1. Monica May 17, 2016 at 11:58 am #

    re: those “random social encounters” that could only happen outdoors. My 5 year old son and 3.5 year old daughter often play on the front lawn, and love when the local school lets out and all of the kids come walking by on their way home. Most of these school kids don’t even reply when my kids greet them with a “Hi!” much less interact with them in any way. They will honestly walk by silently, completely ignoring these friendly little kids who would just like to socialize for a moment with near-aged peers. Always makes me a little sad.

  2. Jessica May 17, 2016 at 12:04 pm #

    That’s one of the main reasons we love our neighborhood. We’re on a double cul-de-sac and now that the weather has warmed up there are always kids to play with. My boys hop on their bikes and race down the street as soon as they see other kids out. We have a play set and a trampoline in our backyard, as do many of our neighbors, and I always comment that a backyard is only as fun as the number of kids playing there.

  3. Rebel mom May 17, 2016 at 12:19 pm #

    We hang out in our front yard A LOT. Trying to reverse this trend one family at a time and we’ve met lots of people (adult and kid) this way. It’s easy to wave and say hi and when we’re outside playing with baby chicks, a hamster, painting or jumping rope it’s easy to segue from a hi to a short conversation. Viola, a potential new buddy and we know a lot of the neighbors we might otherwise not know existed (nice bc my kids know who lives where in case of an emergency even if we’re not close friends).

  4. bob magee May 17, 2016 at 12:43 pm #

    Whenever I was booted outdoors (which was basically everyday of the year) the assumption is that I would find something to do to occupy my time until it was time to come home (either the 6 pm church bells or Mrs Casey, standing on the roof of our apartment building, calling for “JOHN, JOHNNNN CAY-SEEE !”).

    This was The Bronx circa 1960-67 and there was plenty of kids to be found.

    Moved to the suburbs in 1968 as HS started, but my 5 siblings were still treated same way – out of the house and go find something to do.

    Plenty of kids in the suburbs, too.

    Both our Bronx locale and Long Island neighborhood had playgrounds that were conducive to children of ALL ages.

    Our Bronx park had swings, see-saws, monkey bars, basketball court, slides – even a baseball diamond (even though this was all on blacktop). There was also a large (semi) grassy area just outside the playground proper for games involving tumbling, falling etc.

    To top all this off there were PARK ATTENDANTS – employees of the NYC Dept of Parks. They were there primarily for the small fry set (5 and under) and would organize games and activities for whatever kids where there. I even attended a pre-K program in that parkhouse.

    The parkhouse was open, during the day, all year round. Rainy weather, cold weather or even hot weather it served as place to play outside the home even as the weather made outdoor play limited.

    There were games & supplies available to us kids ranging from balls, jump ropes, board games, playing cards, jacks – wide range of items to cover all ages.

    the suburban park lacked the parkhouse/staff part (but the baseball diamond was at least grass and dirt), but since we lived in a neighborhood of private homes with yards & rec rooms bad weather was no excuse to be housebound.

    To me that is a big part of today’s dilemma regarding kids playing outside – parks are generally NOT conducive to covering a wide range of ages and interests.

    I could take any of my younger siblings to a park and do my thing (usually on a court or ballfield) while they did theirs. Adult interaction was minimal.

    Now you have additional demographic changes (fewer kids than during prime baby boomer years, greater suburban sprawl and increased car traffic just a few), but to me the biggest issue is that playgrounds seem to be more age targeted, with less challenging equipment. And, of course, the entire mindset of unattended children.

    In a sense, whether in The Bronx or suburban LI, it was the COMMUNITY that made a commitment to provide these opportunities for interaction and play by providing appropriate equipment AND space for many to use at the same time.

    It takes a village to make a playground

  5. Vaughan Evans May 17, 2016 at 12:49 pm #

    I can remember when I was 8.
    I went by myself to a neighbourhood park(Although my mother had misgivings-about me going alone. She would have been more protective I had been a girl.
    I met two boys-about my age.
    They improvised a game “Truth or Dare?
    -If I said, “dare” they would say, ‘”I dare you to ..pull down your pants..
    If I said, “Truth”:, they would ask,
    “Who’s your girlfriend.

    -Childhood IS a wonderfukl time of life.
    _Even though I came from a rather rich family(Myfather wasa physician). My childhood was typical of the games and sports all childen of both sexes played.
    I had a little irlfriend-whose father was a postl worker.

    I did NOT expect special favours-from her, just because I came from a rich family.
    Nor did I treat her condescendingly-just because she came from a working class parent.
    r
    However, children growing up in the 1950;s lived n an era where there was great emphasis-on status and prestige-when entertainment was becoming more artificial-and more indoors.

    -Television, movies, concerts, and spectator sports, meant that children AND adults were spending more time indoors.

    -(I was born in 1949) I(My contemporaries, were fed up with artificial entertainment
    -I was typical of the hippie rebels of the 1960’s.)

    -To a certain extent, changes that have taken place since the 1960’s are for the good.
    Nowadays whole families go on bicycle rides
    (Before 1970-when the 10-speed bicycles appeared, people would make fun of an adult who liked bicycling.
    In 1979, when polyurethane roller skates appeared, adults like to roller skate on sidewalks.

  6. BM May 17, 2016 at 1:09 pm #

    It really depends where you live I guess. There is no shortage of children where I live. The parks are full every day. Yesterday, it was the first day we lost track of our 4 year old because he went off playing with the neighbourhood kids. He and the 2 year old followed the posse on a trek around the block. I caught up with the 2 year old, but by then the 4 year old was around the next corner. By the time I carried the 2 year old home, my 4 year old was out of sight. I just caught up with him long enough to put his helmet on him, then he was off riding with that gang on his bike. We weren’t worried.
    The previous week, I had a gaggle of strange kids playing waterfights in my back yard, because some kids has water pistols, I got my kids one out, the tap was in the back yard, they all followed… it just happened. There were some that I knew of, but didn’t know their names, their parents, or where they lived. One mother(of the 6 year olds that I did know) came round to remind the boys that they had swimming lessons in 10 minutes. If parents of the other children wanted to find them(age 5 girl and 7 boy or so I guess), they would have to wait for them to come home, because they would have no idea where they were.(we’ve never met)
    No panic ensued. No police were called. The children finished playing and went home after the others had to go to swimming.

  7. Powers May 17, 2016 at 1:24 pm #

    Where I grew up, there was no way I’d find other kids outside, not within walking distance. Not everyone lives in village or town.

  8. EricS May 17, 2016 at 1:25 pm #

    I too remember growing up vividly. We spent quality time indoors, but most of the time, we were outside. Even when video games became popular in the early 80’s, we spent hours playing. In fact, “video games” kept us occupied in the 70’s as well. Remember Radio Shack Pong? I was one of the first kids in our group to get one. And every weekend, friends would come over and play. But we also took long breaks in between to go outside. When we got bored of playing inside, we went outside. And ended up spending more time out there then inside the house.

    And because a lot of kids spent time outside (without adult supervision, which was a normal thing), unless it was raining, there would never be a shortage of kids at the local park. Even if we didn’t play with our regular friends, there were still other kids to play with. And we ended up making more friends. I feels so bad for kids these days. They are no longer allowed to do that by their parents, and society in general. “It’s ‘unsafe'”. Ha! (my eyes are rolling back). Their social skills are all digital. There are no REAL human to human social interaction. The only human to human interaction are the parents who gab with each other while they take their kids to the park, but don’t let them wander off to be kids. Pretty much tethered the whole time. Again, all about the parents.

    I went to the farmers’ market in my neighborhood this past weekend. It has a decent sized park/playground beside it. And as I looked at the people that congregated there, I was kind of impressed at how full it was. Then I realized, there were actually more adults (gabbing with each other), than there were kids playing with other kids. I would say about, for every kid, there was 3 adults. In one particular instance, I saw one boy, who was so curious and excited to go to another group of kids (guessing he wanted to play with them). But the mother kept telling him to stay by her. All the while, she was just talking to another mother, who was doing the same with her kid. Both boys didn’t acknowledge each other, they just wanted to run off and play. They looked around 7-8 years old. And I can see the huge disappointment in their faces. Very sad.

  9. lollipoplover May 17, 2016 at 1:36 pm #

    “But here and now, in the 2010s, outside is the lonely place to be. The chance of a spontaneous social encounter with another young child is basically zero these days. No, there aren’t other kids in the street, outside in their yards, playing at the park. There’s no point in going outside if you’re alone, and connection is what you’re after.

    It really depends on where you live. This is a broad statement and while I get the intention, there are still many GOOD neighborhoods for children. I see kids EVERY DAY making routes like Billy from Family Circus.
    To be honest- we looked for this kind of neighborhood. Seeing basketball nets on the streets and bikes strewn on lawns, the lure of sidewalk chalk and bubbles in the air, walking distance to a community pool and park complex with big fields for pick up games, stores and shopping districts close enough for older kids to walk or bike, it attracts active families.

    Often, it takes getting the parents comfortable with neighborhood play before you can get other kids outside. Have a happy hour and invite the block over with kids- get some good stuff for them to do and play OUTSIDE. Remark how nice it is to see them playing together. Start small.
    “The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention.” ~Oscar Wilde
    You’d be so surprised to see how many people are onboard with kids playing outside, young families and old. I have older neighbors who tell me they enjoy watching the kids run around the streets and wished they had their energy.

  10. EricS May 17, 2016 at 1:37 pm #

    @Powers: Not sure what decade you grew up in. But I didn’t live in a village or town either. I lived in a major city. 15 min walk from the middle of downtown. There was a park across the street from me (specifically, the playground was on the other side of the park, behind a green house, and beside an area where homeless people hung out). The next closes park was at my elementary school, which was about a 10 min walk from my house (adult steps). The next closest was a little further away, which was about a 15 min bike ride. And we all went to them. If I didn’t find friends in one place, I’d go to the other. And if I couldn’t find anyone, I just started to play with the other kids. Of course it wasn’t always that simple. Some kids were mean back then, bullies even (some things just don’t change). But 1. I learned to deal with them. 2. I learned to fight…excuse me…defend myself, to deal with them. 3. I learned about diplomacy. Even though I didn’t know that’s what it was called at the time. 4. I learned my limits, and how to exceed them.

    Had I grown up in this day and age, I would never have learned any of those things. I’m very certain, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I’d be an insecure man, doing the least amount as possible, so I don’t have to put myself out there. Because I wouldn’t have learned how to otherwise. My life would have been mediocre at best. But because I didn’t grow up stifled and sheltered, I learned to be confident, and street smart. It became the base of who I would become. Not afraid of testing my limits. Not afraid of trial and error. And open to possibilities, because I wasn’t held back. I know my parents would always worry when we went off on our own, and they didn’t know where we were. But they let us be kids. To learn. They over came their fears, so that we can have a chance at a successful adult life. That’s why they started teaching us how to be independent at a very young age. That’s how they grew up, worked for them. That’s how I grew up, worked for me. That’s how I’m raising my own, and it’s working for them as well.

  11. K May 17, 2016 at 1:41 pm #

    @bob mages: I agree! Boring playgrounds are my biggest current pet peeve. Last year, I was thrilled to see our neighborhood playground frequently full of unattended 8-10 year olds. But even then, I was hearing conversations like, “Let’s go to the new playground!” “The new playground is so boring!” They were frequently there anyway, but this year, that playground is almost always completely empty. I guess once the novelty of a “new” playground wore off, there was nothing interesting to keep them there. And I’m not surprised. Yesterday I took a video of my 2-year-old successfully navigating the play structure independently, because it was his first time and I was proud of him. He was physically capable a long time ago, but has a fear of heights that made him freeze whenever he got near the top. Yesterday he did the whole thing himself! But even as I filmed him because I was proud, I was wondering what this playground would have to offer him for the next 10 years, if he’s conquered it at age 2. :-/

  12. Becks May 17, 2016 at 2:42 pm #

    I’m trying to be free range but my son (nearly 10) doesn’t want to go to the park coz his friends won’t be there. They aren’t allowed to go themselves, they aren’t allowed to go to the local ice cream shop or walk to school. None of his friends would ever ‘come in for him’ coz they aren’t allowed out of their streets. They live within a mile of us. There are some local kids within a few doors of us and they play out a lot but they aren’t allowed to explore the wider neighbourhood, only the immediate area outside our houses. We’ve recently found some new kids maybe 20 doors away and they aren’t allowed into our bit of the street and they are nearly 11 years old!

    I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m going to have to encourage him to go out and about by himself and hope that we set an example to others. We’ll be waiting forever if we wait for another child to have permission.

    It truly is a very sad state of affairs for kids these days 🙁

  13. Jessica May 17, 2016 at 3:11 pm #

    As for boring parks, I totally see that where I am. A lot of parks have just the one, super lame, play structure. There is one park though, that every parent in the area knows and loves and that’s Neptune park in Saratoga Springs, Utah (in case you want to Google it). Every time we go, there are kids from the smallest toddler all the way up to teenagers playing and climbing. The defining feature is a gigantic metal cable pyramid (that the company installed for free because no city would pay for it) and the other structures are just as interesting, including a scale/pendulum type swing that holds two riders and swings one high while the other goes low. It’s awesome, and packed when all of the other parks are barren.

  14. BL May 17, 2016 at 3:36 pm #

    @Jessica
    “A lot of parks have just the one, super lame, play structure.”

    I remember parks with many play structures. They were called “trees”.

  15. sexhysteria May 18, 2016 at 1:41 am #

    Ironically, the hysteria over stranger danger is supposed to protect kids from becoming victims, but in reality by isolating kids they become lonely and more desperate for social contact with anybody available.

  16. JP Merzetti May 18, 2016 at 3:51 am #

    Ms. Shaw,
    What a truly haunting bit of writing this is.
    I remember well, that lonliness, though I experienced it about 20 years earlier in the century, than you.
    My lonliness brought me the world. The real, physical 3-dimensional one.
    From faltering toddler’s steps – to strong strides that took me right to the age of 16, and then right away from home.
    What that lonliness drew me to was my own freedom, my own self-definition, and ultimately to my own independence.

    Do we even know how to talk about lonliness anymore? When vibrating, throbbing, insistent and ubiquitous teckie toys surround us constantly with endless demands, siren voices, temptations of uber, cyber and artificial fantasies of “socially-mediated” pseudo-togetherness?”
    As you so aptly put – it all happens indoors now, under supervision of some sort or another.

    What you describe so well happened to the very hometown I know and love and remember.
    As I walked its empty streets, I felt like I could sense the very instruments of housebound distraction – at constant play.

    Lonliness pulled me outdoors and straight out of town, often enough – into countrysides full of barns and animals and troutstreams……and into real wilderness full of endless wonders to discover.
    Or downtown onto Main Street – to watch what was then the endless dramas of commerce and activity.
    Or tracing every back alley in town with my bike wheels….

    But just as often…..to other kids – some I knew, some I didn’t.
    No adult….helped me solve that lonliness. Nor should they.
    I did it myself. With the freedom to go about learning how. (Without the aid of “accessories!”)

    Thousands of towns across America ache (in a rather lonely way, I’m sure) for the lonliness of children they used to know. As if waiting….endlessly and forever, for just a chance – to embrace that lonely ache with the bricks and pavement, and all the places that a kid will just hang out in.

    It used to be a natural thing….as natural as the rain…..for a kid to go out and embrace that town, or city, or whatever…..with that feeling of freedom in just doing.
    We know, because we experienced it the way we did, that lonliness wasn’t a bad thing in itself, if it could be solved in the way it was….even wandering aimlessly, restlessly.
    Just like you notice the world, and the way it is, and the things in it.
    The way you daydream, and wonder, and think about things…..
    (and then compare all that stuff with the first kid who shows up on the horizon.)

    As if kids had a social consciousness of their own invention. Of course they did.

    But when our memories of all this die….what else dies with it?
    I keep coming back to the same old thing.
    Freedom dies.
    A certain kind of freedom. The kind that isn’t yearned for….when no-one can remember what it felt like.
    Or worse……the kind that many can still remember, but don’t believe is possible, anymore.

  17. JP Merzetti May 18, 2016 at 3:53 am #

    @sexhysteria,

    Now ain’t that the truth?
    A backlit screen will deliver thee from hell unto heaven.

  18. Katie G May 18, 2016 at 6:38 am #

    Is everyone who’s a regular vcommenter here, a member of freerangefriends.com? (apart, obviously, from those who haven’t got kids in the right age groups)? Lenore, promote it more frequently!

  19. Emily May 18, 2016 at 7:13 am #

    >>Ironically, the hysteria over stranger danger is supposed to protect kids from becoming victims, but in reality by isolating kids they become lonely and more desperate for social contact with anybody available.<<

    Yeah, and now "online safety" has become a thing, because of course, you don't want kids get involved with online predators, who might ask them to sext, or engage in online sex, or send nude or sexy photos back and forth, often while lying about their age. In the stereotypical story, the male predator lies to make himself younger, while the female victim lies to make herself older, so it might be like, a 40-year-old man and a 13-year-old girl or something. So, we get advice like, "Put computers in public areas of the house, and don't allow Internet-capable devices in bedrooms," and "Check your child's browsing history," and "Install this new app that allows you to monitor Kiddo's every keystroke." So, while online predators are real, and kids should certainly be taught to take steps to avoid them, I really can't get behind the mentality of not allowing kids any privacy online–all it does is transplant the fear and paranoia inside.

  20. SanityAnyone? May 18, 2016 at 10:37 am #

    We just started a neighborhood Facebook group. It’s a nice area with sidewalks and backyards. I have been thinking about suggesting “Kick Them Out” days and ask everyone to send their kids outside to run or ride around and see what happens. Suggestions for a cool name and core hours people might respond to like Tue and Thu 5pm to 7pm, Saturday noon to 5pm? I want it concentrated so the kids will see each other.

  21. lollipoplover May 18, 2016 at 11:10 am #

    @SanityAnyone?-

    We have a neighborhood FB group of families. NOT the name you are looking for, but we have Thursday night *beer runs* where we meet at either the park or someone’s house for a run (it’s actually sponsored by a local beer distributor who provides free beer!) and stay for a drink after to chat. It’s usually 6-dark (after dinner and work for most of us) and we leave the kids behind while we run! They figure out what they want to play while we are gone. Some of the kids have come on the run too…but they don’t get the beer, unfortunately.

  22. Stephanie May 19, 2016 at 7:20 pm #

    I’m always trying to get my kids to play outside, but without other kids out there, it’s rough going. The older two will often enough ride their bikes around the neighborhood, but they haven’t met any friends yet. They take the youngest for an occasional walk, but she’s not really comfortable on a bike yet.The house across the street is for sale, and I always make sure my kids go out front to play when we see a family looking, in the hopes that maybe they’ll get some friends in there.

    I know there are a few other families with kids in the neighborhood, and even about where some of them live. A lot of the neighbors have grown children, though. We’re new to the neighborhood, but I’m hoping that over the summer more kids will come out and play.

  23. Papilio May 20, 2016 at 10:16 am #

    @SanityAnyone: My first thought was Entmoot 😛 Don’t know where that came from!