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Hi Folks and Merry Christmas, Hanukah and whatever else good is going on. In the spirit of reaching out, creating community and, of course, eating, here’s a great idea I just heard about: The Big Lunch. Check it out:

The Big Lunch is a very simple idea from the Eden Project. The aim is to get as many people as possible across the whole of the UK to have lunch with their neighbours in a simple act of community, friendship and fun.

This year it happened on Sunday 5th June when the best part of two million people took part. Next year it falls on the same weekend as The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations on Sunday 3rd June 2012. A record number of people are expected to take part. Make sure you’re one of them!

A Big Lunch can be anything from a few neighbours getting together in the garden or on the street, to a full blown party with food, music and decoration that quite literally stops the traffic.

How I love this idea! So simple and so fun. Let’s get The Big Lunch started everywhere! I’ll remind you again as summer comes around. In the meantime, bask in the joy of the season upon us, and look forward to more connecting in the year to come. — L.

Hi Readers: I was just very impressed by this boy’s sense of sorrow, connectedness and respect. While I don’t recommend kids defying their parents’ rules, sometimes, as they say, it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Anyway, here’s what I’m talking about, from the MSNBC website:

Jared Flanders faced a dilemma Wednesday evening: He had heard about the firefighter who was killed while looking for victims inside a burning building last week and he wanted to pay respects, but at only 11 years old, Jared wasn’t allowed to go outside by himself and he had no one to take him.

Jared, who lives in Worcester, Mass., ultimately decided to defy his father’s orders and go to firefighter Jon Davies’ wake. He carefully put on a coat and tie, hopped on his bike and went down to the funeral home, about a mile away, reported NBC affiliate WHDH.com.

Jared didn’t know the fireman, but he knows the pain of losing someone: His older half-brother fought in Iraq and died this summer, said Jared’s dad, Gene Flanders,on his Facebook page.

Jared sounds like a boy any parent would be proud of. (So does his half-brother.) Also sounds like he’s ready for some new rules — like letting him go out of the house on his own. — L.

Hi Readers! As you know, one of the things that I believe makes folks feel safer and more ready to Free-Range their kids is COMMUNITY. The more connected we are, the less threatening the “world out there” seems, since “out there” is now familiar, even friendly. That’s why I love the idea of block parties and school get-togethers and all that, but I know (since I have never had the guts to organize one myself) that volunteering to make one of these wonders happen can be daunting. That’s why I loved reading this note from a mom in Portland, Oregon, named Mitzi. Here’s what she discovered about organizing an all-school picnic:

Dear Free-Range Kids: Our school started what we hope becomes a new tradition—a Fall Family Picnic on the school grounds one of the first evenings of school.

The idea is to have a low-key, casual picnic where families can meet, mingle, and re-connect after the summer break. We kept it super-simple: prep was limited to spreading the word about the picnic, putting up signs on the school yard for each grade so families could more easily meet others at their kids’ grade levels and having a pizza company come in to sell slices (and as a PTO fundraiser). Other than some ice-breaker games for Kindergarten kids, we had no planned activities: no bouncy houses, no rock wall, no clowns or face-painting or relay games. As PTO President, I was basically in charge of the event and wanted to keep it simple. I had a moment of panic about half an hour before picnic started: WHAT WERE WE THINKING?? What if we have 100 (or more) kids show up and they’re totally bored because we have nothing to entertain them with!? Will I have a bunch of angry parents shocked that I hadn’t planned activities? While there is a big play structure at the school, I hadn’t even requested to use the school’s playground balls and equipment. I threw some of our own kick balls, hula hoops and sidewalk chalk into the minivan, said a prayer and headed to the school.

And the result? Kids, everywhere, playing and having a blast. On their own. At least I assume they were having a blast—I was too busy mingling and chatting with other parents to pay much attention to my kids, other than to offer another slice of pizza when they came back to our blanket for a water break or to say hi. But if the shrieks of laughter and good-natured playing yelling were any indication, all the kids had fun. It’s amazing, isn’t it, what happens when we just let kids play? — Mitzi

Hi Readers — How I love this post by Scot Doyon, “Smart Growth = Smart Parenting,” on a blog called PlaceShakers, which bills itself as “people, news and views shaping community.”

As you know, I think community is pretty much the answer to all our ills. The more we trust and depend on each other, the more confident we feel Free-Ranging our kids, the more fun we have in our lives, the more our streets teem with  life and the less lonely we become.

Add to this the dawning realization on the part of city planners that when a neighborhood works for kids, it works for everyone else, too and you get why it is so important to try to build cities and towns that pass the “Popsicle Test.”

Popsicle Test? It’s simply, brilliantly this: A neighborhood “works” if it is possible for an 8-year-old kid to get a Popsicle on his or her own and return before it has completely melted.

That means the streets must be safe enough to cross and the housing close enough to retail. The kids must feel fine about walking outside, ditto their parents (and the police! and busybodies!).  Once all that is in place, not only can children get around on their own, so can everyone else, including old folks.

Note, as does Kaid Benfeld in The Atlantic’s blog regarding the icy treat test:

…there’s no planning jargon in there: nothing explicitly about mixed uses, or connected streets, or sidewalks, or traffic calming, or enough density to put eyes on the street. But, if you think about it, it’s all there.

I’m also fond of the “Halloween test”: If it’s a good neighborhood for trick-or-treating, then it’s likely to be compact and walkable. My brother-in-law, who lives in a place that is anything but, drives his kids to the nearest traditional town center on Halloween. Quite a few parents seem to do the same thing by driving to my neighborhood.

As we have pointed out before: The presence of kids outside indicates a good place to live. And the presence of Popsicles? Even better. Which reminds me…it is snack time right now. — L

I KNOW this isn't a Popsicle emporium. But it looked too good to pass up! (Like a Popsicle itself.)

Hi Readers! Here’s a lovely story from reader Deborah Halliday Mills. Remember it when you find yourself between a rock, a hard place, a child and a stranger! — L

Dear Free-Range Kids: I have always prided myself on being a common sense parent.  I don’t follow “experts,”or the latest trends or pop culture.  I believe strongly in community and that the vast majority of people are good, kindhearted and helpful.  My husband and I do what feels right in our hearts and minds.  And sometimes that means making split second decisions when it comes to safety.

Today I had to make such a decision.  My youngest of three boys, age 4, was home from preschool with a 102 fever.  I desperately needed to get to the grocery store to pick up a couple of items.  He was feeling okay for the moment, so we hopped in the car and headed out to the store.  My 15-month-old dog came along for the ride as well as she often does.

My son and I were in and out of the store in minutes while the dog waited in the minivan.  My son was hanging on to the side of the grocery cart when we got to the car.  I opened up the back of the van and within a second the dog  darted out and started running around the parking lot.  She was excited and refused to come to me, and then ran into the road.  So my dog was running in traffic and my son was standing by the car.  I was beside myself with  panic.  A woman pulled up in her car and asked if she could help.  She said she would stay by my son while I ran after the dog.  I made a split-second decision and said yes and ran after my dog.  Bringing along a sick 4-year-old while chasing a dog in traffic would have been a stupid thing to do.  So I left my son with a stranger, with my purse, phone, wallet and keys in her full view, and took off running.

My dog ran in and out of traffic and I was screaming and crying.  Numerous people stopped to help.  One man stopped traffic and ran after her with me.  It took us at least 15 minutes to catch her, running across roads, around drainage ditches, all the time me crying hysterically.  She finally conked out and laid down for a tummy rub.  (Typical dog!)  The man offered to carry her to my car for me because I was so upset.  But I declined, and mentioned that a stranger was watching my 4 -year-old son.  He smiled and said he had two sons too.  Please take care, he said,  and have a good weekend.  I thanked him profusely.

I carried my dog back to the car (a good distance away).  My son was sitting in the back of the van with this lovely “stranger,” talking about ducks and geese.  He was as happy as could be.  The “stranger” asked if I was okay, did I know where my keys were?  Was I okay to drive home?  Then she gave me a huge hug and told me what a wonderful son I had.  I couldn’t thank her enough.  I couldn’t thank both “strangers” enough for the time and efforts they had given me, my son and my dog.

I can honestly say that I not once feared for my son. We’ve never taught our kids to be afraid of people.  Instead we teach them to be kind and respectful and to use their own commonsense –- yes, even a 4-year-old.  That’s why he didn’t panic when I ran off and had a fun time talking. I’m sure there are plenty of parents that would be aghast at my decision, but I knew, thanks to you and my own common sense, that my son would be fine.

I still haven’t stopped shaking from the stress my dog caused, but I am so thankful for the strangers in my community that saw a woman in need and thought nothing of offering help.

Sincerely, Deborah, a proud, Free-Range Parent

Most strangers LIKE to help kids.

Dear Readers: One of you dreamed this up and I lost your name!. Claim it if it’s yours! Meantime, maybe everyone can enjoy — or even organize — something like this for the local kids to get to know the nabe and each other!

Neighborhood Scavenger Hunt

  1. A tree with pink flowers
  2. A black car
  3. A squirrel (don’t get too close!)
  4. A pink house
  5. A cat
  6. A robin
  7. A scooter
  8. Tulips
  9. Forsythia!
  10.  A bicycle
  11.  A bug
  12. A big dog
  13. A small dog
  14.   A friend
  15.  A fire hydrant
  16.  A person walking a dog
  17.  A truck
  18.  A green house
  19.  A lawn ornament
  20.  A dogwood tree

Rules

  1. Stay together
  2. Ask before taking a picture of a person (or their house, dog, etc., if the owner is outside)
  3. Watch for cars
  4. No fighting
  5. Stay in the neighborhood
  6. Have fun!

Hi Readers!  Here’s a note from a doctor, Par Donahue. He’s author of the book and blog, Messengers in Denim, all about the things we can learn from teens (and life). Here’s one lesson he got from kids that he did not like. (Nor I.) — L 

Dear Free-Range Kids: I am a retired pediatrician who walks my dog twice daily in our neighborhood and enjoys talking to kids — after all, that’s what I did for almost 40 years. But, now I feel like bogeyman.

When kids are outside, they see me coming and run into the house. If they are waiting for the bus, they stare at the ground or cross the street when I approach. If I say good morning, or, “Have a nice day,” they either do not respond or they grunt without looking up!

Some years ago my wife and I moved into a new neighborhood where a family with two small kids lived next to us. They were usually in the fenced back yard when we came home from work and would always run into the house as we walked from our garage to the house. After 6-8 months of this the younger boy, 4 or 5 years old, stayed out and actually said, “Hi.”  His older brother, 6 or 7, quickly grabbed his arm and said, “Don’t talk to them, they might be kid-nappers.”

What a terrifying life parents make for their kids when they teach them to be this afraid. With very rare exceptions, kidnapping is done by estranged parents or other relatives. We, of course, hear  about the half dozen kids in the USA who are kidnapped each year by strangers. Fear, as Michael Crichton said in “State fo Fear” controls! So sad! — Par Donahue

Lenore here again: Par’s note reminds me of a great essay someone sent me the other day that I have to go dig up. It’s about a parent deciding NOT to teach the kids that strangers are “bad.”  There IS an alternative to automatic distrust and fear!