I Went Back to My Hometown and Saw Only Two Kids Outside the Whole Weekend

This izehifybtr
site tries not to wallow in nostalgia. (TRIES!) But the fact that this email comes from a reader who returned to EXACTLY where he grew up and saw only two kids is not just nostalgia, it’s anthropology:

Dear Free-Range Kids: Two summers ago, I revisited my hometown for the first time in 6 years, after my dad died. A small city actually – it grew to 50,000 souls and leveled off at that number about 3 decades ago.

The town is lovingly preserved….so much so that about 90% of all the schoolboy haunts I remember are still remarkably intact. In the entire weekend I was there, I counted exactly two small children playing in a yard adjacent to the back lane I used to take to school. That’s it.

There was a kind of post-apocalyptic feel to the streets….a beautiful summer weekend….and nobody was out. Ironically, where most of the kids now are, is squashed into the few newer subdivisions on the southern outskirts of town, that didn’t exist when I lived there. Adjacent to those subdivisions is a huge tract of virgin woodland – left as a kind of semi-park, but still very wild.

Not a kid in sight, anywhere.

So “I” played there myself. (I guess I was the danger stranger of the hour.)

Playing with my big boy toy…..a Nikon camera.

That town was a Free-Range Kid’s paradise.

And it still is.

And nobody knows.

Or cares.

It is a strange experience in life…..to feel an empty schoolyard playground weep.

–  JP Merzetti, Toronto

Recently, I went back to my hometown suburb outside of Chicago, too. The local grammar school we’d all walked to now had signs declaring, “ONE WAY TRAFFIC ONLY DURING DROP-OFF AND PICK-UP HOURS,” indicating, I think you’ll agree, a new norm of student transport.

So let me wallow for a sec in remembering the bad — it was Chicago! Freezing! — and the good of walking to school: the crunching leaves, the trees whose berries you could make into necklaces (that inevitably shriveled), the forsythia when it finally bloomed.

At Free-Range Kids, all we’re trying to do is give some of that back to today’s kids. We realize times and technology change, and this isn’t only good or bad. I mean, here we are on the Internet! But the world — the outside world, and free time in it — is still there. It’s just the kids that aren’t.

Yet. – L

It’s hard to find vintage photos of kids playing outside because there weren’t adults standing by to scrapbook them!



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26 Responses to I Went Back to My Hometown and Saw Only Two Kids Outside the Whole Weekend

  1. Jessica January 11, 2017 at 8:27 am #

    I tend to see a lot of kids outdoors, but they definitely are at parks, the pool, the soccer fields, etc, rather than in wild spaces. So if the goal is “outside in the sun, getting exercise,” that is being accomplished. But not the “exploring without adult supervision” part.

  2. BL January 11, 2017 at 9:25 am #

    “We realize times and technology change”

    (I know I’ve said this before but …) Why blame this on technology? Today’s technology is, as advertised, *mobile*. You can take it to a park or a playground or ballfield or basketball court … anywhere!

    The only technology we could carry around were radios (and we did, sometimes). Not landline telephones, not record players, not console televisions. We had to leave those at home, and we did.

    Today’s kids could check their social media whatevers while waiting to play the winner of a pickup basketball game. But the basketball courts are empty of kids, unless the parks and rec department has scheduled an adult-run activity for the kids.

  3. Wendy January 11, 2017 at 10:04 am #

    As soon as there’s a warm enough day, there are lots of kids running around our neighborhood. Mine are right out there with them. But, I do send them out with a long range walkie talkie and they have to let me know when they leave one yard to go to another friend’s yard or the park.

  4. Pippi January 11, 2017 at 12:15 pm #

    I echo the sentiments here. I grew up in free range paradise, a stream flowed behind all of the houses across the street from me. At one part of the stream there was a little waterfall. On a cold day we used to love grabbing icicles off the front or try to kick and break them. We loved the ice around the edges we’d stand on or kick through. I recently took my six year old son out to do that around a pond in our park and he was enthralled. He loved spending a lot of time sliding on ice around the stream and formed on the pockets of water on the grass. We were the only ones outside as usual here in beautiful Old Greenwich, CT. I hear from the locals this was a kid’s paradise in the 70’s. Now like most places it eerily reminds me of the scene from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang where they arrive in Vulgaria and Truly Scrumptious asks: ” Where are all the children?” ( the local toy maker fearfully informs them they’ve all been rndlaved by the Child Catcher!”)
    Then again, an arrest was just made here in Greenwich of a local upstanding business man and involved member of the community and local government for having over 700 images of child pornography on his computer.
    I think us parents have to help find a way to make free range neighborhoods possible.

  5. Andy January 11, 2017 at 12:26 pm #

    I went back to my old neighborhood in Brooklyn and saw two things – Asians were moving in as Italians were moving out (a good thing – the old folks who lived there when I was a kid were an angry, miserable lot), and no kids. Amazing.

    I came back to Bayonne (NJ) to sde kids everywhere and sighed in relief.

  6. Steve January 11, 2017 at 1:03 pm #

    I think that’s not unusual for going back to where you grow up though. My parents are still in the same place from when I was a kid. When I go back there are very few kids playing outside. The main reason is there just aren’t kids there anymore. The ones who lived there have grown up and gone on their own and those places are generally now with an older population. Some kids are out there, just in different neighborhoods.

    I find around here (south Florida) kids don’t play in the streets as much. But the parks (and beaches) are filled with kids almost all the time. It’s definitely a more regimented playtime, but they’re out there. Not that I would want to play in the streets here in the summer anyway, too humid!

  7. BL January 11, 2017 at 1:10 pm #

    I did the same thing as JP Merzetti back in May. The town I lived in from 3rd to 6th grade still has about 5000 people. Unlike most small towns of its sort, the school population is actually up from a few generations ago, so still a lot of kids.

    But, like JP Merzetti, I didn’t see many of them walking or biking around in the three days I stayed there. The town is (and was) eminently walkable and cyclable, too. Like JP, I found most of my old “haunts” intact, the schools being the biggest exception – the old ones have been torn down and replaced by a park. The new school complex on the edge of town looks like a prison.

    Not sure what the kids do. I saw pictures of the current marching band and was shocked – just about 20 kids. When I lived there the HS band was about 100 kids, and the grade school band (which I was in) about 125-150. On high school football nights there were hardly any high school kids in the bleachers – between the football team, the cheerleaders and the band, there weren’t too many left over to watch.

  8. Crystal January 11, 2017 at 1:29 pm #

    We just moved to New Jersey, and it snowed 6 or 7 inches last Saturday, all throughout the day. We are from a non-snow area, and so I bundled the kids up, sent them outside for nearly the whole day, then went on a 7-mile snow run. It was awesome, and my kids thought they were in heaven. The entire 7 miles, however, I saw exactly ZERO kids, or even people, outside enjoying the snow. My kids were literally the only ones.

  9. EricS January 11, 2017 at 2:22 pm #

    I had a nostalgic moment last summer, that I rode around to all the places I grew up. 2 homes, 2 schools (elementary and high school), my cousin’s old home (my second home during the summers as a kid), the parks and playgrounds we used to go to. Which were always filled with kids, rarely any adults in tow. Summers back then, these school yards (even during the summer break), parks and playgrounds were filled with kids. I saw no kids. The one park I went to that did have kids, there looked like there were more adults than children. And the streets were filled with cars. Like no one wanted to WALK there. As I doubt they were from other parts of the city going to this specific neighborhood park.

    My elementary school used to be open. Now it was completely gated off. With warnings of prosecution for Trespassing. It was sad to see, that school had a decent playground. Still had a playground, but no one was able to access it.

    This is the age of litigation, and the fear of it. No one wants to be accountable or responsible for children anymore. And so the children suffer (unknowingly) for the actions of the adults. Unlike in the past, the whole city was a “village”, and everyone watched out for everyone else. No one sued anyone, even for “disciplining” other people’s children.

    A sad time we live in now. Technology and social media has connected millions of people from all walks of life. But I haven’t seen so much disconnect on a personal level in all my life. Everything is virtual. Including relationships.

  10. EricS January 11, 2017 at 2:23 pm #

    @Crystal. Their loss. They do not know what they are missing. Well the adults know. I’m sure they’d rather stay warm and cozy indoors. And make the kids stay in with them.

  11. donald January 11, 2017 at 2:55 pm #

    We all want children to start playing outside again. How do we do it? Where do we start?

    I think the place to start is to allow children to play on the school ground WHEN SCHOOL IS NOT IN SESSION! This is an area that they are familiar with. They already play there. However it has become taboo to allow them to do so on the weekends.

    By allowing them to play at school on the weekend you do three things:

    1. Children are more likely to because they are familiar with it
    2. It encourages children to bike or walk to school
    3. It encourages unsupervised play

    Whenever I see a school with a locked fence around the entire school, I think of the Berlin wall! I then remember Ronald Reagan chanting, “Mr Gorbachev, TEAR DOWN THIS WALL”!

  12. Suze January 11, 2017 at 4:10 pm #

    I did this very thing too after an 8 year absence from my hometown. I was shocked to see little to no kids out playing but you also have to remember that there just aren’t that many kids anymore. The elementary school I attended has been closed for many years and converted into apartments. Around the corner from where I grew up, practically every house had kids (and yes, one house with that nasty, crotchety old lady who hated ALL of us) We were born in the range of about mid 50’s to mid 60’s. I think there is now one original family still there who are quite elderly.

    Fast forward to where I live now. I have to admit that the parents in my neighbourhood have done a turn in direction and their kids are pretty constantly outside on a daily basis; weather permitting. I’m glad to see the change as I think the previous generation and somewhat this one tended to sit inside with video games. No doubt these kids that are always playing outside have those things too but there is a concerted effort, IMO, that these kids parents want them outside playing in the fresh air. Now, the helicopter nonsense of ‘some’ of these parents still needs work as I feel there are ones that are of a decent age that don’t need constant supervision. They know rules and boundaries. Baby steps, I guess but it still is progress !!

  13. JP Merzetti January 11, 2017 at 4:24 pm #

    Thanks for posting this, Lenore.
    You’re right. I agree completely.
    Nostalgia is the combined sweet dreams and night terrors of a culture. It lives inside the deepest things that create a national identity. The past is only one of the three things that give us a deeper sense of the meaning of time. The other two tenses dance either well or awkwardly, with it.

    The one concept I have always and continually come back to in the course of all of my free range musings….is that blessed first word of the term.
    To me still, the freedom of a child to do, to be, to go, and to return….lies at the heart of all of life’s most cherished freedoms.
    I do hold society up in my microscopic examination, to weigh, judge, analyze, and determine – just how free are its children – to be children?

    For all I know, a great great grandparent might have thought of my childhood as being abysmally un-free. That is just the condition of human relativity, I suppose.
    Yet when so many of us know in our deepest hearts, that something is off, it isn’t quite right….and it matters. That becomes the leaping-off point. To wake as if from the slumbers of a nation full of Rip Van Winkles, and find such a radical change as what we now witness, and to wonder just how exactly did we come to where we now are?

    That home town had a profound story to tell me, a very implicitly personal and private one. And yet millions of us share it, know it, feel it in moments of obtuse nostalgia, or intellectual clarity.

    I have felt for a long time now, that it has become a matter of reclaiming – not the past, or another era, or roots, symbols, meanings in what otherwise is confusion….but reclaiming a way of life that personifies the very freedoms that we hold so dear.
    For I believe with all my heart, that without that very particular freedom – children are not free.
    And that the very lack of that kind of freedom does them grave ill.

    You see, I never gave it a thought, as a boy – whether or not I loved my home town, or had any particular emotional connection to its geography, topography, history or sociology.
    It never occurred to me until just now – that it wasn’t a matter of my love for it………………
    It was far more a matter of its love for me (and just how and why that happened.)

    I am almost an elder now – and it makes perfect sense to me.
    Will our children and their children ever know such a thing?

  14. sexhysteria January 11, 2017 at 4:50 pm #

    I think part of the problem is that feminists made women feel guilty about wanting to be a mother. But a childless career leaves a deep spiritual wound, and secret fury against anybody who does have kids. People who have kids are the victims of intense jealousy and witch hunts because so many women today don’t have kids.

  15. hineata January 11, 2017 at 5:13 pm #

    @Donald – why can’t kids play in school playgrounds after hours? They certainly do over here, in state school grounds anyway (and also in some of the Catholic school playgrounds, though technically they’re private property ). I thought most of your schools were public?

  16. janet engeman January 11, 2017 at 5:22 pm #

    I observed the same thing when I moved back to the town where I grew up. No children on the streets! Either they are so absorbed with their electronic pacifiers, or they have paranoid parents. When I was a child, I could (and did) roam at will, returning home in the evening when my great aunt (a valued family member) rang a brass school bell to call me in.

  17. Stephanie F January 11, 2017 at 5:34 pm #

    I get sentimental about the canyon behind my mother’s house we hiked in as kids. That said, my kids and my sisters’ kids only go down with adult supervision. There’s a homeless problem down there now, and one time we saw a homeless man changing his clothes – all of them – outside of his tent.

    My kids do go bike riding in our neighborhood and are encouraged to explore in other places. It makes me sad that they have to be so careful in an old favorite.

  18. Jason January 11, 2017 at 5:37 pm #

    In my Orange County, CA city, the school playgrounds are always open, and many of the elementary and middle schools have adjacent city parks with playground equipment, as well. They are often full of kids of various ages.

    In my Northern CA hometown, however, my old elementary school – in a decent part of town away from most of the meth-heads – has been surrounded by fencing and padlocked gates for a couple of years now. There’s no after hours use of the playground, sports fields, or open space.

  19. Donald January 11, 2017 at 6:10 pm #


    Glad to hear it. I left the US in 1986 and have lived in Australia ever since.

    In Australia, many schools are surrounded by a security fence that is locked when the school isn’t in session

  20. donald January 11, 2017 at 10:28 pm #

    Here is a fishing story. I don’t know how true it is but I think the principal is appropriate.

    Trout in a hatchery are fed corn. Therefore, corn is the best bait for trout. This is because they grew up on it. This is the same as bubble wrapping children. If they grow up with overprotection, they won’t play outside.

  21. LGB January 12, 2017 at 12:31 am #

    My favorite neighborhood park has its requisite playground, but the real appeal is the giant nature park behind it. I send my kids into the forest of hemlock, spruce, and big-leaf maple trees, armed with their Nerf guns and joined by other neighborhood kids. They wear whistles to blow in case they get lost but have never blown them. They know to avoid the poison oak and that park officials frown on people straying off the trails. My children need memories, and this is how they create them.

  22. ebohlman January 12, 2017 at 6:11 am #

    Lenore: If the hometown school you mention is the one I think it is (Highcrest), it’s now centralized 5th and 6th grade for the entire district, and therefore is out of reasonable walking distance for many kids who don’t live in its old enrollment area.

  23. AndreL January 12, 2017 at 6:38 am #

    Are there still that many children in the neighborhood? It is normal for many neighborhoods to retain the inhabitants, but as they grow older, the adults retire, their offspring move elsewhere to raise their own children.

  24. intlreader January 12, 2017 at 9:46 am #

    This is a link with a few pics about the skatepark that Luxembourg City in Luxembourg opened in 2016.


    Hundreds of free-ranging kids and teenagers spent thousand of hours on/in/at it. With or without adult supervision.

    My 12 year old kid spent most weekends there with his friends and without us adults watching him ever once (needless to say he would go there on his own crosstown, whether by bus or by skate, we don’t know or care – because we know he could take care of himself and be supported by an understanding population of 110,000 inhabitants).

    Apart from the sad occurence of one suicide jumper landing on the skatepark from the train bridge above, no fatality or even to my knowledge severe casualty was noted. No police action, no lawsuit either.

    I will enjoy Europe while it lasts. May it last long.

  25. SanityAnyone? January 13, 2017 at 7:25 am #

    Has anyone successfully organized a “Kick Them Out” day in their neighborhood? I.e. Tell your kid “Go outside for the next two hours. Tons of kids will be out. Ask them to play. Bring out your toys and you can go as far as xyz.”

    My neighbors seem open to the idea but we haven’t done it yet.

  26. Jonathan hoch January 18, 2017 at 8:42 pm #

    It’s the harried child syndrome. there isn’t any value perception in this culture unless children are “doing” something. Intrusive parenting and manufactured entertainment support the notion that we mustn’t let the kids get bored.