Get ‘Em Outside… But How?

Who's out there anymore?

Who’s out there anymore?

We talk a very good game, don’t we, about how our kids need to be outside and moving, rather than indoors and glued to their screens. But how easy is it to say, “go outside!”

Actually, it is pretty easy. To say. And I say it, all the time — particularly right now, in these fallow, largely plan-free two weeks between the end of camp last week and the start of school on September 2 (ah, lovely September 2!). We are being unusually blessed with the kind of awesome weather that I wish we could enjoy year round: rarely above 80 degrees, dry and sunny. No one can claim it’s “too hot” or “too humid”; it’s perfect weather. Perfect for walks, bike rides, hoop-shooting in the driveway, rollerskating…

Did you catch that last one, rollerskating? No one does that outside anymore, do they? That was me betraying my past, having grown up in a place and at a time that saw every neighborhood kid outdoors at all times that weren’t otherwise booked with school or mandatory meals — which for me were as short as I could get away with so I could get back out there again.

When I was quite young, in summertime, I’d be out all day either at the beach or in the neighborhood, then after dinner and a bath, I’d be back out, on the front lawn in my baby-doll PJs, playing for as long as I could with my friends while my parents sat on the porch. Yes, there were roller skates (the kind you adjusted over your sneakers with a skate key), and bicycles and Barbies (I recall enormous set-ups of every Barbie accessory owned by both me and my friend Patti next door; between us we had the camper van, the pool, the townhouse and the convertible) set up on the lawn. Rainy days meant board games on the porch.

I tell my kids these things and it’s as though I’m telling them about growing up in Paris, or on the moon; my stories have zero relevance to their current lives.

Which is sad, but I’m not here to wax nostalgic or evoke sadness; nor am I here to suggest we recreate that past for our kids.

It’s gone.

But wait: What I’m saying is “gone” isn’t the great outdoors itself. What’s gone is not a child’s innate tendency to explore when given room to do so. What’s “gone” is the environment in which that kind of open-ended exploration and ability to play even exists in most places.

What’s gone, most tragically, is a generation or more of parents’ belief that that sending their kids out there is a good thing to do. Oh, we say it is, but we don’t do it. Why? It’s not safe.

Only, of course, it actually is safe. Far, far safer than it was in 1971 and 1972 and 1973 — when I was 5 and 6 and 7 — and I walked, with my sister and a few other kids from the block, to a small strip-mall about a 10 minute walk from our house, every morning, to get a yellow school bus down to the beach for our town-run swim lessons.

Just think about that for a second. My mom sent us on a walk most mothers today wouldn’t dream of sending their 9- and 10- and even 11- or 12-year-olds on — blocks and blocks away from the house, on our own to take a bus miles through town and then along a narrow, barely-wide-enough-for-a-bus road to a rocky beach where we probably poured out of the bus and just sort of found our swim instructors, ranged along the shore. Imagine that. I walked, at 6, from a bus in a lot to a specific spot on the beach without being led by the hand. And without beach shoes, which didn’t exist. And I know parents now who won’t let their kids ride the bus home on a snowy day!

Beach shoes (especially on Long Island’s notoriously rocky and shell-strewn North Shore) are a good thing. But so is letting your kid figure out her own level of competency.I may have been confused or a little frightened the first day of lessons, finding the Beginner group on the beach, but I did it. I marched over to my group, put down my towel, and got into the water. I didn’t always want to — it was early, the water was often cold, it was often low tide and mucky with seaweed. But there was no mom there on the beach to whom I could whine. (She showed up later, some days, with lunch and the promise to spend the rest of the afternoon on the beach.)

There’s no such thing as this now. Now, every SUV would be crowding the lot to bring their tots to swim and the moms would be watching, sitting and talking to each other and — maybe — clucking at those among them who weren’t watching but were instead reading a magazine or absorbed in their phones. My point is, there is no longer much relief – not just for us from our kids, but for our kids from us!

Last year, I sent my then-sixth grader out the door every morning to walk to the only school he’ll be reasonably able to walk to for his entire school career. It’s about a quarter mile. Technically, he was eligible for the bus. But he found he didn’t like it (too noisy). And he found he did like one aspect of walking that I hadn’t extolled to him beforehand. Whereas I was all, “oh, honey, the exercise will be great! You can clear your head after school! You’ll love it!”, he wasn’t sure about that. What he did end up appreciating was leaving earlier than he strictly had to so that he could control when he arrived. He found there was value, for him, in being able to hang around the front of the school before the doors even opened.

Think about that, especially if you remember having done something similar. In earlier grades, the kids are herded carefully off the buses, grade by grade in their younger years, and escorted into the school as though they were a line of fragile orchids.

My son found, without being able to articulate it, that he preferred the rough and tumble of the crowd in front of the still-locked school doors, so he could walk in when they opened and make his way to homeroom without anyone leading him, actually or metaphorically.

I got a bit of push-back about my kid walking. I realized, part of the way into the year, that the only kids who actually walked to school were the ones whose parents were at work or otherwise couldn’t drive them…and my son, the one with the work-at-home mom who could have driven him. Other children who live on our street took the bus. Everyone else close enough to the school to not receive busing got driven if at all possible. Why? It’s not safe. Remember: This is a quarter-mile, on residential streets. One mom told me that I should warn my son to not cut through the school parking lot on his way in: “too many cars coming and going!” Yes, that’s right–there were a lot of cars coming and going. Mostly your cars. Another mom said, “does he have a cellphone? So he can call you when he gets there?”


I try to operate this way: Let’s always assume the best will happen. Not the worst.

But worst-first thinking, as my friend Lenore Skenazy says all the time on her excellent Free Range Kids blog, is simply the default now. In a recent poll, 83 percent of those surveyed said that letting kids as old as 9 play solo in a park is wrong enough to be criminal. possibly poor judgement depending on the circumstances, the day, the park, the kid, the parent. Not a matter of argument at all, but actually a crime. Sixty-two percent extend that to 12 years. Twelve! (Here is Lenore’s take on the survey.)

These days, I try not to bemoan the loss of the kind of freedom my childhood entailed — because as I said, that’s gone. I’m done mourning it, and I’m done painting it in vivid tones for my sons. What good will it do them to be jealous of the fact that I once played in the dug-out basement of a house as it was being built (no fences, no warning signs, just an enticing giant hole in the dirt)? What good would it do them to say that I’d get water or a band-aid, if I was thirsty or had skinned my knee, from whatever house was closest, not necessarily my own? Nostalgia is nice but not useful.

I try instead to nurture a different scenario for my kids, or help them create their own. I know that they aren’t going to pile out the door and find half the neighborhood kids out roaming. (If they go out our door now they’ll find lawn maintenance trucks, not bicycles.) But that doesn’t stop me from saying this: Get outside. Get your bike. Don’t tell me where you’re going. Just go. I send them to the convenience store a 10 minute walk away to get milk. I send them across the street to borrow a lemon or an egg. I tell them to get their butts to the park at the end of the road. I tell them to just go.