Here we are in the middle of summer - and I mean right in the middle of summer - and the kids are going back to school. Some of them got out a few weeks before summer began but all will be going back well before it ends. Even the “unofficial” end of summer, Labor Day, is three weeks from the real end of the season.
Summertime, as a kid, for me was a whirlwind stream of activities either in the park across the street or biking to other parks for events and, eventually, explorations out into the then suburbs. I often tell people that I grew up not on a street or in a certain house, but I grew up in the park, specifically Woodland Park.
I crossed Woodland Park twice every day while attending elementary school and most days four times, since they allowed us to go home for lunch. I can probably count on both hands the number of times that I ate Maxwell cafeteria food.
But summertime was a time for spending all of our available hours doing something with the other kids in the park, be they friends from school or not. After a morning playing games and waiting for the activities directors to show up, we would run home for lunch, then run back for the afternoon's events. Dad had to round us up for dinner and again after the lights went out at the ball field to usher us home to bed.
I don't see that these days and I can pretty well guarantee that you don't either. The days of “free range” kids is well over. On the streets full of single family houses which make up a large percentage of our city, one rarely sees anything but indications of children “living” there. Walk by on a warm summer morning and the birds will be making more noise than the kids – quite different from when I grew up.
When many households consist of 1-2 working adults and youngsters requiring day care, there will be little in any daytime activity. Simply put, our suburbs are pretty much empty during the day.
Daycare, now there is a strange bird. Daycare now has to sell themselves as “pre-schools” with many parents, since they are supplying the early instructions that family members used to demonstrate for free. Daycare now has secluded, fenced play areas, rarely exceeding a few thousand square feet when 20 acres seemed small to me. Outdoor activities at daycare may average less than 3 hours a day, depending on weather.
Is it any surprise that compared to the 1970s, children now spend 50 percent less time in unstructured outdoor activities? And the '70s were not the '50s of my youth. The average early teen, 10 to 16 now spends only 12.6 minutes per day in vigorous physical activity. If it were not for the soccer moms and the little league parents or the pee-wee football and basketball camps, that would be much less.
All of the blame cannot be placed at the doorstep of day care. Although 40 % of the kids in a British study (I don't think that they are that different from American kids) stated they would like to play outside more often, it was the parents who simply didn't allow it. Fear of traffic and a fear of abductions by strangers were the top two reasons given.
Can traffic be so bad as to fear the random careening auto sailing through your front yard? Is not one of the common complaints about our suburbs that cul-de-sacs and limited connecting streets are so prominent? Would it not be one of your neighbors who was driving so erratically? As for the abductions, statically those are done by non-strangers though it does happen it is rare.
Frankly, all of us kids roaming the neighborhood and playing in the park back in my day were being watched by many eyes, without our knowledge. With so many stay-at-home moms and the older couples moving throughout the area, there was little that we could do that did not get home before we did. Empty houses and neighbors who are little more than nodding acquaintances cannot do the same quality job.
When did it become necessary to be so absolutely certain of our child's safety that we limit their opportunities to practice the decision making skills that we should be teaching them? Could it be that we are NOT teaching those skills? Could it be that we are not confident in our teaching abilities?
I have heard it said that parents will structure their child's time so as to incorporate themselves into the child's life. The child needs transportation and support. Television programing and commercials add to the myth by showing the child playing one on one with the parent and not with neighborhood kids. What happened to the TV shows of old like “Dennis the Menace” and “Leave it to Beaver” or the cartoons of “Peanuts” and “Fat Albert”? Teaching, supportive adults / parents and the kids played outside.