The sun is at its peak as Nico, 11, bolts out the door into his neighborhood, yelling to his mom, "I'm going to the park! What time should I be home?" "Five-thirty!" she calls back. He climbs on his bike and zooms down the street to meet up with Sean and Sam, both 11, to kick a soccer ball around.
Their game morphs into tag, which turns into a gallop across the bleachers at the field, which ends with a trip to the grocery store down the street for a snack to share. As the sun begins to set, Nico reluctantly returns home, red-faced and panting, with stories about his latest escapade in the park, new jokes he and his friends concocted and a minor protest against how early his family eats dinner.
Today, parents fear stranger danger. But they also fear their children will grow up incompetent. As good old-fashioned playtime is replaced with screen time, structured programs and excessive homework, children are increasingly losing out on important life skills developed by play in a strong community.
Mollie Kaye hopes to give these skills to her son Nico. Though he may return home with dirt on his cheeks and perhaps a scrape or two on the knee, though the science project may be put on hold for a day and some safety risks must be factored in, she continually works to provide him with rich growing-up experiences similar to her unfenced but community-oriented 1970s upbringing in central Ohio.
"We took it for granted when we were kids," Kaye said. "We didn't know that running around in the woods, beside the creek, there was something very important that could happen within us. But there was."
What's at play?
Children don't play outside on the streets like they used to. A recent study conducted by Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine found that 44 percent of mothers and 24 percent of fathers take their children outside to play at least once per day. Only 51 percent of children reportedly play outside at least once a day with either parent, and the statistics are worse for girls.
Research has shown that play is an evolutionary given for young children in more than one way.
"It turns out that free play — plain old unsupervised, run around, come up with your own game, come up with your own team, figure out yourself if the ball was in or out — is a super vitamin that nature assumed every child would be ingesting and, until very modern times, they were," said Lenore Skenazy, author of "Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry."
"Mother Nature has all animals playing. Ravens fly to the top of snowy hills and slide down on their backs, and hippopotami do flips in the water just for fun, and gazelles will go out and play basically the equivalent of tag out in the wild."
This kind of play, Skenazy said, is necessary to building, enhancing and developing the skills needed to survive to adulthood and breed again. And it's the same with kids.
To be deprived of this kind of play has long-term ramifications. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, professor of psychology at Temple University, terms the recently declining numbers of children who play as "the next global warming."
"What does the workforce tell us? We need kids to get along, we need kids who are better communicators, we need kids who know more than just reading and math, we need kids who are confident, we need kids who are critical thinkers," Hirsh-Pasek said.
"If we take play away from young children and fill all their time with directives, then 20 years from now, we're going to see exactly the crisis that we're starting to see today, which is a workforce woefully unprepared to operate in the global marketplace." Hirsh-Pasek suggested those very skills start in the sandbox and move to the boardroom.
What has changed?
Flipping through channels or keeping tabs on national news can be less than encouraging. "Sometimes, it feels like the pedophiles are waiting around the corner and they're at the park and they're in the bushes and they're on the way to school and on the buses," Skenazy said. "But you don't see the million children or the 30 million children who were outside playing on Saturday, you see the one who had something terrible happen to him."
FBI statistics indicate crime is in fact lower today than it was in the 1970s, '80s and '90s. A recent study by the Polly Klaas Foundation revealed that for every 10,000 reports of a missing child, there is approximately one child abduction. The Department of Justice reported that of the 800,000 allegedly missing children in the United States each year, 115 are the result of a stranger taking the child. Of that 800,000, 350,000 of those children are runaways, and about 90 percent of those children return home within 24 hours.
But stranger danger is not the only factor. Now that women are more actively entering the workforce, neighborhood structure is changing. "There's not that sense of giving and receiving among families," Kaye said. "They are not interdependent anymore because all the adults are occupied. So now they just plan structured activities for children."
Parenting methods, too, are fluctuating. Howard Chudacoff, cultural historian and professor of history at Brown University, pointed to "increasingly rigorous structures on children's out-of-school time." Between homework, soccer practice and music lessons, it's difficult to find time to let children engage in any type of unsupervised play.
In his recently published book, "Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood into a Place for Play," Mike Lanza prescribes innovative ways to reignite the spirit of community and bring back outdoor play for children in the neighborhood.
What does a potential "playborhood" look like? For parents moving into a new community, Lanza suggests searching for a home in a neighborhood that has other children close in age, is on a calm street, has a semblance of an outdoor life, is in walking distance of parks, schools and gathering areas, and is near a school with an open recess policy. Parents already situated in a neighborhood can facilitate such an atmosphere.
In his book, Lanza suggests finding an outside courtyard, sidewalk or park in which parents and kids can come together on a regular basis to connect and get to know one another. In an inner-city area, Lanza observed a woman who was allowed to close the street down for several hours to run a play street every week.
Another thing parents can do is schedule free time for their kids to "ensure that children have space in their lives," Lanza said. "Neighborhood summer camps can be a good way for children to get together, play and carry on relationships within the community."
Lanza encourages parents to make their yard a "magnet for free play" by building structures or play areas that children find fun, comfortable, accessible, visible and open to other neighborhood kids, and vary. "A yard that has one feature — a sandbox or a basketball hoop — will probably not become a bonafide hangout," said Lanza. "Kids get bored and want to try new things."
It's important to talk to children about safety. Lanza outlines a zone for his children, taking them to the areas within those boundaries. "Technology can foster increased freedom and exploration in older children," Lanza said, suggesting they roam with mobile phones.
Bernadette Noll's primary concern as a mother of four is getting her children to stay together and watch out for each other. Beyond that, "I tell my kids to tune in with their gut," Noll said. "It will be a good guide."
For Mollie Kaye, it's mind-set. When Kaye moved from the states to the "amazingly pristine" and "quiet seaside town" of Victoria, British Columbia, she was shocked to see how many parents were unwilling to let their kids walk to school. She wondered what she could do to advocate for her children and start building community.
She started talking to her neighbors about other unpredictable calamities that can occur, beyond stranger danger, and questioning why there are so few bike racks in front of the elementary school or why children can't ride home until a certain age. "Wow, folks," Kaye said, "this is the chance to build community. This is what it is all about."
Kaye was shocked by the changing mind-set in her community. Practicing spiritual acceptance of life seemed to be missing, she said. She finds value in the prevailing wisdom that some things are God's will. "It's almost the vanity of saying we can control everything in the world. There is no deference to the idea of a power in the universe that these things happen and there is no acceptance of what is."
"Make a central piazza in your neighborhood," Hirsh-Pasek said. "Let's do it with other people and recognize that young children grow up best in a village; they grow up best when they are emerging from a very gorgeous, wonderful social blanket and that blanket starts in our homes, but it extends to our neighborhoods, to the folks around the block who are reading stories at night and baking cookies. We need to bring that back."
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