(Photo/stockvault-Mircea Iancu CC0)
(Photo/stockvault-Mircea Iancu CC0)

I feel safe as my kids roam the neighborhood, and that’s good for everyone

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On a recent afternoon, the 6-year-old boy from across the street wandered over to my driveway looking for something to do. I was sitting on the front porch and told him that my kids were busy inside at the moment and couldn’t come out to play.

“OK,” he said, and ran into our backyard to play by himself.

We regularly find the neighbor kids’ bikes and scooters laying across our driveway, or the neighbor children inside our garage perusing our racks of abandoned toys.

When I’m looking for my own kids, I know they’re across the street with the neighbor boys or playing on the swing set that our other neighbors keep in their yard for their grandchildren. If they’re not there, they’re spying on a neighborhood cat or picking raspberries from someone’s back bushes. Or else they’ve made themselves at home on a neighbor’s porch and are happily chatting away with the grownups.

My mom grew up in an apartment around the corner from where we now live in a small town in Maine. From a young age, she said, she would disappear with her friends to play for the day and her mother would have no idea where she was.

I used to think my kids wouldn’t get that opportunity, that changing social mores and exaggerated fears about stranger danger have kept children cocooned in the home.

Now that my 5- and 9-year-old boys  are old enough to play out of the house, I’ve come to find out that that isn’t true, but I’ve also come to believe that it takes a special confluence of circumstances that make communities or just neighborhood blocks where children have some degree of freedom to explore and play unsupervised.
First of all, it takes human resources: neighbors who are friendly and who bear your child’s shouts with a grin; other kids around to play with; a shared feeling of safety and trust in the community.

And secondly, and most importantly, it takes geography. It takes a street where the traffic doesn’t drive too fast, that has sidewalks or quiet shoulders that are welcoming to foot traffic. It takes a block where there is somewhere outside to play, whether that place is a wide sidewalk, a front or backyard that’s welcoming to neighborhood kids, or a close-by public park or playground.

This type of play-friendly environment is assumed, often mistakenly, to be available only in suburbs and small towns, but in our previous home in Brooklyn, New York, there were blocks around us with wide sidewalks on which children freely rode back and forth on their kick scooters and bicycles, and neighbors with connecting backyards where kids would pass back and forth to play.

What’s more, by fourth or fifth grade, those kids are walking home from school by themselves, and by sixth, they’re taking city buses and subways to middle school in the morning.

If you happen to live on a block that’s child-scaled, you’re lucky, because even here in Rockland, Maine (population 7,200), there are plenty of blocks where the traffic moves fast, where it’s not safe for kids to wander, where this kind of free play doesn’t happen.

It shouldn’t be a matter of luck: Safe streets and trust between neighbors is good for people of all ages.

My elementary school–aged children don’t have the freedom to disappear for the day like my mom did — in that sense, social mores have definitely changed. But as long as they’re within a reasonable shouting distance, I’m comfortable.
One of the positive developments of this past year and half of social distancing is that outdoor play has become the norm year-round as scheduled indoor playdates have gone the way of the dodo.

A friend of my mom’s visited my house recently and said that the way the kids played in the neighborhood reminded her of the 1950s. But what’s happening on my block isn’t a throwback to another time. It’s very much a phenomenon of today.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.