"Hi mom! I'm going to the park! Bye mom!" - That is often the only "conversation" I have with Lilly between the time she comes home from school and supper.
It used to be the case that from the second the end of the day bell rang to when kids had to be dragged home for supper, a park would be filled with kids climbing and playing while a pick up game of soccer was going on in the field nearby. Now, those parks are empty and silent during this time. What has caused this change? Certainly, dual income homes means that kids are going to daycares and after school programmes instead of the park. But then, what about after supper? Why are parks so barren then? The homework load that most children are saddled with means that kids have to spend their time between supper and bed doing their work, cutting into their play time. But, then why on the weekends and during school holidays are these parks so empty? Is it because they are all playing in their yards or on their streets? I see little evidence of that in my neighbourhood, but I suppose it's possible. Mostly, though, kids are simply not allowed to go to a park without a parent - and most parents don't want to go to the park.
Negligent mother example #2
The risk: Letting my kids play out of eyesight at the park or letting them go to the park alone.
When we lived 25 minutes from the school, I would often meet my kids at the park beside the school where they would play from 2:40, when the bell let them out of school, until 5:00, when we finally decided to go home. While there, I would let the older three (then 7, 5 and 3) play on the hill away from the equipment while I stayed with my then one year old. This put them out of my direct line of sight as there are many trees both on the hill and between the equipment and the hill. When we moved to our current house, I allowed my then 8 and 6 year olds to go to the park without me. Before our move, I would let them go to the school playground nearby without me.
The park has many paths that wind around the three baseball fields. I have taken to walking those paths after the school day is done while my kids play on the equipment or on the hill, leaving my 9 year old responsible for my 3 and 5 year old. And by that I mean if they get hurt or in trouble, Lilly has to yell for me and I'll be there, her only responsibility. (I need to get more exercise.)
The precautions: None
I figure that if they are in earshot, I will be able to tell if someone is lying bleeding to death in a pool of their own blood. The thought of someone coming to abduct or hurt them didn't really cross my mind, but we had the "stranger danger" talk before and they knew to scream loudly and fight. I guess I would hear that too. Once they started to go to the park without me, the only thing I told them was if there were any kids there who were making them uncomfortable to just come home. I also told them to come and tell me if they decided to go to a friend's house.
The reaction from other parents: Some didn't care about the hill but most are uncomfortable with the idea of my sending my kids to play alone at the park.
Other parents would let their kids play over on the hill as well. There was three of us who I would group under the "relaxed parent" profile. But, when it comes to letting my kids go it alone, I am again in the very small minority (like the "I'm the only one in the neighbourhood who allows it" kind of small). It is the fear of "what if" that makes other parents reluctant to tread in the territory that I am willing to. I have experienced shocked raised eyebrows when I say my kids go to the park alone.
Why it is worth the risk: Unsupervised play has many health benefits - physically and psychologically
A study by University College London monitored 330 kids aged 8 to 11. They put tracking systems on their wrists and motion sensors on their belts and tracked their movement, direction, calories burned and speed for 4 days, including one weekend. The kids who were allowed unsupervised play were more active and used more calories than the kids whose play were supervised. The unsupervised kids also moved in less direct lines and took time to socialize and explore as they moved from activity to activity.
Lilly has been meeting her friends at the park after school since we moved to this house, not quite a year ago. She did not have friends in our old neighbourhood due to school location and the age of the residents (most of them were empty nesters). I have noticed a change in Lilly's ability to interact with her peers since then. She a bit socially awkward but allowing her to explore social norms on her own in an unstructured environment has allowed her to conform without losing her spirit. I know that conformity is seen as a bad thing to some, but it happens to everyone to some extent. I am glad it happened for Lilly in a way that lets her keep her uniqueness. Could this just be her maturing as she gets older? Yes it could, but unsupervised play aides in the maturing process.
There is a climbing wall at the park that Madeleine loves. She doesn't want to wait until I have time to take her and so her visits are frequently made without me. One day, she came running in the house all excited. "Mom! Mom! Next time we go to the park I have to show you something!" Not only has she mastered climbing the climbing wall, she has mastered standing on the climbing wall. Since the two friends I used to meet at the park have moved away, I don't go as often as I used to. It took more time for Madeleine to learn her new trick than I was willing to spend at the park. Her sense of accomplishment and pride was almost contagious when she showed me. Could she have found something just as challenging in the back yard? Probably, but without having me there to watch over her she got to show me her trick once it was perfected, without me seeing the times that she fell. (I don't know if that was more a benefit for her or me!)
Want to take a risk?: Take your kids to the park and let them loose.
Many neighbourhoods lack a green area or park. If this is the case for you and you don't feel comfortable letting your kids travel to one alone, go with them. Bring a book, park yourself on a bench and read. See what your kids can get up to without you monitoring them. Let them play as far away from you as you feel comfortable with. Sit back and relax and enjoy the fresh air. Or you could drop them off if the park is close by and not a half hour trek from your house. Tell them you'll be there to pick them up in two hours. If you have a park near by, let them go it alone. Give them a watch and let them know that they have until the alarm goes off and then it's time to come home.
An empty field will do just as well as any park. Or a school yard, or a soccer field not in use, or a parking lot of an empty or closed store. There are many places for kids to explore! Giving your child a cell phone can help ease your anxieties, just make sure they aren't the type who will lose it.
Next - Let's talk about sex (offender registry).