She wants to be free, she says. She wants to go where the wind takes her. She wants to meet colorful characters, far and wide, never knowing what new thing she may encounter when she steps outside her door. She wants fresh air and sunshine and legs pumping pedals as the iridescent My Little Pony ribbons flap on her handlebars.
Geesh, mom, she just wants to go to the next street.
It’s where all the kids are. We managed to move in on the street where all the older boys–mostly indoor boys, at that–live. All the little girls are one street over. A 3-minute walk. A hop, skip, and a jump. But beyond my sight. And that’s too far.
I think back to my childhood. I’d never heard the word “play date”. (I’m 8; what am I gonna do with a date?) A plan to go play at the house of a friend from school was a rare occasion. But as soon as I got home from school and had a snack, I was out the door and on my bike. I rode up and down my grandparents’ block, over to the park about two blocks away, down to the cul-de-sac. I went walking 3 and 4 blocks at times, knocking on the door of a teacher who lived not too far away. I climbed trees. I hung out in other people’s backyards.
When I was within the boundaries of our fence, I was swinging, always swinging, under the large oak tree where my grandfather had attached a rope, fitted with a small plank that had notches in the side to hold it in. There was no slide back there, no tree house, no trampoline. There was a $2 handmade swing, and I can’t tell you how many things it was in my imagination. It was a car, a trapeze, a wagon, a loft in a barn on Little House on the Prairie. I was Laura. Almanzo was somehow saving the day. I peered through knots in the fence wood at the pool in the neighbors’ backyard. I sang at the top of my lung until the neighbor boys told me to shut up. I went up the fig tree branches like they were a spiral staircase. I listened to the lonely, yearning sound of the mourning doves at five o’clock, the sun stealing down behind the Higdons’, the electric street lights click and buzz on. Then the call for dinner, and that was all…until the next day.
My grandparents lived at the end of a long block. At the opposite corner of that block lived a family with three little girls, who I also went to school and carpooled with. Friday nights I stayed and watched movies like The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and My Fair Lady until late, and this was the only time my grandfather walked down and escorted me home. Every afternoon and every weekend were me riding down that long street with oaks and sycamores intermittently hiding the sun and flashing it on me as I sweat and breathed in cool, blue-crisp air and went from door to door to see who could come out to play: first Tia, in the middle of the block, then Kimberly, and down in the cul-de-sac, Nicholas. There was “the scary house” on the opposite side of the block, the one that looked dark and had roots in front that buckled the sidewalk, but no one there or anywhere else ever bothered me a single time that I can recall while I was out playing. In the middle of the city, no cars followed along after me. No one unaccustomed tried to talk to me or came up to the back fence. Limits are not a part of my memory of my “outside life” and neither is fear, though I knew about stranger danger.
I want so much for Mustard Seed to feel what it felt like to always be moving, to like moving because it’s just incidental to play. I want her to know she can get along out there, that she can handle crossing streets, going around a block, knocking on a neighbor’s door and speaking adults confidently without me standing behind her to nudge her forward or for her to fall back on. I want for her to be able to go out and spontaneously play with other kids when she wants to, none of this “Well I’ll call her mother and we’ll see if she can come over three weeks from Wednesday if she doesn’t have soccer and ballet and Lego robotics that day.” I want to know my neighbors and for us to know that we will keep an eye on one another’s kids.
But I feel like I can’t let her.
Because, you know, despite the fact that they say crime has actually decreased dramatically since my childhood days, despite cel phones or walkie-talkies or whatever technology I might employ, despite that…I always think of that one kid I saw on Dateline or the nightly news. That is not going to happen to my kid, I say. I’m not giving anyone a chance to do something like that.
And yet, with everything I’m responsible for, I don’t feel like I can schedule in 2 hours of sitting outside one street over from my house to watch her play. She’s not like me: she feels very lonely playing in the backyard all alone. So what am I to do? Is it just a case of me needing to dedicate time to something if it’s a priority for me? If so, how can I fit it in with the household chores, school, occasional work, errands, and our extracurriculars??? Or is it a question of needing to let go and lighten up?
How do you handle outdoor time? Is it something your child always experiences with you by their side? Or do you let them roam “free-range”? Are your kids getting as much outdoor time as you think they need? If you spend lots of time supervising, how do you fit it into your schedule?