Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Walking to school and playing outside

I've been wanting to do a post on this for a few weeks now. I got started thinking about it when I read this article in the paper: Initiative encourages walking to school -QCTimes. The article talks about parents' reluctance to let young children walk to elementary school alone, and some of the negative results of this.

It got me thinking about how much things have apparently changed just in the last 15-20 years since I was a student at Garfield Elementary. I'm not sure what grade I started walking. It was rarely by myself but generally with friends, neighbors, or my younger sister, but I believe it was around 3rd grade or so, or about 8 years old, that I walked to school without an adult. These days if you see an 8-year old walking around by himself, most people wonder where his parents are. One person in the article was quoted as saying that while child predators and amber alerts are highlighted by the media more now, its really no more dangerous to let kids walk to school than it was 20 years ago. That actually seems around right to me. A great suggestion in the article is "walking school buses," where kids are picked up by an adult that walks a bunch of kids to school together. I'd love to think we could return to the days of not worrying about kids walking alone, but the adult escort seems like a good start compared to each parent dropping their kid off from a car.

The other thing that came out of thinking back to walking to school, was the amount of freedom I enjoyed to play outside. My parent-approved territory constantly expanded as I got older. First it was the fenced yard that I regularly escaped from, then our half of the block, then both halves of the block (people with alleys know what I'm talking about), then a couple blocks, then the 9-block area I grew up in that was bordered by busier streets, then essentially freedom to go places (within reason) prior to true freedom, a driver's license. I guess I don't know if this kind of thing still exists anymore, or if parents are constantly in fear of the children being snatched by a psycho. I know I see kids playing outside in the street, so it must not have changed too much from when I was a kid. Maybe I'm getting too nostalgic here, but are kids still allowed to roam their neighborhood for hours at a time without being thought of as unwatched hooligans? I remember that there were kids whose parents didn't really care, whose excessive childhood freedom I was jealous of, and were the types of bad influence kids I'm referring to by "hooligans." I'm also curious how this stuff works out north of Kimberly where going "around the block" could be a squiggly, dead-end filled half mile walk. If you live at say, 40th and Forest Rd, where is there to even walk to?

So I haven't really said a lot here of substance as much as put thoughts and questions out there, but I'm hoping for some good discussion. One of my big reasons for supporting traditional neighborhoods and traditional-style new urban developments is my belief that this idyllic "walk-to-Golick's, bike-to-little-league, play-in-the-alley" childhood was beneficial to me as I grew up. Or maybe I can just blame my parents for not buying me a Nintendo.


pioneer98 said...

I think you are on to something, QCI. I think in general Americans are terrified about a lot more things than they were 20 years ago. I think I had maybe 3 or 4 snow days my entire school career. Now it seems like 3 snow days in a year is not uncommon. And I had to walk uphill in that snow both to and from school!

It's pathetic the way the media hypes oncoming snow storms, and they are still wrong half the time. Some seem like they are wrong more often than that because they always err on the side of reporting the worst possible case. It makes for a better story. The National Weather Service is the only one I trust any more. With one of our recent storms, some local outfit was predicting a foot of snow. The NWS predicted 2-3". Guess who was closer?

Foreigners get a kick out of all our warning labels all over everything. You have to admit they are comical. We buy guns and move to some far away exurb because we think we're going to get robbed. We send in the bomb squad when a random suitcase is spotted on the sidewalk downtown! We buy SUV's because we think they are safer (overall they really aren't, they just have different types of risk than cars - look it up).

Like everything, though, I bet there will be a backlash against all these scaredy-cats, if its not already happening. I guess I can only hope.

Anonymous said...

I am curious about this too. We had free roam of our neighborhood and we loved it. I remember spending all day outside. We just had our first child and I'm already hesitant about when she's old enough to play outdoors. You do feel like there are more weirdos out there, but like you said there were the same fears 20 years ago. I am interested to see what other commenters say.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Windsor Crest in the late 80s/early 90s (I'm just a few years older than QCI) and took the bus to school. We waited for the bus by ourselves, whereas now it seems there are parents at most bus stops.

At Eisenhower, my recollection is that almost everyone who lived close (i.e., south of Kimberly) walked to school by themselves or with siblings. Almost nobody was dropped off by car or escorted by a parent. Not that long ago, they redid the driveway at Eisenhower to create a pickup/dropoff lane for parents.

There was an adult crossing guard at the light on Jersey Ridge in front of the school, but all other crossings were supervised by 5th and 6th graders who were members of "patrol." On those days where I walked to a friend's house after school rather than taking the bus home, we respected the authority of those bright orange sashes and AAA badges, as we believed they could report bad behavior by walkers back to school (I have no idea if that was true or not). Do they even have "patrol" anymore?

Not long after I learned to ride a bike I was allowed to walk or ride anywhere in the square bounded by Jersey Ridge, Eastern, Kimberly and 46th, including the old Walgreens and Eagle supermarket on Kimberly near Spring. And my parents WERE the protective types--I vividly remember being jealous of my friends whose parents didn't make them wear bike helmets. How many kids ride bikes without helmets now? How many kids even ride bikes by themselves now?

This is a nationwide issue, not just a problem in the QC, that I believe is caused in part by parents simply wanting to be more involved with their kids, but also by the increasingly lurid nature of the evening news and the popularity of TV shows like "Without a Trace" and "Law and Order: All Rape Edition" (aka SVU). Every fact-based essay I've ever read on the subject suggests that random abductions and attacks by strangers on kids are actually less prevalent today than they were 50-60 years ago.

Luckily, I think the pendulum is starting to swing back the other way at least among the cognoscenti. Writers like Lenore Skenazy are promoting "free range" parenting, and sites like BoingBoing are trying hard to highlight the ridiculousness of fear-mongering parenting.