Confessions of a Free-Range Child

This weekend  we found the horses strangely agitated and the kids with a wanderlust.  We were drawn to hiking to the campsite and playing with lizards, watching the dogs hunt for gophers and dancing around the poison oak.  I worried families weren’t getting their expectations met.

While I was worrying – there were songs, art projects, giggles and daydreaming.  A parent wrote me a beautiful and heartbreaking email and she used the term “an oasis” in referring to the ranch.

It got me thinking about what’s important.

This morning, i came across this article and thoughts started taking shape.

This sentence got me:

Autistic kids have the same rights to a childhood as other children. Therapies and supplemental educational activities should be done in addition to playtime, not in place of it.”

I’m glad I wasn’t born in this decade.  I was born in the (ahem!)  60’s.  A time when parents were seriously “hands off.”  Dad travelled for work and mom stayed home and making casseroles based on Campbell’s soup can recipes and there was a LOT of television.

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Free range kids – you will notice my brother has a black eye.

I was a wanderer.  My brother was a genius. He found motorcycles and re-built them. Then we rode them and wrecked them and fixed them again.  We lit stuff on fire.  We found out about fire ants, poison sumac, shut-in neighbors and how puppies and kittens were made all first-hand. We ducked under fences and brushed cows, made up songs and fixed the transistor radio that we’d broken with duct tape.  We had pen knives and pet turtles both of which we’d found in the bayou. We stole baby magpies out of nests and tried to teach them to talk (it didn’t work).We took the dog everywhere. We got lost, we waged dirt clod wars with real blood, we crossed double yellow lines on our bikes.

We asked shop owners for jobs and got them. Jobs like washing windows – which we did badly, painting fences, which we did an even worse job. We broke into abandoned storage sheds and found treasures, and spiders and rat skeletons.

We talked to strangers.

We built tree forts and underground forts and forts under the stairs in the house.  Building sites were open season – I’m sure kids today would make the 5 o’clock news if they got caught in a building site with pockets full of nails, door hinges, lumber scraps and bathroom tiles.   

I sold Campfire girl mints door-to-door and sat in front of the grocery store giving away unplanned kittens and puppies.

Our mom, by profession was a pediatric nurse.  She’d seen everything and instead of worrying about what the world might do to her kids, she reminded us that our scraped knees were “not that bad.”  She expected us to put on our own bandaids and to dig out a sliver from each other’s hands. And we did.

Occasionally, I was jealous of the girls going to dance recitals and gymnastic classes.  But while they were doing drills I was strapping smoke bombs to the bottom of my skateboard and gliding down hills pretending I was a jet.

Play. Yeah. That’s what was happening at the ranch this weekend. Unstructured, curiosity-based childhood. 

But I worry (that’s my job). Again, a quote from this article helped me realize that in following the children, creating a space for parents to breathe and children to giggle, we are doing something precious and vital.

“They’re being led by an adult in a structured activity that has the goal of producing desired outcomes for which the child will receive extrinsic rewards. That’s the opposite of play. In fact, that’s the dictionary definition of work.”

So today I’m taking the day off.  I’m going to daydream, pet the dog and be grateful for the chance to play.

2 Replies to “Confessions of a Free-Range Child”

  1. I love it when you carve out some time to write! Always a great read, good thoughts. You made me think about all the teeth and bones we broke, or almost broke; all time we spent in musty, dusty basements reading the girlie magazines everyone had long since forgotten. We rode horses with a rope harness and absolutely no education in the matter. We made cakes from Bette Crocker mixes and then ate them, whole. We watched from a distance as our parents played canasta and smoked Pell Mells. A different era.

  2. Reminds me of the times I visited family in Iowa; things are still fairly free-range there. I explored train tracks and shot at flies with a BB gun, and nobody even asked where my parents were. Fun times!

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