Over the course of the last month or so at night I have been reading a fascinating book, The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids, by architecture critic Alexandra Lange. I can’t recommend it enough. It describes the efforts of designers, architects, and urban planners to foster child development and independence, and tells the interesting tale of how the philosophies and ideas that guided these efforts to design better toys, playgrounds, schools, homes, and cities for kids have changed over time.
One of the things that struck me most was a small section in the chapter on cities that discusses how the distance that kids are free to roam has changed over time. The book mentions an article from the UK’s Daily Mail that describes how the freedom to roam during middle childhood changed over the generations for one family living in the Sheffield, England. Over four generations, the freedom to roam at age eight years shrank from six miles to 300 yards.
It got me to thinking about how far I was allowed to roam when I was a kid and how far Will and Lucas are (and will be) permitted to roam as they enter middle childhood and adolescence. When I was kid, like many kids in the 1970s and early 1980s in the Midwest, I spent most of my day outside roaming around with a group of friends. A day might entail football in my backyard followed by a few games of basketball at my friend Dave’s house. Throughout the day, an everchanging mix of kids would ride their bikes around the neighborhood. When school was out for the summer or winter break, we would often spend the better part of the day exploring the open woods and streams in the large section of Mill Creek Park that lay across the street from our house. We would look for fossils in the stream, build forts and have battles, argue and occasionally fight, and sometimes just roam around in the woods.
We roamed pretty far and wide. I took a few minutes to put together a map of where I remember roaming when I was a kid. The bike was the key that unlocked our freedom. Once we were competent rider, we were permitted to bike a mile and half north to Boardman Plaza to play videogames at the local arcade, purchase snacks, or buy a comic book at the “Boardman Smoke Shop.” We were free to bike to a friend’s house as long as it was within a few miles and we didn’t cross a major thoroughfare. We would bike three-quarters of a mile to the grounds of my middle and high school campus to play pickup basketball and football games and hang out. We were free to explore as much of the woods as our hearts desired, as long we made it home for dinner. When I was in eighth grade or a freshman, I surprised my parents by biking to my grandparents’ house about 20 miles away.
One of the principal reasons I wanted us to move to Mountain Lakes was that it reminded me of this earlier America. Many kids walk to and from the schools, either alone or with their friends or parents. Middle school and high school kids can be seen swimming and hanging out at the beaches and lakes in town in the summer and ice skating in the winter. There are wooded parks for the kids to explore and a restaurant and ice cream shop in the center of town where they can hang out after school. Few arterial streets cut through the neighborhood.
I want our kids to be free to roam as they grow older and become more responsible in part because those moments are among my most cherished childhood memories. But, I also want them to be free to wander because it is so important developmentally. Opportunities to explore the world beyond the home and its immediate surroundings are crucial to the development of competence and independence. Wandering let’s kids discover different opportunities for play and confront new and unexpected challenges. They get an chance to try something, fail, and try again , beyond the watchful eye of an adult. Roaming lets them learn how to assess risks and to get themselves out of dicey situations. Wandering with siblings and friends inevitably eventually leads to an argument, teaching kids how to argue, negotiate, and resolve differences of opinion or agree to disagree.
Now that Will is getting a little older (he will turn eight in June), I am noticing how few kids even in our idyllic little town are actually out and about on the typical weekday afternoon or weekend day. There aren’t packs of kids riding their bikes around. I rarely see kids exploring the park where I run most days. As I start to think about how I can give him (and Lucas, eventually) more freedom to roam, it strikes me how much the freedom to wander and roam is subject to network effects. It is much easier to let your kids roam when there are lots of kids out of their bikes, or playing in the street, or exploring the woods. My hope is that I can help seed a little more roaming in this little patch of the world over the next decade.