Free Range Childhood Memories

When I was driving around with the Sparkle Girl the other day a childhood memory came flashing back.  One I hadn’t thought about in years and years, but it made me smile and I thought about Lenore Skenazy’s campaign to bring back formerly normal pursuits for children.  This is a totally Free Range Childhood memory and I’m not sure it could happen today.

We lived on a military base outside of Memphis, TN.  NAS Memphis was a Naval air station that has since been decommissioned.  We lived in the Hospital Quarters near the bright shiny new hospital and a few blocks away from my elementary school, Millington East.  We walked to school every day, without my mother or any other adult.  Usually we walked with another child from the neighborhood through the chain link fence topped with razor wire, across a busy street where the cross guard would call me “Elly”, then on to school.  We rode our bikes around the neighborhood and played outside all the time.

My sister and I bickered incessantly, which I’m certain contributed to my mother’s desire to get us the hell out of the house.  Often we played with the neighbor kids and sometimes by ourselves.  We rode bikes all over.  We sometimes walked down to the pool in summer, but usually we spent the day unaccompanied at the Officer’s Club pool.  If my mom was with us, she certainly wasn’t hovering over us reapplying SPF 10,000 sunscreen, feeding us healthy organic snacks, reminding us to play nice with the other kids and  making sure we didn’t drown.  We played “Man from Atlantis” and mermaid, tried to see how long we could hold our breath under water, jumped off the high dive and ate popsicles from the snack stand. We had dance classes and Girl Scouts and day camp but these activities didn’t consume our lives.  We had plenty of breathing room.

The particular memory that came to me the other day involved a time that I went out exploring on my own, if my sister was with me I don’t recall it.  There were some barracks that had been  demolished but the debris had not been cleaned up.  There was a whole area with rows of stoops leading to rubble.  I climbed all over it and made an excellent discovery.  Telephone wire!  Lots and lots of colorful telephone wire.  For those of you unfamiliar with this wonderful stuff it is thin plastic coated wire.  The plastic is all kinds of amazing colors, some of it striped like candy canes.   I hauled this stuff home and showed it to my mom, who is the craftiest woman I know.  We turned this “trash” into so many treasures.  We twisted it into bracelets and necklaces and all kinds of shapes.  Endless fun.  I have a vague feeling I might have skinned my knee or cut myself on the debris, but the memory of the adventure and the discovery is so much more potent!!!

These days I don’t think I would be allowed out on my own like that.  I certainly wouldn’t have access to a giant pile of housing rubble since it would be surrounded by plastic orange fencing to keep out little explorers like myself.  Cool stuff like telephone wire would be removed for recycling or reuse (which really is a good thing).  This magic discovery just wouldn’t be possible today and that makes me a little sad.  So many kids will never know what it is like to just wander around on their own time and under their own direction.  Today’s kids are so scheduled with activities or so sedated with video games that there is no opportunity to get out alone much less be allowed to do it.  Even kids that get to pursue their own personal world without adults live in a much more sanitized environment.  Sure we feel “safer”, but I’m not so certain that is true.  It’s an illusion of safety.  It seems that we’ve traded “danger” for self imprisonment and that makes me feel clausterphobic.

I fully intend that my daughter will have opportunities for such self-directed adventure.  That I can provide opportunities for her to spend time exactly like she wants and in the process learn self-reliance, build confidence and exercise her imagination.


Free Range Kids from about 1975

31 comments to Free Range Childhood Memories

  1. Natasha
    May 5th, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    This totally struck a chord. My brother and I used to bike liberally around the grounds of the Ringling Museum/Ca’d Zan mansion complex just up the street from our house in Sarasota FL. We climbed in banyan trees, dug through the rubble from the crumbling sea wall (which included lots of gorgeous colored granite from the mansion patio), rode our bikes across the lawns, much to the delight of elderly museum goers I’m sure… I took H and Z there a few weeks ago and *gasp* paid ADMISSION to walk around a securely fenced compound…no bikes allowed…little signs on the banyans that state “no climbing”…etc. Frankly, the grounds and associated museum buildings are kept in far better condition now than they were in my day, and both tourist volume and “quality” (nattily dressed, waiting patiently for the tram) are I’m sure the toast of the board of directors…but I do mourn the wilder days when things weren’t so buttoned up, and neighborhood kids roamed free as if they owned the place. I can’t even think of somewhere like that here at home. Sigh.

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