Where Do the Children Play?

Copyright (c) 2003 by Kenny Felder

I know we've come a long way. We're changing day to day.
But tell me, where do the children play?
- Cat Stevens

At 3:00 each day I walk to the door of my daughter's classroom. School is over, but Mary and the other children are sitting at their desks. When the teacher sees me coming, he calls Mary to come to the door and hands her over into my care. All the other children and parents are going through the same routine, and none of them considers it at all unusual. You can't just fling open the schoolroom doors at 3:00 and have the children run out into the world unsupervised, can you? After all, these children are only in the third grade.

Things were very different when I was a kid. My younger sister walked home from her school in Raleigh each day, crossing Six Forks Road and then Millbrook, which were busy four-lane streets even back then. My sister did not make this walk alone—accompanying her was our first-grade little brother. But my sister was in charge. After all, she was in the third grade.

So our assumptions about third graders in 2003 are completely different from the assumptions in 1977. What changed?

Obviously, one thing that has changed is the legal environment. If a child gets hurt at a school, or on private property, someone gets sued for millions of dollars—so we need to restrict them for our own protection. Is that really the issue? Have we gotten so cynical that we are willing to turn children's lives upside-down for insurance reasons? If that really is the only change, we need to figure out how to change it back.

On the other hand, maybe the change is not just legal. Everyone tells me that the world is a more dangerous place than it used to be, especially for children. But no one has offered me even a scrap of evidence to support this idea, and all the statistics I can find suggest the opposite. Child death rates in North Carolina have been steadily declining for years. The world is not more dangerous: it's our attitudes that have changed.

But OK, all legal and statistical issues aside...if things have changed, haven't they changed for the better? Sure, children are less independent now, more restricted. Maybe they're growing up a little more fearful and suspicious. But our new safety consciousness literally saves children's lives, and isn't that worth any price?

It sounds really good when you say it. "Saving even one child is worth any price." If you really believe that, you'll love this: children should not be allowed to ride bikes, roller skates, ice skates, scooters, or skateboards. They should not be allowed to swim or jump on trampolines. Most importantly, they should not be in cars under any circumstances. After all, with all our child-proof doors, windows that won't open all the way, and properly utilized modern child safety seats, motor vehicle crashes are still by far the leading cause of death in children of every age. Let's just keep the kids at home until they're, say, 12 years old. They certainly don't need to be taking all these potentially fatal rides to enjoy trivial pleasures like movies, playgrounds, or libraries. When we go shopping, we can hire a baby-sitter. We might consider allowing them to ride to school, but even there, a neighborhood or home-based school would be a lot safer.

Some people might consider these measures extreme, but such changes would undoubtedly save children's lives. Let me make that really clear—if we all made those changes, real, adorable, beloved children would live, children who would otherwise die. Isn't that what we all want? Didn't we just agree that was worth any sacrifice?

Here's my point: as heartless as it sounds, it all comes down to math. Many of our decisions involve weighing quality of life against mathematical probability of death or serious injury. If the possibility of harm is slim enough, we take the risk—it's worth the risk—even though, once we all take the risk, it means that somewhere in our country of 250 million people, real children will in fact die. The alternative is raising our children in a bubble.

So we weigh the trade-offs. We use child safety seats in the car and sunblock at the pool. We look both ways before crossing the street, and get rid of asbestos in the school walls. All good. But in a lot of cases, I think we've gone much too far toward that bubble. I say, let the children out at 3:00, to play in the playground and wait for their parents. Let them dive off the diving board, or form a chain of five kids all holding onto each other's backs as they zoom down the slide into the swimming pool. Let them walk in the woods all day and not come home until dinner is almost cold.

It's a tough choice to make, and it might even be scary at first, but please—do it for the children.

Spring Morning
by A.A.Milne

Where am I going? I don't quite know.
Down to the stream where the king-cups grow—
Up on the hill where the pine-trees blow—
Anywhere, anywhere. I don't know.

Where am I going? The clouds sail by.
Little ones, baby ones, over the sky.
Where am I going? The shadows pass.
Little ones, baby ones, over the grass.

If you were a cloud, and sailed up there,
You'd sail on water as blue as air,
And you'd see me here in the fields and say:
"Doesn't the sky look green today?"

Where am I going? The high rooks call:
"It's awful fun to be born at all."
Where am I going? The ring-doves coo:
"We do have beautiful things to do."

If you were a bird, and lived on high,
You'd lean on the wind when the wind came by,
You'd say to the wind when it took you away:
"That's where I wanted to go today!"

Where am I going? I don't quite know.
What does it matter where people go?
Down to the wood where the blue-bells grow—
Anywhere, anywhere. I don't know.

This is my first essay on this topic; click here for the second, which I think is better developed in some ways.


From: Carol Freund
July 22, 2008

i agree with you except i think what has changed is a greater intolerance of anxiety, and so a greater need for the illusion of control. wny has that happened? i think there are a lot of reasons—and perhaps one of the small ones has to do with the amount of information we get daily even if we're not trying, and for whatever reasons most of that information is about awful stuff although there's an awful lot wonderful going on. small example of this: i occassionally (too occassionally but that's another subject) work out at a gym; there are televison screens up front; i don't hook up to them but i can't help seeing them, and on any given day i can predict taht there are disasters showing. anyway, as you know, i think the internal and external are very connected; the way we handle the internal which is perhaps what you call spiritual. i t's a part of our view of being human, isn't it, and how much of that we think we can control, rather than becoming capable of experiencing and handling well, growing and learning from the uneasiness that some stimuli provoke. anyway i promise i won't go on for so long about every essay i read, and don't dare take me off your list because you fear i will; that would be an unfair effort at control.

From: Kenny Felder
July 22, 2008

Alan Watts writes about the frantic drive toward control in our culture, talking about all the forms that have to be filled out to do minor things and so on. I think part of the problem is that we have become so insulated from death...we believe that if we control everything just right, no one will get sick or die...so if anyone does, we obviously lost control, and need to tighten down.

Come to think of it, Nietzsche writes about this too.

Michael Moore also takes up your point about media, talking about the difference between the U.S. and Canada, and concludes that the biggest difference is how well publicized every disaster is. It sells well. Why can't they go back to the old-fashioned way of selling—by using scantily dressed pretty girls? I like that a lot more.

Where was I? Oh, yeah...

The thing is, I think that frantic desire to maintain control, and the illusion that you can do it, are core parts of the human condition. The Romans had a ton of it. But we have taken it to a new level, perhaps because we really can control so much more. I have a cold, but I'm controlling the symptoms. It's 98 degrees outside, but I'm controlling that in my house. Mosquitoes, sunburn, mental depression, laziness, obesity, maternal-death-in-childbirth and ring-around-the-collar are all troubles to be tackled, fixed, and done away with. Isn't it galling to know that people still die, like animals? Anyway, I think that's part of it. I don't know all of it. But I know it is terrifying to me to see how children are raised.

From: Carol Freund
July 22, 2008

i think it's way more than death that we're terrified of. "controlling depression" sort of numbing the system down which is what a lot of those drugs do is very different than dealing with unexplained sadness, feelings of loss etc. we don't like that kind of stuff.

From: Anne Worth
July 24, 2008

I read your first essay on the web page on School Safety and agreed with it 100%. I'm sure I won't agree with all your essays but this one gets a big yes vote from me. Actually at first when I saw the title I thought your topic would be more along the lines of how schools "protect" the kids from Columbine-style shooters and would-be abductors. I put "protect" in quote marks because the measures the schools put in place would not deter anybody with half a brain. But they make the parents feel reassured... and cover the rear ends of the school administration. I guess that's what it's all about.

What makes me angriest about these things though is that the kids are made to be fearful. Last spring at one of the middle schools in our town, a boy I know found a bullet casing on the ground his way in to the classroom from the bus. It was just lying on the grass. So he gave it to the teacher monitoring the buses, who then immediately called for a lockdown. They have a protocol for this kind of thing, you see... Every kid was hustled into their classroom, by teachers who ran yelling through the halls pulling kids from bathrooms and lockers etc., and they were made to sit in a corner of their classrooms furthest from the windows and doors, in the dark, for an hour and a half. Some kids were crying and begging to go home (including one girl I know who is on medication already for an anxiety disorder and needs this sort of thing like she needs a hole in the head). The kid who found the casing was grilled by police during this time. In the end, the police discovered nothing of course. It was decided that the casing was the same sort as another bunch of casings found in another part of town the previous weekend where some idiot had been shooting at a streetlight. The police figured that a kid had found the casing and been carrying it around and dropped it at the school. Case closed. Kids scared for nothing. I thought it was a tremendous overreaction for finding a bullet casing on the ground, but to my surprise no other parent I've talked to (other than Ron) seems to feel this way. They think the school administration was totally correct in being "safe rather than sorry."

Anyway, back to the topic that you actually wrote about, general safety like crossing the street and such—did you hear about that New York City columnist who wrote about dropping her 9-year old son off in the middle of the city and letting him find his way home alone? It caused no end of flap. I thought it was really interesting. If you haven't heard about it, I will summarize. Her son really wanted to do this, he had lived in NYC all his life (I believe), knew the subway very well, had money for the tickets. She dropped him off in a dept. store and he made his way home in 2? or 3? hours. Something like that. Anyway, he was exhilarated and loved it. Of course many, many parents thought she was just *awful*. But others thought she should be locked up. I think my heart would be in my throat but... if I knew my kid was capable of it I hope I could have the courage to let him do that. Of course I'm terrified myself of NYC so there's no way. It takes a real city dweller to feel comfortable with that kind of thing.

Next year Nathan has to walk to school because our town is instituting bus fees so we will have to see about him eventually walking to school by himself. That will be my version of the NYC adventure. Ha! Small steps, Kenny, small steps.

From: Kenny Felder
July 24, 2008

I did read about the woman in NYC. One adult I know who grew up in Florida said "she's crazy." My mother, who grew up in NYC, said "What's the big deal? We wandered all over the city at that age. Every kid was given a free subway pass to go to school, so the only limitation was that we couldn't ride on the weekend because then we would have to pay."

The thing that always gets me, Anne, is that our generation grew up without these sorts of insane restrictions. When I suggest that a kid could possibly ride a tricycle without a helmet, the parents who look at me like I'm crazy invariably grew up riding shotgun on their fathers' motorcycles without helmets. They think it's impossible, but they remember it. What happens when these kids grow up, not remembering any other world? They really will find it unimaginable that a kid could be allowed out of eyeshot before he's 18, since they never were. And so it just keeps getting worse.

From: Janice Nelson
July 29, 2008

I thought you would like this after reading one of your essays.

Those Born 1920-1979

TO ALL THE KIDS WHO SURVIVED the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s!!

First, we survived being born to mothers who smoked and/or drank while they were pregnant.

They took aspirin, ate blue cheese dressing, tuna from a can, and didn't get tested for diabetes.

We had no childproof lids on medicine bottles, doors or cabinets and when we rode our bikes, we had no helmets, not to mention the risks we took hitchhiking.

As infants & children, we would ride in cars with no car seats, booster seats, seat belts or air bags.

Riding in the back of a pick up on a warm day was always a special treat.

We drank water from the garden hose and NOT from a bottle.

We shared one soft drink with four friends, from one bottle and NO ONE actually died from this.

We ate cupcakes, white bread and real butter and drank Kool-aid made with sugar, but we weren't overweight because,


We would leave home in the morning and play all day, as long as we were back when the streetlights came on.

No one was able to reach us all day. And we were O.K.

We would spend hours building our go-carts out of scraps and then ride down the hill, only to find out we forgot the brakes. After running into the bushes a few times, we learned to solve the problem.

We fell out of trees, got cut, broke bones and teeth and there were no lawsuits from these accidents.

We ate worms and mud pies made from dirt, and the worms did not live in us forever.

We were given BB guns for our 10th birthdays, made up games with sticks and tennis balls and, although we were told it would happen, we did not put out very many eyes.

We rode bikes or walked to a friend's house and knocked on the door or rang the bell, or just walked in and talked to them!

Little League had tryouts and not everyone made the team. Those who didn't had to learn to deal with disappointment.

If YOU are one of them, CONGRATULATIONS!

You might want to share this with others who have had the luck to grow up as kids, before the lawyers and the government regulated so much of our lives for our own good.

From: Kenny Felder
July 29, 2008

I've seen that email a few times. I hope I don't come across as strident as the author, but I love the way he captures the feeling of childhood (and I really wish I knew who he was). This piece really brings out two things that I have such a hard time communicating.

First, this is important. When you tell kids they can't go out and play unsupervised, you are taking away something that is very fundamental and developmental. You aren't buying extra safety without losing something—something infinitely precious.

Second, as I wrote above, the parents who give me those "You can't possibly allow children to do that!" look all the time, actually remember when children did that all the time. When the current generation grows up, they will have no such memories. They will really believe that no one could ever possibly do that.

From: Gary Felder
August 4, 2008

There's really no new information in here, but Kenny I know you in particular are always happy to know that there are some other people out there saying these things.


Kids Need the Adventure of "Risky" Play
A major study says parents harm their children's development if they ban tree-climbing or conkers
Anushka Asthana, education correspondent
The Observer, Sunday, August 3, 2008

It is a scene that epitomises childhood: young siblings racing towards a heavy oak tree, hauling themselves on to the lower branches and scrambling up as high as they can get. Yet millions of children are being deprived of such pleasure because their parents are nervous about exposing them to any risks, new research has revealed.

boy climbing tree A major study by Play England, part of the National Children's Bureau, found that half of all children have been stopped from climbing trees, 21 per cent have been banned from playing conkers and 17 per cent have been told they cannot take part in games of tag or chase. Some parents are going to such extreme lengths to protect their children from danger that they have even said no to hide-and-seek.

"Children are not being allowed many of the freedoms that were taken for granted when we were children," said Adrian Voce, director of Play England. "They are not enjoying the opportunities to play outside that most people would have thought of as normal when they were growing up."

Voce argued that it was becoming a "social norm" for younger children to be allowed out only when accompanied by an adult. "Logistically that is very difficult for parents to manage because of the time pressures on normal family life," he said. "If you don't want your children to play out alone and you have not got the time to take them out then they will spend more time on the computer."

Voce pointed out how irrational some of these decisions were. Last year, almost three times as many children were admitted to hospital after falling out of bed as those who had fallen from a tree.

The tendency to wrap children in cotton wool has transformed how they experience childhood. According to the research, 70 per cent of adults had their biggest childhood adventures in outdoor spaces among trees, rivers and woods, compared with only 29 per cent of children today. The majority of young people questioned said that their biggest adventures took place in playgrounds.

Voce said Play England was determined to spread the message that children ought to be taking risks and that it is "not the end of the world if a child has an accident." The latest study will be launched on Wednesday to coincide with Play Day, when hundreds of events will take place across the country to celebrate children's right to play. It will show that play providers also feel the opportunities for children to "test and challenge themselves in play involving a level of risk" have reduced over the past decade. They blame overcautious health and safety officers and the fear of litigation if children have accidents.

Andrea Quaintmere, who manages Toffee Park Adventure Playground in London, admitted there were fears that parents would sue if children were injured. But she said that should not stop workers ensuring children experienced lots of adventure. "We need to educate parents who are worried about their kids having accidents and hurting themselves," said Quaintmere. "Children can learn from small accidents. Parents do get nervous and tell us 'don't let them do that.' I try to remind them of their own childhood."

As Quaintmere spoke, two nine-year-old girls, Chloe Bailey and Kiara Gomes, ran by. "My favourite games are football and 'it'," said Chloe, before going to build a camp with her friends. "My mum says that climbing trees is too dangerous," said Kiara. "But my dad lets me. If I fall over and it hurts, I just get myself up and smile."

The Play England study quotes a number of play providers who highlight the benefits to children of taking risks. "Risk-taking increases the resilience of children," said one. "It helps them make judgments," said another. Some of those interviewed blamed the "cotton wool" culture for the fact that today's children were playing it too safe, while others pointed to a lack of equipment or too much concrete in place of grass. The research also lists examples of risky play that should be encouraged including fire-building, den-making, watersports, paintballing, boxing and climbing trees.

Justine Roberts, founder of Mumsnet.com, an online forum for mothers, said that parents only wanted to protect their children. "It is the mums and dads that have to deal with the bruises and cuts," she said. "But broadly speaking I think that we will have to be brave and allow our children to take physical risk because, within reason, that is the way that they learn.

"When you see your two-and-a-half year-old on a climbing frame your heart is in your mouth and that is normal but I think most parents realise that at some point their children have to take physical risks; most recognise the benefits of learning through play. We can be overprotective but it is impossible to wrap children in cotton wool."

From: Gary Felder
August 24, 2008

What can I say? Keep saying it loudly and in every forum you get. And thank heavens I live in the woods. I hope my kids know every square inch of those woods by the time they are teenagers.

 Kenny Felder's Essays and Commentaries

 Send comments or questions to the author