On Swim Shoes, Summer and “Seeing” What Matters

Hi Readers — Just got this poignant note from a young woman who sees life, risk and joy pretty clearly! L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: I am fortunate to live in a community with several wonderful county parks and, growing up, swimming in the lakes there was a  regular part of summer. But then life got hectic and I hadn’t been to the lakes in years, so to celebrate the 4th of July, my parents and I decided it was time to revisit one.

As a child, I never wore my swim shoes in to the water. My siblings and I would stake our claim at a picnic table or lounge chair where we would drop our shoes,  run across boiling hot pavement, sink our toes into to warm sand and  then bounce joyously in the water all afternoon. I could hardly wait to re-live those memories.

Unfortunately, since those days, Mom has heard stories of shards of glass, even needles, piercing children’s feet at the lake, so she did not want me to take off my swim shoes this time.

I am 21 years old, so I could have refused to listen, but I decided maybe she had a point. Maybe we DO have to be more careful these days. I kept them on. But then…something just wasn’t right. I couldn’t bounce around the way I remembered, or kick my feet to swim, because the shoes weighed me down. I found myself standing sullenly in the water thinking I might as well have just stayed on land.

“Can I please, please PLEASE take off my shoes?”

“Okay, but if you hurt yourself–”

“I will take full responsibility for it,” I promised.

Instantly, my shoes were off, my day was transformed and my feet were never even scratched. But after that experience, this blog came to mind.

I would say my mom was a Free-Range parent when my three older siblings and I were growing up. When the weather was beautiful, she would not allow us to sit inside, watching television. And although it wasn’t safe for me to do so, being totally blind in a community with no sidewalks, my siblings would frequently bike to the grocery store or walk to a friend’s house. So to learn that even my own mother had become consumed by fear surprised me.

Of course, those stories of children contracting diseases after stepping on a needle at the beach are horrible. [NOTE FROM LENORE: And rarer than shark attacks!] But while I don’t have statistics about this, the fact that this never happened to me or my siblings or anyone I know  makes me think that,  in the same way kidnapping is so unlikely that it is not worth staying locked in the house, the likelihood of stepping on a needle at the beach is not strong enough to justify missing out on the incredible joy of swimming barefoot. I hope today’s kids don’t.– Allison Nastoff

Allison is a college student majoring in journalism at Carroll
University in Wisconsin. 

Old-fashioned fun at the beach. (Before the needles stories...)

Guest Post: The Up-Side of Downsizing

Hi Readers! Here’s a seasonal  essay by Corbyn Hightower, a writer and mom of three in the suburbs of Sacramento, CA. She has six chickens and a “disobedient husband.” More of her work can be found at www.corbynhightower.com. — L.

SIMPLY SUMMER by Corbyn Hightower

My oldest child—a preteen—is having a friend spend the night. I’m surprised how self-conscious I am on my daughter’s behalf. We haven’t many guests since the recession demanded that we downsize our life, at which point we sold our only car, axed the cable and Internet, and moved into a shabby old house by the rail yard.

It’s really hot inside, and there’s no air conditioning. Some doors don’t have knobs. Our chickens have rendered the back yard unusable, and our driveway has been taken over by raised garden beds. What we lack in decorum we make up for in freedom from too many Rules About Things.

The guest says, “Your house is colorful.” I look at this crumbling place and I see the salvation of its underpriced square-footage and prolific fruit trees. This has been safe harbor, even with the nearby train tracks. I bite back apologetic explanations for the bicycles in the dining room and the cords from all the whirring fans that kept us from wilting in this destructive heat. We harvested pounds of squash from our garden, and that’s going to comprise the bulk of our dinner. My husband steams it, seasons it lightly, and serves it with a pot of brown rice. Our young houseguest eats heartily.

The next day it’s just so hot, and our little neighborhood creek bubbles below the foot bridge with promise of relief. I send the older girls out, where they will break small green branches from the fennel plants that grow in great fluffy drifts on the shore. They will have to climb through the remains of a concrete ditch, make way under a bridge festooned with lovers’ graffiti, and wade through the murky water to get to the small, hidden beach made of smooth stones and small shells.

They return muddy, sun-pinked, and happy. They’ve collected fistfuls of fennel along with small glittering rocks and treasures. Our new friend has gotten splinter on her foot. I make up a warm footbath with crushed lavender, and my son tells her that it will help with the splinter, and with her emotions, too. “It’ll make you feel okay until it gets better. It will give you a peaceful feeling.” I smooth her hair down and kiss the top of her head, our initiate. She holds her foot up to me to investigate.

Later, I send my five-year-old out to water the garden. The tomato plants have blooms, and the other plants are straining upward, not full-grown but strong, with their broad leaves facing toward the sun. Yesterday we feasted on the first truly awesome strawberries of the season. The sparkling flavor and seeds made them taste almost carbonated.

My children will have a summer of these simple memories, ones in which I participate, and others where my only job is to remove the splinters and wash off the mud upon their return.

A Post-Air-Conditioning World

Hi Readers! Stan Cox, author of the new book, “Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer),” wrote a great oped for The Washington Post last summer about what life would be like if we still sweltered. As a person who is always freezing, I LOVE the idea of an un-airconditioned world, not just because it would allow me to peel off several (dozen) cardigans, but also because I believe in what Cox preaches: That when we HAVE to go outside for relief, we gain a lot more than a cool breeze. We regain the whole idea of neighborhood. And we regain a season! As he writes in his oped:

Saying goodbye to A.C. means saying hello to the world. With more people spending more time outdoors — particularly in the late afternoon and evening, when temperatures fall more quickly outside than they do inside — neighborhoods see a boom in spontaneous summertime socializing.

Rather than cowering alone in chilly home-entertainment rooms, neighbors get to know one another. Because there are more people outside, streets in high-crime areas become safer. As a result of all this, a strange thing happens: Deaths from heat decline. Elderly people no longer die alone inside sweltering apartments, too afraid to venture outside for help and too isolated to be noticed. Instead, people look out for one another during heat waves, checking in on their most vulnerable neighbors.

Children — and others — take to bikes and scooters, because of the cooling effect of air movement. Calls for more summer school and even year-round school cease. Our kids don’t need more time inside, everyone agrees; they need the shady playgrounds and water sprinklers that spring up in every neighborhood.

Okay — he sounds a little hokey. But only because we’ve become so divorced from the idea that we can stand a little discomfort that we dismiss the idea that we really COULD be happier while sweatier.

I’m not sure how to bring this revolution about, since we already live without a.c. in my house and it’s not like anyone seems eager to follow our lead. (Or visit in July.)  But it’s something to think about, while our teeth chatter next to the A.C. vent. — Lenore

I'd trade a.c. for a day like this.

Needed: Your Camp Stories!

Hi Readers! I’m going to be giving a speech next week at the Tri-State Camp Conference — country’s biggest convention for camp owners — and I’d love to include some stories about how camp helps kids come into their own. I didn’t go to overnight camp but my husband did and he said it was THERE that he got to become a “grown up.” (Well, if by “grown up” we mean young man who could admit he was interested in girls.) It took him about three years to catch up with his summer persona in the real world.

Spending a chunk of time away from one’s parents, however loving, does seem to present a great opportunity to become independent (and not just learn how to short sheet a bunk bed). Also, the summer is the time to get in touch with nature, and learn some new skills. So if you have any stories (that you can share) about camp and growing up, do tell!

Thanks and I will now let Red Rover come over. — Lenore

Let's hear it for kids, bunks, free time & summer.

Cautiously, Town Lets Ice Cream Trucks Back in — For 1 Month

Wow, folks. This just in. The very, very brave and hard to spell town of Niskayuna, New York is finally allowing ice cream trucks to cruise the streets again (for a month-long trial) after a 34-year hiatus. The trucks were banned for a year back in 1975 after a girl was struck and killed while running to a truck. The next year the town allowed the trucks back IF they played no music and didn’t try to attract kids by driving up and down the street. (Putting good ol’ ice cream telepathy to work, I guess.) They were allowed to park in private driveways, when invited.

Once again, a single, devastating incident — the girl’s death — demanded a “shut the barn door after the cows are out” solution: Ban something that’s normally safe,  but, had it been banned earlier, it would have prevented that one, unusual fatality. It’s the kind of thing that will eventually have us banning chairs, after someone dies falling off of one, and already seems to be happening to hotdogs. Anytime anything bad happens in conjunction with X — be X a merry-go-round, or hug, or recess — we assume that we were foolish  to allow X to happen at all. (Lawyers it “negligence.”)

AGREED — it makes sense to think about safety and take reasonable precautions. BUT — it does not make sense to slash away at that lovely thing called “life” every time something sad happens. — Lenore

Not exactly a hideous menace.

Funny, Sad Piece: When Did Kids Stop Knowing How to Play?

Hi Readers — I’ll write about my fabulous day with Mary Duval and her “sex offender” son soon, but first: One of you just sent in this piece that resonated so much. It’s called, “Frolicking 101: When Did Kids Stop Knowing How to Play?” by comedian/essayist Sarah Maizes. Excerpt:

My kids are frolicking!  Really!! MY children!

They’re outside, they’re running around, they’re having fun – without colorful plastic toys, without a play structure, without an adult overseeing, supervising, or facilitating…without ME!

Just a big backyard, rolling grass, a random hill or two and my kids.  I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.

Maybe this wouldn’t be such a big deal if I were used to it.  But I’m not.  We don’t live in the country.  This is just our summer vacation.  At home, my kids almost never play outside, and they certainly don’t play outside without me standing there beside them suggesting what to play and showing them exactly how to play it.

This is such a common situation, I recognized it from my own life. In fact, that’s why I started, “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave them There Day” — the idea was to have kids encounter each other, outside, and then come up with something to do. What a radical plan! Anyway, here’s hoping that a whole lot of kids are outside today, figuring out — as did this author’s children — that when you find  a grassy hill and you are on top of it, you can propel yourself downward while, in fact, prone.

Simple as that. — Lenore

Help This Mom Figure Out a Free-Range Summer for Her Kids

Hi Readers — Here’s a letter I got today. Let’s give her some good advice. Since I get to go first, I ‘ll say the obvious: If you can afford it, send your kids to some kind of not-too-programmed camp. Other suggestions?

Hey Free-Range Kids:  I truly, profoundly want my older daughter to be more Free-Range.  She wants more freedom.  Advice on how I get there is welcome.

My 13 and 11 year old girls are on summer vacation, my spouse and I both work.  The oldest is in open rebellion because, despite my claims that I want her to be more independent, I  won’t fire the babysitter.

Besides not being comfortable with them being home alone for that long a time with no adult less than an hour’s drive away, my oldest has admitted that the real problem with having this particular sitter is that she limits TV and computer time, buys only healthy foods when they are out, takes them to parks to play and lakes to boat  — in other words, she is destroying their summer by depriving her of the God-given right to be a couch potato everyday for 10 weeks.

I do believe summer should be, in part, a time to relax and be lazy.  I do believe a normal 13-year-old should not need a sitter.  But I can’t bear the thought of my kid sitting home alone and getting fat in front of her computer screen.  She’s already too heavy, according to her pediatrician, and I don’t like the trend.

The younger daughter thinks this 20-year-old sitter, btw, is Mary Poppins, and delights in her to no end.  Blatant and unfair favoritism, claims my moody eldest, further proof of the injustice inherent in my system.

Advice on how to get this kid to the point where she is sitting, instead of being sat, would be terrific. — Fed Up Mom

Okay, Readers. Go for it! – L.

Free-Range Challenge of the Week: Rate That Park!

Readers — Here’s a cool idea courtesy of a babysitter named Casey up in the Canadian town of Saskatoon.It not only sounds fun, it sounds like a great “Challenge of the Week.” Or at least something you might enjoy trying. Let us know how it goes if you do! — Lenore

The kids I babysit and I are doing a HUGE summer project this year.  We have planned to go to all of the parks in our city, play on them, and rate them on a scale of 1-5.  So far we’ve been to about half of the parks and we’ve already realised a few things. 

First of all the parks that try to be “safe” really aren’t much safer than the more fun but “dangerous” ones.  And second, not everything always has to lead up to the slide!  Some of our favourite parks so far have been the ones that you can play “don’t touch the ground tag” and also the ones that have neat inventive toys and obstacles. 

Anyways, one thing is for sure, regardless of the safety or fun level of the parks, it really is a great thing to get out and find out what your town really does have to offer – we’re having one of the best summers ever!

Free-Range Kids Outrage of the Week: 10-year-old Forbidden to Cross Parking Lot

Hi Free-Rangers:
Here’s a note from a mom who just wants her son to NOT be treated like a baby or invalid. But…that’s against camp rules. Voila:

My 10 year old is going to an art camp being held at the museum. Each child is suposed to be dropped off and picked up, complete with sign in/out sheets, by a person with the appropriate identification card issued by the camp. No card, no pickup. And if you’re late, they fine you.

I have no problem with this if it makes someone comfortable or if they have young children…however, my boy is not younger and I am fine with him leaving after his last class and walking across the very small parking lot to wait for me at the library where I may or may not be late depending on work. [Italics mine — Lenore]

I sent a letter stating that he had permission to leave unescorted, as per their instructions. Would you believe they have charged some intern to walk him across the parking lot?! The point of my letter was that my boy was fine, I was fine, and that he didn’t  need to be a bother to anyone there. The library and museum area are about as safe as you can get around here: Plenty of people, lots of foot traffic, very small parking lot so not a lot of vehicle traffic. The grocery store parking lot is twice as big and he’s been returning the carts for years!

First day, I ask the intern why he’s with my son and he said he just wanted him to make it safely to the library. I explained that wasn’t necessary and thanked him. The next day, my son slipped out without him, met me right smack out front and then asked if he could meet me at the library. I decide to move my car to a shadier spot and find my son on the library steps with the intern who’s followed him. Geesh people. He’s TEN!

In the non Free-Range world, alas, ten is the new two.  — Lenore

Wonder of Wonders: Kids Play Outside, Other Kids Join ‘Em

This is the kind of letter Free-Range Kids loves to see! It comes from a mom in New Mexico. Voila:

You know what I noticed in my neighborhood which really makes me so happy?

We’ve been here for 6 years and in the summer, there was one (and I mean that) one kid that would be outside playing alone.

Well, my kids finally hit 7 and 8 and I finally grew some common sense, and let them hit the street.  For a good month they were the only kids outside.  They were neighborly, too – chatting it up and getting to know “the people in our neighborhood.”

Slowly but surely, I started to notice more kids outside.  A couple on scooters, then a couple on bikes… don’t you know, that there are now around 10 kids that end up playing outside during the day? 

My daughter told me today that next door was almost like a party – all the kids were playing together and when they got hot, they’d sit in the garage.  They’re swapping bikes and scooters and having the best time.

Thank goodness… I am so delighted to know that people noticed my kids outside and started letting their kids have some freedom too.  Before – you’d think this place was void of children.  It’s so refreshing.

Just thought I’d share.  It’s becoming a blissful world in my neck of the woods.  🙂


Her advice for making this happen? Simple:


I can’t honestly say I did anything but tell my kids to be nice and respectful to the neighbors (so that meant no screaming and yelling when playing and staying out of people’s yard areas).  Outside of that, they’ve always seen me chat with neighbors when we’d walk the dog, and wave to them when we drive, so it was natural for them not to fear the neighbors, but to chat to them too.

They’re always coming home with something now – people enjoy giving them bottles of water, suckers, freezer pops… wanna talk about people freaking out over treats in school!  Ha ha!

The best advice I can give to people is get out there, get neighborly, let your kids see you doing it, let people see you with your kids so that when they’re on their own they are familiar with the parents’ faces too, even if not names, and make sure your kids are capable of being respectful, courteous, and safe.

Here’s to more stories with happy endings like this one — especially as summer beckons! — Lenore