Our next door neighbors are preparing to move after living on this street for decades. Their daughter is here to help her parents sort through and pack up their things. Her sons, ages 4 and 8, are here too. They play on our swings, visit our chickens, sometimes borrow a riding toy from our garage. I am utterly charmed by these gentlemen. (Okay, I am charmed by nearly every child I meet.)
The other day they were out with squirt guns and after a particularly fierce battle clambered up to my porch. My kids and I used to enjoy making up stories together, so I gave it a go. “If each of your squirt guns could have a magical power,” I asked, “what would you like it to be?” One of them said, “To make things bigger or smaller!” The other said, “To make things real!” So we launched into a collaborative story about the crayon drawing of a giraffe that, when squirted, lifted off the page to become a real giraffe. We went back and forth making up adventures for this giraffe and his boy companions, until it was suggested the police were out to arrest the animal for chomping on neighborhood trees and pooping in the park. The fictional boys and their giraffe friend raced home to avoid getting in trouble, but the giraffe couldn’t fit through the door. Out came the other magical squirt gun to shrink it. The boys debated whether it should be reduced to the size of a dog or a rabbit or a hamster, then decided it should be even smaller so it could live with them without grown-ups noticing.
After that first story, the boys have been back nearly every day for a new story. We’ve made up stories about space travel, weird babysitters, and troublesome siblings. I’d been helping them start stories by saying, “There once were two young gentlemen who ____.” But one afternoon the four-year-old started a story with, “There once was a gentleman named Laura” and I told him if we used the word “gentleperson” that it worked for all of us. They insisted on starting all stories that way afterwards.
I’m grateful they are given the freedom to amuse themselves outdoors. Primary experiences outdoors, in whatever scrap of nature kids can find, is pivotal for creative mind and body-stretching play. It’s also vital to help children develop a lifelong kinship with nature.
Their freedom is increasingly rare. The range children are allowed to travel on their own is what psychologist Roger Hart has termed the “geography of children.” This range, for an eight-year-old, has shrunk from six or so city blocks a few decades ago to barely beyond the front door today. In the 1970’s, Dr. Hart spent two years conducting informal walking interviews with every child between the ages of four and 12 in one Vermont town to discover where and how they played. Kids particularly enjoyed the type of play that manipulated the physical world, making forts or using sticks and dirt to create (as one child did) a miniature airport. Dr. Hart observed that four and five-year-old children were allowed to play in the neighborhood without direct supervision, and children had the run of the town by the age of 10.
He went back to that town three decades later to see how childhood might have changed. No surprise, parents were much more involved in the moment-to-moment details of their children’s lives, resulting in much less freedom for children (and adults, presumably). As he did in interviews back in the 1970’s, he asked children to talk about secret places they liked to play. One child called out to his mother to ask if he had such a place. Dr. Hart wrote, “That would have been inconceivable 30 years ago. Then, most children I interviewed had places they went to that their parents had never been to.” Thirty years later, Dr. Hart found no children who played with sticks. This impeded freedom to play away from adult gaze has only gotten worse since. (See also The Geography of Children.)
My husband tends to be a curmudgeon about these boys hanging around. “They shouldn’t be in the garage asking me questions if they’re barefoot,” he says. “Someone could get hurt.” And he recently came across the younger boy just standing, looking over some tractor implements sitting out back. “This isn’t safe,” he said. He may have a point about safety, but his own childhood was rich with neighborhood mentors. From the time he was very small he watched and offered to help as neighbors fixed cars, repaired homes, ran small businesses. These older men let him hang around, and their influence helped him grow up to be the man he is today. (I can only remember one neighbor who let me hang around, once, yet I still see her influence in my life today.)
We now know how important these adult role models can be for children. The benefits don’t just flow one way, adult to child. Children are brimming with gifts — curiosity, enthusiasm, wit, fresh perspective, kindness, and the blessings of playfulness. If we’re open, we can re-learn from them how to bring these qualities back into our lives. They can also teach us to get past our presumptions, as these boys teach me.
Yesterday the oldest came over to chat when he saw me outside. Immediately our puppy started jumping and barking. “Why are you holding him,” he asked.
“He doesn’t understand the boundary between our yard and your grandparents’ yard, and it’s best I don’t let him follow you over.”
“It would be okay,” he said.
“It probably would,” I told him, “but when new people move in he’d have to learn anyway.”
He kicked a few stones in the driveway and I added, “Silly, really, that humans have all these imaginary boundaries — this is mine and this is yours — animals don’t recognize property lines.” This sort of observation would wash with most adults. Quite often it would lead to a conversation about something pat, like how much we can learn from animals. But it didn’t wash with him.
He came back with, “Lots of animals have territories.”
“Oh, good point,” I said, feeling an extra surge of affection for this dear young man. He is so like my own kids, well-informed and completely himself.
“I learned from a science podcast that warthogs like it when a mongoose picks it clean of insects,” he said. “Mongooses like to go back to the same warthog, sometimes they pee on their warthog to warn others away.” Of course this observation led to a fine conversation about territory marking in many species.
Thanks to this gentleperson, I ended up far more knowledgeable and hopefully less likely to make blanket statements I couldn’t defend. I also ended up wishing I had a pocket-sized giraffe living in a Lego house, just like in our story.