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New Years Wish: Let Kids Wander

December 23, 2011

When there was time in the summer, and there was always time, I would ride my slick rear tired red Schwinn dirt bike down Malvern, across Cary Street and into Windsor Farms, and when I would get to the remnants of the Civil War trench works, I would gather as much speed as possible so that I might catch a bit of air off the top. Cutting back over to Grove Avenue by Mary Munford School, I would turn toward points West and the swimming pool and tennis courts a couple of miles up the road that offered all the advantages of summer day camp without any of the liabilities, such as close supervision. Later I would start for home, perhaps stopping for an hour or two on St. Andrews, North Wilton, or Oak Lanes where friends were ready to throw the football, play H-O-R-S-E, or squinting, aim pump-action BB guns at nearly impossible targets.

The world I lived in as I turned eleven was both larger and smaller than the one kids inhabit today. It was larger because I had greater freedom of movement—as long as I was home by five-thirty or so, all was well. If I were going to be late, I would call home from the phone attached to every friend’s kitchen wall. My world was roughly three miles West, a mile and a half East, a mile and a half South, and about the same distance North. By the time I made it to Middle School, I knew virtually every house, every neighborhood dog, and every hidden cut through for several square miles. Not many kids have this much freedom to wander anymore.

The world I lived in was smaller because the landscape I traveled on my bike was not paired with the vast 24/7 digital landscape that faces kids today. When I went home, I had a life apart from my friends as much as the life I had earlier in the day was apart from my family. Excepting glimpses of the evening news and evening newspaper (remember when cities had morning AND evening papers?!), my understanding of the world was largely built from the Boulevard to Three Chopt Road riding along the spine of Grove Avenue. I knew it wasn’t really representative of the real world–my parents gave me enough glimpses beyond those boundaries to solidify that understanding in me; however, by having the ability to wander that area, I developed tools that are relevant to navigating the endless complexity of the real world. Along with my friends, we learned how to make our own fun; we learned how to adjust a plan based on the weather; and, most importantly, we learned how to make our own decisions.

While I can reflect nostalgically about growing up without constant supervision, I do so at the risk of diminishing the real adult presence virtually around every bend of the West End of Richmond, Virginia where I grew up. I never really had reason to doubt that if I stepped too far out of line, word would get back to my parents, and that if any plan was too hair-brained, some responsible adult would put us back on the rails.  Nostalgia has a more poignant risk as well, that is, it can blind one to the rather obvious truth that kids today are also learning how to make decisions on their own and in their own ways–however, they are facing different risks and rewards.

As we head toward a new year, the one to come thirty-five years hence from the one in which I turned eleven, my wish is that kids have some space and time to wander, and that as adults in their lives we find ways to support them in this youthful pursuit of aimlessness. I want them to have the gift of operating independently within a caring community that prioritizes supporting them and giving them the tools to make meaning from the experiences they have–on-line, in class, in their neighborhoods, and even on their bikes (though I hope, unlike my eleven year old self, they will wear helmets!). With a balance between high standards for their hard work/achievement and the gift of time to wander, kids will come out better prepared for the real challenges that await them as adults.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. December 23, 2011 9:50 am

    Ross, this is a great post. It reminds me of a piece I recently read in the The Talent Code Blog (this book should be required reading for all students and teachers, btw), that talks about the value of unencumbered time a notion taken from the book The Game, by NHL hall of fame Goalie Ken Dryden, and highlights it as one of the central ingredients that allow outstanding athletes, musicians, artists and thinkers to develop.

    Here’s the key quote:

    It is in free time that the special player develops, not in the competitive expedience of games, in hour-long practices once a week, in mechanical devotion to packaged, processed, coaching-manual, hockey-school skills. For while skills are necessary, setting out as they do the limits of anything, more is needed to transform those skills into something special. Mostly it is time unencumbered, unhurried, time of a different quality, more time, time to find wrong answers, to find a few that are right; time to find your own right answers; time for skills to be practiced, to set higher limits, to settle and assimilate and become fully and completely yours, to organize and combine with other skills comfortably and easily in some uniquely personal way, then to be set loose, trusted, to find new instinctive directions to take, to create.

    So it would seem that if our aim is have students achieve excellence in a pursuit, one of the very best things we can do as teachers and parents is the very opposite of the popular notion to structure every second of their day with homework, travel team practices, tutorials and more, and instead, give them unencumbered time to explore on their own.

    • December 23, 2011 9:55 am

      Thanks for this, John. I will take your book recs. I really appreciate your comment.

    • Agnes permalink
      January 2, 2012 9:27 pm

      I also recommend The Talent Code, the book. Thanks, John for pointing out that he’s got a blog going.

  2. December 23, 2011 9:56 am

    Just one more point to help us to encourage our children to wander. I think we must constantly remind ourselves that the world is safer today than it was when we were children. This is one of the key messages of Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids:

    Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, crime was on the rise. It went up and up until it peaked around 1990. The strange thing, though, is that since then, it’s been going back down. Dramatically. Today we are back to the crime level of 1970, according to Dept. of Justice statistics. So — unbelievable as it seems — if you were playing outside as a kid in the ’70s or ’80s, your kids are actually SAFER outside than you were!

    It doesn’t feel that way (at ALL), because when our parents were raising us, there was no CSI. Law & Order was something you believed in, not something on the air 8 nights a week, made to look depressingly real. The other day I got a letter from a guy in an old Brooklyn neighborhood where they shoot a lot of Law & Order scenes. On TV, it’s always the backdrop for a rape or murder. In real life, he said, it’s a safe, quiet safe neighborhood — and therein lies the tale: There’s a big disconnect between the horrors on TV and the reality we live in — the safest time for children (in America, that is) in the history of this disease-plagued, famine-prone, war-wracked world.

    • Agnes permalink
      January 2, 2012 9:33 pm

      Yep, crime in the US has been going down steadily since 1990, even through this recession, which seems counter intuitive to some. The 24 hour ‘news’ cycle helps to perpetuate an unhealthy and inaccurate psychosis of insecurity. We should not succumb to it, but rather be glad for the good news. Happy New Year :)

      • January 3, 2012 9:49 am

        Thanks for your responses, Agnes–I, for one, am “glad for the good news.”

  3. January 3, 2012 1:33 pm

    Great blog post, Ross. I completely agree with your POV. If we (parents) all look deeper and contemplate the real driver of the over-scheduled, over-stimulated, over-micro-managed, completely dependent kids…..it really is being driven by us (the parents). Not the media, not the boogie-man, not college admission requirements, not teachers not coaches…..it’s us, the spoiled-brat products of 60’s/70’s psychobabble child raising theory that somehow wired us (now as parents) to believe that parent-planned activities (whether planned playgroups, tutored homework sessions, private baseball lessons, PDC dance prep classes, travel soccer teams…..all with endless “trophies” for participating) lead to increased child self-esteem. When in essence it only feeds our (parents) own self-esteem and actually leads to kids who are not confident in their ability to make decisions, not able to motivate themselves, not able to maximize learning on their own, not able to adapt to the real world and unable to do as the wise sage known as my mom used to say “entertain yourself”.

    We should all STOP, and work together collectively to break this potentially culturally debilitating cycle (it’s so true across our nation, well beyond our school). As a Westminster parent, ask yourself and answer (honestly…..even if quietly in your own mind), how many weekends in the school year has my kid gone into the weekend with absolutely NO structured plans? Embarrased at the answer? Then change it.

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