I’ve been looking forward to this moment for six years, ever since my first son was born, when I vowed that I would not give my children a childhood full of screen time inside the house and packed schedules outside.
Just in the last week, I’ve helped a group of five neighbor kids (ages 8, 6-1/2, 6, 4-1/2, and 2-1/2), including two of my own, create a new society of their own. They’ve created their own hangout – a stylized tree fort – and their own culture in a creek bed by our house. They go there for hours at a time and are totally autonomous, with an adult watching passively from a distance. They plan. They build. They negotiate. They cooperate. They explore. They play. Occasionally, they disagree, but they always work things out on their own.
To me, this is the epitome of what childhood should be. The kids play and work and learn all at once. They constantly come up with new things to do. Their activity flows from one activity to another endlessly.
They don’t need TV or video games or scheduled activities, and they don’t need parents. And they’re never, ever bored.
They’ve been there every afternoon since we started on Monday, and they show no signs of getting tired of it. It’s been the highlight of their summer, hands down. I hope they do it the rest of the summer, and for years in the future.
So, how did I make this happen? It’s a mixture of luck and fortitude. We have three pieces of luck:
- a nearby creek: We live 2-1/2 blocks from a creek that is home to a wealth of interesting nature and is easily accessible.
- low use from neighbors: Very few people in our area visit the creek, so the kids have a great deal of freedom there.
- like-minded neighbor families: We’re fortunate that we have two families within 1-1/2 blocks of us that, with us, have come to form the core group at the creek hangout. These two families have three kids our kids’ ages and parents who have similar parenting philosophies to ours.
I have also made this happen with some extra “neighborhood work”:
- a big initial push by grown-ups: This never would have happened, at least for my kids, without a big initial push from grown-ups. I ran an event for about ten neighborhood kids this past Monday at my house in which I read the book Roxaboxen to inspire them to build a “play town” in the creek bed, and then we went down to the creek to start building. Then, I went down there the next two days with my two oldest boys and the three kids who were most interested. My friend and playworker Morgan Leichter-Saxby gave me invaluable assistance on the first two days. Now, parents of those other three kids are sharing the load with me, taking turns taking them down there.
- relationship cultivation: I’ve met and gotten to know many, many families in the neighborhood since we moved here over two years ago, so I had a long list of families to invite to my kickoff Roxaboxen meeting. We wouldn’t have ended up with the three kids who have come every day if we hadn’t cast our net much wider.
At some point, we’ll let these kids go down to the creek entirely on their own. Even now, though, they’re building important independence skills. Whichever adult is there with them usually keeps pretty far back, so they’re figuring out a lot of things on their own.
For our kids, this is but one step, albeit an important one, in a process of becoming self-reliant individuals. Regardless of whether or not they continue to immerse themselves in this particular hangout years from now, I hope they build on this experience somehow. I hope they’re engaged even more deeply in a more complex kid-driven culture next year, and the year after and after.
At the very least, my kids and I now know that they can create their own wonderful, immersive society in the real world for themselves. Because we all know it’s possible, we won’t forget. Their confidence in their own abilities has gone up a notch in this short week. They’ve hit a fork in the road of their childhood, and I hope they continue to follow that fork to another trajectory that diverges sharply from the common childhood that’s dominated by screen time and scheduled activities.