Chasing Outdoor Freedom

By: Martianne Stanger

“Watch out!” One of the older boys shouted.  “You’re going to hit it!”

The “it” he was referring to was a tree that stood at the base of “Bullet Shell Hill,” a neighborhood sledding destination in the woods near my childhood home.

As I look back at the runs that my siblings, neighbors, and I made down that hill, I can clearly recall the exhilaration of it all – the thrill of whizzing on a sled through a crisp winter day as fast as a bullet, only to narrowly escape the devastating “bam” against a tree trunk which a miscalculated trajectory could result in.  It provided pure adventure and adrenaline.

As the child in me looks back at these times with fondness, the mom in me wonders, Just what were my parents and the other adults in the neighborhood thinking?  Why did they permit us to tromp unsupervised into the woods with our sleds to partake in such madness?  Or, did they even realize what we were doing?

Outdoor Play a Generation Ago as Versus Today

The seventies were certainly a different time.  Children were afforded independence.  “Safety” had wider parameters.  Being gone from the house, out of eye shot, and sometimes out of ear shot, was not uncommon.  Freedom to be outdoors reigned.

By today’s standards, much of the fun I enjoyed as a child would be deemed not only “dangerous,” but also potentially “illegal.”  Although I certainly survived – and even thrived – with the freedom my peers and I relished, I can only imagine what would happen if I allowed my children the same leeway to wander our neighborhood and nearby woods.  Alone or with friends, as they explored nature and appeased their natural curiosity, I would battle modern-day mores.

Might I be cited for neglect?  Would my children be chastised for trespassing?  Would we all be subject to judgment and outrage from family, friends, and strangers alike?  I cannot say for certain, but I can make an educated guess:  Yes, yes, and yes.

Modern times seem to discourage the free range childhood I savored.  Outdoor time is most often relegated to the structure of planned activities or the redirection of hovering adults.  Time to discover and explore is as hemmed in by crazy schedules as it is by property lines and perceived probabilities of safety.  Folks have forgotten the joy of time spent freely outdoors.  Rites of passage, borne in nearby natural spots, seem to be an ancient art that few choose to continue to practice.

Pockets of Freedom Remain

Luckily, “seems” is the key word here.  Spotting children independently playing outdoors in their yards may be a rarity these days.  Many open spaces may no longer be punctuated by the same the shouts and laughter that resonated only a few decades ago.  Yet, hope exists.

Just recently, my husband, children and I bumped into a small band of pre-teen lean-to-builders in the woods near our home. In the summertime, the beach I grew up on is still populated mostly by children that laugh, play and explore with a sense of independence. Modern-day protocol may demand that parents keep tighter reins on their children.  Yet, pockets of delightful outdoor freedom remain.

I find this encouraging!  I find it inspiring. I find it weighs significantly into the choices that my husband and I make for our children.  For, no, I do not ever want to have one of my children running home to tell me another just busted a head open on a tree trunk at the end of a sledding run.  However, I do wish for them to savor liberty similar to that I knew as a child.

Looking Toward the Future

Thus, it is that even at the tender ages of 18 months, 4 years, and 6 years, my husband and I are already making conscious choices to afford our children freedom to explore the outdoors:

  • We let them play in our yard while we remain at a distance – close enough to help them if need be, but far enough away so they don’t sense us hovering.
  • We purposely “schedule” stretches of time where we are not bound to appointments and commitments, but, can instead, explore the great outdoors unhurried.
  • We have garnered permission from neighbors to let our children explore nearby wooded areas with us trailing behind.
  • We frequent open spaces, where our children determine what we will do.
  • We often approach hiking trails with an attitude that the journey is more important than the destination.  In other words, we our children to take the lead in directing us at every juncture, even if it means going in circles for a bit or not reaching a peak, but, instead, wandering a side trail that the kids find interesting.

In doing these things, we offer our children a taste of the initiative, freedom and adventure the we relished outside years ago and remain confident that, in another few years, we can set our children free to feast on truly independent outdoor exploration – modern day or not!

How about you?  Do you remember what it’s like to adventure outside without and adult nearby?  Do you make conscious choices so your children can do the same?

I’d love to hear about how and where.  I’d also be happy to start a dialogue on how we might help all children to take back the right to truly free play outdoor.


3 thoughts on “Chasing Outdoor Freedom

  1. I grew up on a pretty rural road and we freely explored the orchard, woods, fields, streams and swamps around our house. I crossed a small waterfall on a dare around age 10 (dumb), often hiked around a shallow swamp behind my neighbors house, used the local field station as a playground and the hill we all sledded on was also used as a small ski slope…complete with rope tow…when I was young. If the weather was right and your speed was good, you could end up in the stream at the base of the hill. During the summer I rode my bike to sailing lessons and we got up, put our swimsuits on, and that was our attire for the day. We took out the rowboats and collected clams and crayfish etc. We took the sailboats out and practiced capsizing and righting them. We bought our current house because it’s on the water and I encourage my boys (9 and 15) to go out in the kayak by themselves…with a life vest. The neighbors freaked out when I made my son walk to school after missing the bus one morning (due to not getting up on time). It was a couple miles and he was in 8th grade. It is a tough balance to keep in mind safety and yet allow them to explore but I think it’s important. This past year my older son went to summer camp in Maine and hiked the Appalachian Trail, kayaked, went whitewater rafting, rock climbing etc. It was supervised and safe but it also encouraged a lot more exploration and independence and he loved the experience!

  2. I grew up on 5 acres of land in CT. My brother and I spent hours exploring our “woods” and even found cabooses out there where we pretended to be The Boxcar Children. I want my children to explore, grow their ability to interact in pretend play, and not feel like every minute of their life is structured. I am just starting to open the door and let them play in the yard alone, as long as I’m somewhere in it or close enough to a window where I can look out every few minutes. This time alone is helping grow their independence and their curiosity in the world around them.

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