Where Children No Longer Roam

The Daily Mail (yes, the Daily Mail) has a thoughtful analysis of the decline of children’s freedom to roam over four generations. Whether you think parents are being over-protective or not, there is no question that the loss of adventure, exploration and time in nature is sad for children.

I felt a similar sadness recently when I returned to my home town after an absence of almost twenty years. I searched for all the “kidways” of the youth. The gravel path on public access land by Second Ward Grade School that let generations of grade schoolers cut up to Jackson avenue had been sold to a private citizen who had built an enormous house that blocked the way. The route through the trees by the Wilsons’ house that led to the old field where we played ball was cut off by a high wooden fence put in place by the owner. Ditto the long, rocky trail behind the Miller’s garage that led to an old stairway, across Dorsey Avenue and down to a great mini-mart that sold fireworks and bubble gum. The secret path around the Halls’ house that let you cut over to the Sussman’s basketball court and the “slide” (a steep rock-filled ravine we tumbled down for fun) were both blocked off by chain link and warning signs. The path down past the creek to the old water reservoir, where I was once startled by and then thrilled to watch a family of frolicking otters had been replaced with a modern water processing plant of cement and brick.

I learned about these now destroyed “kidways” from older kids and showed them to younger kids. My teachers knew about them from when they were kids. I hope the current generation of children in my hometown has found new kidways to roam as freely as we did, but I am afraid that world has passed away.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

22 thoughts on “Where Children No Longer Roam”

  1. When we bought our first home, we discovered that the school bus let of anywhere up to 20 children at the edge of our (1 acre)property, so that they could walk across to their neighborhood, and the bus wouldn't have to brave a fairly steep hill. Given that we had a puppy and a 4 year old, we decided to fence it, with a gate for the kids. After the 3rd time the kids left the gate open (blocked open, so that it wouldn't close) and the puppy got out, we removed the gate. The parents were livid, but what should we have done?

  2. I used to go down to a nearby urban stream in Oakland, and go through tunnels under streets with my flashlight & all.

    Not alone mind you, but not always with parents. The neighbors would complain sometimes. I imagine that various teenagers (and older) doing various things could sour urban folks to unmanaged open spaces.

    That and all sorts of homeless people perhaps.

  3. I'm old enough that the medium-sized city I grew up in had a decent bus system when I was 13-15. Suburban adolescents too young to drive have nothing like the independent mobility that my friends and I took for granted at that age.

  4. I worry about this, too. I chose not to have kids, but my brother and his spouse do. I feel bad for them. I had, depending on where we were at the time (my childhood involved a lot of moving, and had certain problems), most of a seedy-but-not-terrible subsection of a city, a suburb with probably a few hundred acres of nearby forest that was tame, but not so tame that I couldn't catch snakes and lizards, and then literally miles of marginally tamed wilderness in the south, where I encountered actually dangerous things from time to time. (The wilderness was great for me, but given some of the humans they grow in those parts, I've chosen cities since I could make a choice.)

    I realize increasing density is part of this, but I have trouble thinking that moral panic isn't a much larger one. And here's a time where I agree with specifics on an argument that I have more general problems with – tort law as it stands is a massive problem for those of us who want to let kids be kids.

  5. There's a good book, Last Child in the Woods, about this issue, an organization called the Children in Nature Collective that works on the issue, and more loosely, a movement called Free Range Kids that supports letting children wander.

    Violence levels in the US are lower than they've been since the 1960s, so there's no reason not to let the kids out.

  6. I'm 62, and as a kid in San Pedro, a rough part of Los Angeles, I wandered the back ways everywhere with no fear of people, None. We would go for miles, under freeways, into storm culverts, trails, alleys, whatever.

    The world was safe. I think it still is, but more awareness and caution is needed now. No need for total nanny, tho.

  7. In my hometown in Florida, all of the schools are surrounded by 10-foot high fencing and gates which are locked outside school hours. At some schools the fencing is covered with translucent mesh. Not only does this keep kids out of the places where we used to play pick-up sports (and there are few public parks to pick up the slack), but it must surely reinforce the association of school = prison. It is a sad thing to see.

  8. I'm ambivalent about this.

    We've gotten much more concerned about protecting our children from any possible harm.

    In many ways, this change is obviously for the better — your infant is much better off riding in a secure car seat than just being held in someone's lap, and the world is a much better place when kids wear seatbelts and bike helmets.

    On the other hand, the trend towards parents trying to supervise their 18-year-old's college experience is pretty clearly a bad thing.

    I was a very "free-roaming" kid. But my spouse and I are much less willing to encourage our child to just wander off and play somewhere for a few hours, and the same is true of pretty much all the other parents we talk with. I honestly don't know why we are more cautious about this than our parents were. But it's a pretty deep-seated feeling, and the issue is probably more complicated than it seems.

  9. More kids are killed in car crashes than from any other cause. It's *safer* for them to roam, actually.

    And, the sheer distances of sprawl make any kind of pedestrianizing, kid or grown-up, well-nigh impossible.

    In other words: Once again, the problem is our drive-only landscape.

  10. "In other words: Once again, the problem is our drive-only landscape."

    I picture this as our propensity to move from box to box. We are afraid to go outside of our boxes.

  11. Those are appealing ideas, but I'm not convinced.

    This is a pretty active, outdoorsy community. People here are not "afraid to go outside of [their] boxes". But many parents are still not comfortable with the idea of giving middle-school-aged kids the independence to just kind of go wander off to unknown locations and play unsupervised … despite the fact that (a) it's a very safe community, and (b) many of us did exactly that kind of wandering during our own childhoods.

    I think it's a fear of other people, not a fear of nature. This is interesting, because as people have noted, lots of places in the US are safer today than they were 20 or 30 years ago.

    I also think that our competitive culture puts pressure on parents to invest more and more in their kids. They're given more structured activities, and that means less unstructured time. Instead of going down to the local pond to go skating with a bunch of other kids, they take their kids to skating lessons so they can see them progress through Basic 4, 5, 6, etc. Who's going to get into the good college — the kid who has been strategically enrolled in a carefully chosen set of enriching activities, or the kid who has spent her afternoons roaming around the neighborhood?

  12. I was a free roaming kid and I freely roamed into a career of my own making and a business of my own invention. I never had to ask permission from mommy and daddy or from bosses or government to do what seemed like the right thing to do.

    Somehow I think kids who are given the freedom to do what comes naturally will find their way from here to there no matter how the powers that be try to block the way. Just try to stop a kid with a ten foot fence. They laugh at that fence and find toe holds no adult would think exist. Then they outrun the cops and dogs that chase them. Kids can do anything.

    Don't mourne all the blocked secret passageways of your youth. There are new ones that you don't see because they are secret. Only the kids know where they are.

  13. Thanks to everyone for thoughtful comments.

    Some of these decisions by parents are in the form of a tragedy of the commons. If everyone lets their kids walk to school, they travel in twos and threes and larger packs and are safer as a result. But as fewer and fewer parents do this, the remaining parents don't want to have their kid walking alone to school. The same process happens when adults stop walking in the evenings because they think the neighborhood is unsafe, and as the streets turn emptier they in fact become more unsafe.

    In terms of how much more protective the current generation of parents is, I think evolution and practicality converge to produce this. The average number of children per family has plummeted. In Darwinian terms, each child becomes more precious as a result, and in practical terms it is a lot easier to keep close tabs on 1 or 2 kids than 3 or 4 or 5 or more.

    Last just to Fred: As I said I want to believe that the new generation of kids have found new ways to roam. But all the evidence we have on how much time kids spend outside, how much TV they watch, how much internet and video game time they have and how overweight they are, all throw cold water on your hopes and mine.

  14. And the funny thing is, the kids often have cell phones, which we did not have. When my siblings and I were gone, we were really GONE. I certainly tried to let my kids be "free range," but there were fewer other kids for them to be out and around with. With respect to the comment that kids are scheduled into organized activities for competitive reasons: I think the confidence and free-spiritedness that comes with being a free-range kid more than compensate for the smaller number of "accomplishments." I hope that colleges can see this. And if they don't, it's their loss.

  15. One of my old shortcuts to elementary school was recently "privatized". One of the by-foot outlets from my old neighborhood was permanently blocked off. Another is still there- if you know the lock combination.

    It would be nice to think the kids are still discovering their own secret passages, but unless some new tunnels have been dug, I doubt it.

  16. @ Dan — It's also quite inconvenient, walking routes are long and circuitous because of superblocks (huge arterials and low street connectivity; subdivisions laid out by cul-de-sac) — so the length of walk from home to school or shopping or work is impractical. Also, every destination is surrounded by acres and acres of parking lots, which are impractical and unpleasant to navigate.

    The space devoted to storage of automobiles eliminates pedestrianizing as a possible mode of travel.

    These parameters reduce the number of people willing to walk — as Keith Humphreys points out, that becomes a self-reinforcing phenomenon.

    Again, in other words, it's our drive-only landscape that's the core problem.

    When you design places for cars and traffic, you get more cars and traffic. When you design places for people and walking, you get more people and walking.

  17. In grades 1st through 7th grade, I went to a small school. Every year, everyone was loaded on one or two buses and driven to the State Fair of Texas. When the doors popped, everyone scattered like quail over the fair grounds. But, at the end of the day when it was time to go home, everyone managed to find their way back to the buses.

  18. There's also the factor of affluence at play here. I live in an in-town neighborhood of Atlanta which has a decidedly mixed income demographic. The ONLY kids I see playing outside are the less affluent. They've made paths in the woods; they know all the shortcuts. They walk to the public schools while the rich kids are driven to their private academies.

    This is really sad. How does this compare to other places like Europe, Australia…?

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