Free Range in Real Life
Ingrid turned 8 this spring, and it seems that 8 is the age of learning independence. It’s the biggest shift in our family since having kids, learning to let her spread her wings, but it’s important to do so, and it’s interesting how it’s sort of come about naturally, and all at once.
At the end of the school year, I was walking her to school and we were talking about when a kid can walk to school on their own. Ing’s school is .2 miles from our house, and there is a crossing guard at the busiest intersection, but we’ve always walked with her. “Like those kids, over there,” I asked her, as I pointed to a group coming up the busy street. “How old are they?”
“Oh, I think those are fifth graders,” said Ingrid, but then we heard from one of them: INGRIDDD!
It was a friend in her grade. And in the group were two third graders, and a kindergartener, along with the 2nd grade friend. Walking alone, but together, to school. “Ingrid, do you want to walk with them?” And, she did, and off she went. It was a first, and kind of strange, and as I headed back to the house, I thought to take a photo for posterity.
That was a Friday, and I saw the mom of her friend and told her how Ingrid had been so thrilled to walk on her own with friends, and the mom said that they’d be doing it the next week, too, and to watch for them. We can see the busier street between the houses across the street, so Ingrid was watching for them the next Monday, and didn’t see them, so Dave let her go on her own. We’d talked about it — really, our street she is on all the time anyway, and the crossing guard is the only street she needs to cross, so, even on her own she’d be fine… and of course, she was. The next few days were the last for the school year, but she walked every day, meeting the group of friends sometimes, and if she timed it wrong, she walked on her own. In the fall, she plans to do that by default.
The other free-range thing that’s cropped up is bike riding. Ingrid has fallen in love with her bike this summer, and we’ve gone on some long rides in the neighborhood, and when we ride together, I’m talking to her about what to watch out for – driveways and backing up cars, certain corners that are hard to see around, making sure to ride on the right “like a car” and pointing out why that’s important. (She can also use the sidewalks on the streets that have them, but I think it’s important to learn the rules, too.)
When she asked one day if she could go by herself, around the “horseshoe” (a rarely trafficked D shaped side street in our neighborhood) I thought for a minute, and said “if you follow the rules, yes.” Off she went, and she came back beaming. Then she asked to go farther, down to another neighborhood landmark, “bathtub guy,” which is a lawn ornament water feature in someone’s yard. Off she went. And I got nervous, I thought it was taking a while, too long, so maybe she saw a friend? So Willa and I started walking that route. I saw a woman walking her dogs — I don’t know her name, but I’ve seen her a million times — and she said “Is that yours on the bike?” I steeled myself up to defend my position, and said “yes…” and the woman said “Oh, I just think it’s wonderful! She’s doing so good, stopping at the stop signs, and I just love seeing kids out on their bikes like that!” Phew.
As almost an aside, when Ingrid and I have gone on long bike rides, I’ve let her strap my Garmin to her handlebars to keep track of our mileage and time, and she loved it, and asked if she could use the Garmin when she went on a solo ride, and I let her. A side bonus is that when I uploaded the data, I could see in Player mode on Garmin Connect that she had followed the rules – it showed her stopping or slowing, and that she was on the right side of the road. Kind of a side benefit that I wasn’t thinking of! I can’t live track her or anything, but it was neat to see she was biking responsibly.
So, how did we get here? For one, I love Lenore Skenazy and her Free Range Kids book and the concept. I also have read “Protecting the Gift,” a great book about practical child safety, and teaching kids how to choose the right strangers to talk to (“look for a mom with kids”) and not just a flat “Don’t talk to strangers.” GREAT book. We’ve practiced in the grocery store — “oh, can you run to the next aisle and get the ketchup, Ing?” and even on our own street, where she’s been free to play in our yard for years without us out there supervising. We’ve practiced at the library — “I’m going upstairs to look for books, I’ll meet you down here when your program is over” and Ingrid browses for books until I return. We’ve also been active in our neighborhood all along. If Ingrid ever got in trouble, she knows where her friends live, she knows where my friends are, and the others that are in our neighborhood regularly, on bikes or walking dogs or running — while we don’t know each other’s names, I feel confident that if Ingrid was hurt, they would know whose house to go to (see above with all the playing in the yard.) And, the librarians know her, and we’ve talked about how if she needed help, to go to the librarians at the check out and they would help her.
And in all of this free-ranging this summer, I couldn’t help but be struck by a pair of articles that came out the same day this week.
In the first, a doctor in DC is prescribing “outdoor activity for his patients:
To Make Children Healthier, A Doctor Prescribes A Trip To The Park
And in the second, a mom was jailed and her child removed from her custody…. for letting her play in a park alone.
Working Mom Arrested, for Letting Her 9 Year old Play Alone at Park
And I would bet that the conflicting articles are why it’s hard to loosen those reins. I know it’s good for my kid, and good for society, and my biggest worry in letting Ingrid explore is that someone else is going to see it as neglect. Ingrid is loving her solo rides, and is noticing things in the world while learning to be independent. It’s my job as a parent to make sure she is independent as an adult, and practicing that is starting now for Ingrid. For other kids, it might start earlier or later, but it has felt surprisingly natural for it to be happening now, at 8. I would strongly recommend the two books linked above to help put nervous minds at ease, and I am glad to be in a neighborhood that is easily walkable and bikeable — that’s a big reason we live where we do. It’s thrilling to see my kid growing up to enjoy it.