At play. Get it? See what I did there? Well, not yet you don’t. Just wait.
If you’re between the ages of 30 and 112, think back on your childhood. More specifically, call to mind your free time, your evenings and weekends, your long summer days and stunted winter afternoons. Where were you? What were you doing? If you’re like me, you were running around with a pack of other kids, roaming neighborhoods, riding bikes, playing complicated variations of tag. If the weather was bad, you were in someone’s basement or rec room, rollerskating on unfinished floors, thinking up exciting new ways to melt G.I. Joe figures, choreographing complex routines to the songs of Purple Rain (What? No? Just me? Liar.).
Now, if you have kids, or know kids, think about what they’re doing after school, or how they’re spending their weekends. Chances are, your seven-year-old isn’t wandering alone through the woods behind your neighborhood. And I’m willing to bet that there’s no ten-kid game of Ghost in the Graveyard going on across multiple yards on your street. If there are two unrelated children in the same area, it’s safe to assume that the situation was planned, approved, and supervised by at least 50% of the involved parents.
It would be easy to blame overprotective parents for this shift -
And, and … okay, yes, some of it is the parents. I can’t imagine letting my 6-year-old spend an entire afternoon building a tree fort in a construction lot with no one over the age of ten in attendance (although I did) any more than my parents would have let me play on an active train trestle (like they did). I think it’s natural to retroactively panic about the risks we took as children and swear never to let our own kids take those chances, but I’m afraid we’ve reached the generational nadir of acceptable childhood danger.
So I feel sympathetic when the kids start asking what we’re going to do, where we’re going to go, because I know their desire to go out into the world is normal, but their ability to do so on their own has been so greatly limited. Even if you can get them to bike off down the block by themselves, as Chabon wrote (far more artfully), they’re unlikely to see another kid while they’re out there.
The conundrum is that any adult intervention to change this dynamic is just one more way of meddling in their world, when what we all need to do is just step off. It may already be too late, though. The die is cast.
But what with the pendulum swinging and nature abhorring a vacuum and whatnot, we can at least be comforted in knowing that our kids will someday see their own childhoods as dangerously sheltered and will raise their own offspring in the other extreme. We might as well sit back and enjoy the regulated rambunctiousness now, because we’ll be spending our golden years dragging our grandchildren off of train trestles.