Most of us remember playing outside till the streetlights came on, but our kids can't because of any of the following fears: crime, creeps, traffic, tennis lessons, homework... or all of the above.
Except at RV campgrounds. (And probably regular campgrounds, too. But I haven't been to those.) At RV parks, kids run around like it's still the Sputnik era -- all ages, unsupervised. But if they were back home, even in safe suburban neighborhoods, chances are they'd be inside, or at least at soccer.
So, what happened to the helicoptering? As a gal who spends most of her time trying to convince parents to loosen their terrified grip, I've been asking around, and I think it boils down to:
1. Cramped Quarters
"A family of four in 429 square feet is different than a family in 2000 square feet," says Eric Gaden. He's a traveling nurse -- yes, a nurse who travels to temporary gigs in his RV, with his wife and sons 5 and 8. They've been on the road for four years now, and whenever they land at a new campground, he says, his kids discover "the hiding places and secret places the adults will never see."
That's in part because the adults are busy kicking the kids outside. "When we lived in a house I could say, 'Go to your room!' But here they're just six feet further away," says Gaden. So out they go. And a child in nature tends to remain in nature.
2. Other Kids Very Close By
"The other day I was going around the campground and there were five little kids, probably 6 years old -- three boys and two girls -- on the dock, fishing, and there were no parents anywhere," says Dave Schneider, owner of the Indian Trails Campground in Pardeeville, WI. Once there are a few kids outside, others join them. But in the 'burbs, often the only kids in the park are part of a program, like Little League. Here, everyone's footloose, so kids can swarm. And fish.
3. Unscheduled Time
See above. When kids are away from home, they're also away from karate and Kumon. This not only gives them free time, it forces them to come up with something to do: "Let's make a fort!" Working together happens to be how children (and adults) make friends, says playscape designer Rusty Keeler. So the kids become instant buddies.
4. Friendliness = Safety
If you're at a campground, you're approachable, if only because you're sitting outside. That means anyone needing a little help may ask you for it, and vice-versa. "People are so friendly at campgrounds, the parents feel safer," says Kathy Kasper, who runs the Lazy River campground in Granville, OH. By defining yourself as a helpful member of a friendly community (however temporary), you feel a great oneness. This translates into trust.
5. Clear Boundaries
It's like "there's some invisible safety line that seems to be created," says Diana Lammer, a Northern California mom who just spent a year RVing with her kids, 11 and 13. That invisible line separates the campgrounds from the outside world, creating the equivalent of a small town. "Kids are allowed to come into your RV and hangout, and they've only met during the day." It's Mayberry, with wheels.
6. It's Tribal
You've circled the wagons. You've set up camp. And now you are sitting around a fire. That's as ancient as it gets, says David Ropeik, author of How Risky Is It Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and a dad who took the family on a 4,000 mile RV trip. "In the morning we'd head out, and in the afternoon we'd call ahead, and there was absolutely a sense of safety and relief as soon as the campground said, 'Yeah, we have a place for you.' It wasn't a hotel room. It was being in and amongst community."
Affiliation, cooperation, nature, plus plain old free time make parents trust each other enough to let their kids go free.
Follow Lenore Skenazy on Twitter: www.twitter.com/freerangekids