I've probably touched on the topic of childhood imagination and free play before, but not long ago the point was driven home again.
On my recent trip to Italy a group of us were talking about what we used to do for "play" as children, in the halcyon days of the nineteen-fifties. Back then, parents weren't hovering over us or scheduling back to back activities to make sure we used every precious hour wisely (and in a way that would get us into a good college and assure our career path forever—ha!). And back then we also had "recess" during which our teachers threw us out onto a sketchy playground and told us to have fun for half an hour.
We did. When I was in elementary school, we had a "gang" of sorts (it was a small class, maybe thirty kids total, and our gang was five or six people, who I can still name today). On the playground we often acted out what we'd seen recently on television, or more often, distilled it into the generic plot: a bunch of guys rode horses and galloped around and shot at people (the bad guys, I hope), and the lone designated woman of the group stayed home and tidied up the ranch house. That role was usually assigned to someone we didn't like very much but who really wanted to be part of our group. (Sorry, Helen, if we scarred you for life.)
At home it was a different story. We moved into a new house when I was seven, and there were few kids in that neighborhood (we didn't count the mildly retarded boy next door, who was best known for trying to run over his dog with a lawn mower, although he and I did once catch an opossum in a bucket together). Luckily for me, one of my school friends lived immediately behind our home (immediately in this case was several hundred feet, through a partially wooded area), and for the three years we lived there we were fast friends.
And we had free rein, to go and do whatever we wanted to. My friend was the last of four children in her family, several years younger than her nearest sibling, and I think her parents had kind of given up on the child-rearing thing. If there is an antithesis of hovering, they fit the bill. I had a younger sister, but she was too little and too prissy to join in our somewhat rough adventures, so basically it was the two of us.
We roamed, we explored. We investigated abandoned buildings, we went swimming in a creek, we even indulged in a little mild vandalism (don't tell). And what my college classmate said brought that all back: nobody knew where we were. Our parents could not have found us without bloodhounds. I admit that even at that age I wondered whether if I fell down and broke my neck, my friend would bother to tell anyone about it, or would just go on about her usual business. And this wasn't in some rural area—this was in a commuter suburb of Philadelphia, although there was still a lot of open space. It was only a couple of miles from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and once we walked that far.
The world is not like that today. It's a wonder that we haven't started embedding a tracking device in our children before they even leave the hospital when they're born (we do it for our pets, don't we?). We panic when they're out of sight. We hand off our precious darlings to other (vetted, respectable, trustworthy) parents, making sure they know they're in charge and on duty. We worry, about perverts and kidnappers and accidents.
I don't think my parents were careless or uncaring. In retrospect, I'm honored that they trusted me, even at seven years old. I earned that trust, mostly: I usually told someone where I was going (if "out to play" or "to the woods" is a definition) and when I was told to be back by a certain time, I made sure I was (I had a watch early on). But I had a lot of freedom, and the adventures we had in those short years are still among my most vivid memories.
Are we cheating our children? Are we depriving them of creativity and independence?