There is almost a generation between my husband and I, so when we talk about our respective childhoods, we don’t have many things in common. He went to school with a metal Bonanza lunch box, I carried a plastic Rainbow Bright. The shows I watched in reruns when I was home sick for a day (Happy Days, The Brady Bunch) were the hit prime time shows of his childhood. Our childhoods were different in other ways too. He grew up on military bases in Germany and California and Panama and Kansas. I lived in the same house almost my whole life. He remembers racing through the rainforests of Panama with his brothers. I remember picking cactus out of my fingertips in the desert of Arizona.
While our childhoods were very different, we did share one major thing in common– we spent most of it in Kidland.
Kidland is a state of play, of course, and not an actual physical place. Kidland is where children play when adults aren’t hovering over them. It is where they make their own rules, settle their own fights, and create their own adventures.
Ideally, it is like all of the best parts of Lord of the Flies with a lot less bleeding.
For my twin sister and I, Kidland was our backyard where we built our own exceedingly rickety treehouse and had a jungle gym that was the only safe place from the lava or shark infested ocean beneath us. Kidland was riding our bikes down through the washes (dry riverbeds that could fill in minutes in a summer rain shower) and sneaking into our neighbors backyard to feed apples and carrots to their horse.
Kidland wasn’t just about the freedom to roam on our bikes, although that was a big part of it, it was more about playing without the expectation that grown-ups knew or cared about what we were doing. It quite literally would never have crossed my mind to ask my mother to come play too.
Now that I’m a parent, I struggle sometimes with how much freedom to roam to give my kids. I’m not quite a free range parent but I also don’t feel like I have to be able to see my kids every second that they are out of the house. We live in a city and there is traffic nearby but our neighborhood is also pretty safe. Sometimes I worry more about being judged by other parents than I do about my kids getting abducted or something. But mostly I worry that the kids won’t get to spend enough time in Kidland. A small part of me has sometimes wondered if kids still know how to play like that.
Last night, I sat on the porch with a book and listened as my kids and a small pack of neighborhood kids played an elaborate game involving two of the monstrously overgrown zucchinis from my garden. These zucchini, heavy and fat and about half the length of a baseball bat, became babies that needed immediate medical attention. The winter sleds came out of the garage and were attached to a tricycle and an ambulance was born. A little girl from down the street became a surgeon, with an operating room under that tree that the kids can’t climb because the city trims the lower branches back. There were other things going on too that I couldn’t quite figure out. A jump rope was involved and the birdie from the badminton set as well as the cones from the backyard soccer set. Not once, not even when someone was being bossy or when someone else tripped over a crack in the sidewalk and lightly skinned her knee, did any of the kids call for a parent. They certainly didn’t need us.
The play lasted for over an hour, until I had to call my kids in. They usually come in for the night fairly easily but last night they had a hard time pulling themselves out of Kidland. I ended up playing out the maternal stereotype: standing out on the front steps yelling for my children by name: first, middle, and last. It took almost 15 minutes to get them inside, even though the mosquitos were biting and the promise of delicious hotdogs on the table for dinner had been made.
Dinner and bedtime ended up being kind of a shit show, actually, but at least I ended the day secure in the knowledge that even in the helicopter parent era, Kidland can still exist.