The news was full of it this summer—articles, blog posts and opinion pieces about the importance of kids playing outside, and then more articles showing the consequences that could occur when parents let their kids do just that.
Mothers arrested for allowing kids to walk to the park by themselves, or letting their kids play in the park by themselves, or for leaving a child alone for a few minutes in a car. There were horrifying incidents of deliberate child endangerment, resulting in death, and then there were incidents with benign intentions that turned into criminal cases because of the involvement of other concerned adults.
Meanwhile, on North Haven, kids bicycled all over the island. Some were going to the Casino, sporting PFDs and bike helmets. Some roamed downtown in what looked like a pre-teen bike gang. The youngest might have parents, older siblings or caregivers trailing behind, but many were on their own, independent.
Uptown, in my neighborhood, kids ride their four-wheelers through trails linking their backyards, some as young as 8- or 9-years-old. Adults take kids to the playground (which this summer was a work in progress), but kids take themselves, too. And of course there are mass migrations to the water, to jump off First Bridge or paddle around in the creek.
“Free-range kids” has become a buzzword lately, thanks to the mom who let her kid ride the subway by himself and turned the resulting media frenzy into a successful blog and television show, but I remember saying it my first summer on the island. I had just hauled a toddler, whose mother was somewhere nearby but not immediately present, out of the orchestra pit in front of the stage in Waterman’s, where he was making a serious attempt at playing the drums.
At the time, I was a little confused, maybe disdainful. Where were these parents? Why were these children let loose like chickens on an organic egg farm? But my attitude has changed. One of the best things about life on North Haven—on any of Maine’s islands, and a whole lot of its small towns, I’d wager—is the fact that our kids can be free-range. We have the perfect set up. Lots of open space, in yards, woods, ballfields, parks and shores; adults who are watchful without being accusatory; and a system that’s closed enough to feel safe.
Our North Haven kids don’t have to walk down city blocks to find a play space. For many, it’s right outside their front or back door. If they’re transporting themselves somewhere on foot, bike, ATV or skateboard, they don’t have far to go and even in high summer we have relatively little traffic.
Kids on North Haven know most of the adults around them, especially in the off season, and while we might have opinions about safe snowmobile riding or wearing bike helmets, we’re more inclined to go to the kids or parents themselves rather than to law enforcement. And while the island has seen its fair share of tragedy and crime, and broken bones and bumped heads, those 12.5 miles of water between us and the mainland give us a sense of security all the same.
I took an informal survey of North Haven adults, summer and year round, to see if my perception was correct, since my own offspring is too young to feed herself, let alone open the door and go outside. Out of 38 respondents, a large majority felt it was important for kids to be able to play outside unsupervised, and that North Haven was a good place for them to do so. They listed their kids’ outdoor activities—from exploring the woods to building fairy houses to hunting, fishing and ATV riding. They play sports, ride bikes and walk to each others’ houses to do more of the same.
Playing outside has physical, emotional and cognitive benefits, but access to the outdoors becomes a loaded issue as soon as you step inside an urban environment. Island kids—and adults—are truly lucky to have unfettered access to fields, forests and the sea. It’s one of the many things that keeps me here, thinking of the next 18 years of child-rearing and how precious it will be to say, “Go play outside.”
Courtney Naliboff teaches, plays music, directs plays and mothers her daughter on North Haven.