One of the neatest things about living where we do is that our neighborhood is under the control of the hundred or so children who constantly swarm in and out of our houses, caring little whether the house is actually theirs. I have never lived any place where this was possible or even acceptable, and there is something so freeing about it. In other places we’ve lived, always basically nice neighborhoods, the idea of children roaming unattended through the streets, playing in neighbors’ yards, and entering unfamiliar houses was unthinkable, maybe dangerous.
In our neighborhood this behavior is not only allowed but enforced by the children, who would have it no other way. Perhaps this regime was established years ago when the neighborhood was still brand new and the first families decided to band together to create a close knit environment; then the environment thrived into a microcosm where the children exercise their democracy through the freedom to run and explore, free range, inside the established boundaries.
What a visitor sees when coming to our street is a residential scene from a bygone era: children shooting around on vintage looking bikes, scooters, and skateboards, the muffled sounds of lawn mowers and sprinklers mixed with laugher and the crack of baseball bats, and then in the distance the ice cream van’s jingling songs play merrily. The children might disappear momentarily to grab a fistful of change, but soon they are back, jostling into a jagged line to buy ice cream and popsicles, and then it is back to zooming around on the now empty street.
While all this is going on there is limited parental supervision. One or two parents may sit on the front steps of their homes, or fiddle with a dodgy sprinkler in the yard, but no one hovers over the kids while they play. Some might consider this as irresponsible parenting, but I have had the chance to get to know some of the parents in the neighborhood, and they do not strike me as the type. It seems more like a social experiment, an understanding between parents and children in which parents allow their offspring to leave the nest and venture out into the world to explore and network with peers. In this cell phone age when parents and children are just a call away, why not let children explore unsupervised to give them a stronger sense of confidence, accomplishment, adventure?
Often the adventuring leads neighborhood children to my door. Since I am a well known authority figure in their school, the children feel comfortable coming to me for all kinds of reasons: to ask for a glass of water or a popsicle, to see if they can help me in my garden, to ask if I will teach them how to make sushi, and my favorite, why my hair looks so funny. I also often look out my window to find neighborhood children just playing in my front yard for no other reason than because their parents probably told them to “go play somewhere else”. This causes no concern except for when the little boy on the corner is in my yard. I frequently find him going after my daughters with a hollow plastic baseball bat. They probably instigate the ‘attacks’ and on the flip side, they are all smiling and laughing, and my girls always have foam pool noodles for self defense.
One day I woke up from a nap to hear noise outside and when I looked out the window there were half a dozen children in my front yard with a remote control monster truck. They were racing it up the driveway and trying to jump it off of my bottom step. It kept crashing all over the place and they were making quite a racket. When I threw open the front door they all froze and looked at me with guilty expressions. “What are you doing out here?” I asked. “Uhh…testing out the monster truck…” “Do you want candy canes?” “YES PLEASE!!!” I shouldn’t have fed them, now they are in my yard all the time. But they are cute and sweet and they don’t mess with me because I yell at them plenty at school.
Another caveat to the free ranging children is that for some reason they will inevitably want to come into my house and explore when they get tired of exhausting the resources of the surrounding outdoors. Usually I can fend them off with a popsicle bribe and a hollow promise that “sometime soon” they can come in, perhaps when I am making cookies, but “not now, the house is way too messy!” It always is.
The best lesson I have learned from these little intrepid spirits is that when they come to my door, it is the perfect excuse to drop the laundry, the dusting, the cooking, or whatever mundane house chore I feel obligated to drudge through and go outside to get in touch with my inner child. Their subtle, adorable hijacking of the neighborhood has given me a little freedom because I can say to myself, “hey this is not so important when there is a beautiful evening to experience! I’ll outside and see what my kids are doing, and get back in touch with neighbors I haven’t seen in ages! Goodbye laundry basket and mop bucket!”
Tomorrow the neighborhood will be swarming with children in costumes. Our neighborhood is THE place to trick or treat. Many neighbors go all out to decorate houses and stash truckloads of candy for the hoards of costumed youngsters who will invade. Children at the school have been asking me all week if I will be at my house to hand out candy. I bought a five gallon pumpkin shaped bucket to fill and still need to go back to the store for backup candy. It would not be surprising to see at least 200 children at my door tonight. Children from other parts of town and as far as Fort Riley will come to our neighborhood for candy. That is fine with me, just as long as no one asks to come into my house. It is still a mess.