When we lived in Hawaii, we lived near the top of a windy, rain-foresty, mountain road called Tantalus Drive. Our house overlooked a valley and was surrounded by acre upon acre of barely-tamed forest. (The view in the photo is similar to the view from our house.) Trails led up and away from the house into the woods and we would explore for hours. And hours. We'd drag our Big Wheels and bikes up up up those trails, which were lined with eucalyptus trees, carefully align them at the top of the trail and then ride them all the way down peddling as fast as we could. We'd do this over and over again. Sounds fun, right?
Except that to the left of us were those rows of trees and if we had ever smacked into one we might have cracked our delicate 6-and 8-year-old skulls open, and to the right of us was a sheer 50 ft. drop down to a pond below. A pond full of artfully arranged volcanic rock stepping stones placed there by my grandfather, a landscape architect.
The pond also had a non-functioning waterfall (more with the artfully arranged volcanic rock) spilling down into it and we used to stand at the top of it (the top was near the trail) and climb. down. to. the. pond.
I remember when the tall, weedy grass around our house was cut down, my brother and I played in it every afternoon for about a week. The grass was piled into clumps which looked like haystacks and we'd dive into them, one hiding, the other seeking. One time I dove into a pile and came face-to-face with a very surprised -looking mongoose. And that was the end of that.
We'd also park our skateboards at the end of our driveway, look out for cars, then sit on them and luge around the blind, hair-pin turn that led to our house. Sure we'd make sure no cars were coming down the mountain, but we couldn't see who might be coming up. People went off the edge of that mountain road all the time. Didn't matter to us, we'd coast down it on our skateboards seeing who could go the fastest and wipe out (on purpose) as we rounded that curve. The forest went right up to the edge of the road so our crash landings were padded by those tall grasses, ferns, and ginger plants.
When we went to the beach, my mom and aunties would park themselves on picnic blankets as we swam and played. I can't remember my mom or aunties ever swimming with us. The only time I can ever remember any of them getting wet was when my uncle got drunk at a pool party and started tossing ladies into it. (My mom growing up in Hawaii and never swimming with us is kind of a running joke in my family.) My brother and cousins and friends and I could go anywhere we wanted, from the Outrigger Canoe Club down to the Honolulu Aquarium. No one was watching us. We were in bathing suits and barefoot, we had money for shave ice in our pockets. No one knew how to read a map or use a pay phone, but we always made it back to those picnic blankets by sundown.
I think we might be the last generation who got to play outside largely unattended. My mom had no clue what we were doing most of the time. She was probably inside leisurely smoking a cigarette and yapping on the phone to her girlfriends planning their next lunch-shopping date. She hadn't the first idea about what we were up to or how many times we could have easily been killed (or seriously injured).
But those times were the absolute "funnest" of my childhood. I look back on my childhood and smile, the memories are so precious to me. True nothing happened to us but it wasn't because we knew any better. We absolutely didn't. We didn't think about getting hurt or our mom getting pissed if she found out what we were doing (okay, maybe a little), but we didn't care. We were having fun! The fact that nothing happened to us had maybe a little something to do with luck, but it was mostly due to the fact that if we got hurt or died, we couldn't ride those trails anymore or climb that waterfall or skateboard down a curvy mountain road. We were kept safe and alive mainly because we didn't want to stop having fun.
A little over two years ago we moved to our neighborhood and what drew us to it is that it is one of those quiet, suburban neighborhoods where kids play in their front yards and run in and out of each other's houses in the summer time. Most of the kids are younger, but our neighbors have tween daughters who are excellent at keeping the rowdy 4- to 8-year-olds in check.
Every afternoon when the weather is nice I send the girls outside to ride bikes or scooter or play with their ponies on the front lawn. And slowly but surely, kids come out of their houses and join them. My girls know to come and ask me first if they want to go to a neighbor's house, but for the most part, they are all playing outside together, tossing a ball back and forth, swinging lightsabers at each other, or working on an origami or macrame project.
They can be outside for hours playing that way. I want them to have the experiences that I had. I want them to be free to work out their troubles or lead games or create sidewalk adventures without adult interference. The only difference is that from far away—behind a curtain or from the back of the garage or through a window—I am always watching.
At least for now.