How much freedom to roam?
June 10, 2012 7:43 PM   Subscribe

So what's the norm for kids running around the neighborhood and playing these days? As a parent, what would you like to happen when the kid down the street knocks on your door and asks if your child can play?

My daughter just finished first grade and she's at the age where she wants to run around and play with her neighborhood friends. We live in a fantastic, friendly neighborhood where people generally know each other and the kids play together. Right now I allow her to go to her friends' houses that are on our exact same street. If she wanted to go around the corner, or out of my sight, I would walk with her. Is that about normal?

If she's invited over to someone's house, I usually let her play until dinnertime or whenever they send her back -- whatever comes first. Should I be placing a more structured limit on how long she's over there?

Currently, quiet a few of her friends have older siblings watching them while their parents work. I don't feel comfortable letting my child go over to houses where there are no adults present. Am I overreacting? It gets a little tedious sometimes because then these kids are over at MY house all of the time and I work from home, but I do have more peace of mind.

At this age, should I be planning out activities for the kids to do, or let them do their own things? I'm a natural planner, so I tend to feel guilty if I don't have an art project or outdoor activity planned.

Any other thoughts/tips/suggestions are welcome.
posted by Ostara to Human Relations (21 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
First grade sounds too young for unsupervised play. Even in a safe neighborhood.

I wouldn't let my son, when he reaches that age, play unsupervised with only older siblings around. A 13 year old daughter of a co-worker watches my son on-site the one day a week I work, and she makes tiny miscalculations all the time that could end up badly. She's a great girl with lots of older and younger siblings, she is NOT irresponsible!! Just, y'know, 13 years old.

I lived in a safe neighborhood growing up. We definitely had boundaries at that age. And my mom was really not that great, to be honest.

If possible, you should walk her everywhere before you leave her at someone else's house to play - just to make sure adults are home, all that.

6 or 7 years old is not too young to get into unsupervised trouble/danger.

I remember being that age. I definitely had a little too much free-range. Looking back, I'm lucky I didn't get hit by a car on my bike or fall out of a tree (and I was ALWAYS climbing trees!)

Stay safe. Why not?
posted by jbenben at 8:02 PM on June 10, 2012

We live in a slightly less friendly urban neighborhood, but my kids (finished first and second grades) go to neighbors' houses to play on their own, my rising third grader moreso than my rising second grader -- but I go by their maturity and comfort. There are adults we know at these homes at least loosely supervising.

As for a teenager or old sibling supervising, I would go on a case-by-case basis. I know some older siblings who are great, but I also know some who might not make a good judgement call if something were to happen.

Your comfort level with the walk to a friend's house is totally personal and your instincts are probably right.

I typically don't tightly plan activities during unstructured times (like weekends or when we aren't out and about) but for friends who require a commute, we do plan playdates. Otherwise, it's kind of who is home and who wants to play.
posted by mamabear at 8:07 PM on June 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

So my baselines for this were growing up in a military community, but from what I recall: First grade is okay for unsupervised play within sight or hearing of a window or door. I.e, you don't have to have eyes on, but you have to be able to hear if they scream out for you, and you have to be able to look out to make sure they're there.

So you're about normal in walking her if she has to turn a corner.

I think for me it would depend on how old these older siblings are. If they're, say, 12, then no, not a responsible supervisory authority. 14-15, sure, for all intents and purposes these are no worse than relatively ineffective adults. You have to keep in mind what they're there to guard against, though. For example, they will likely make sure that the kids don't get electrocuted or fall into pools, but they may not care if the kids are pouring sugar into their mouths or flipping through the magazines they found under someone's bed.

I'd say unplanned play is actually best for kids, and they get so little of it, so don't worry about activities.
posted by corb at 8:08 PM on June 10, 2012 [10 favorites]

My kid has been running around playing with the neighborhood kids unsupervised since she was about three and a half. BUT this is all on one cul de sac, the other kids are older and very trustworthy, and there are lots of parents at home in the surrounding houses.

I did not have a lot of opportunities for unsupervised play when I was a kid, and it actually had some really negative consequences. I might be swinging too far in the other direction, but so far it's been really good for my daughter's development.
posted by KathrynT at 8:08 PM on June 10, 2012 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: When her friends are over here, I'm definitely supervising them -- though I may be in the next room or watching out the kitchen window while they play in the yard. And I only let her go to other houses that I can see from my front door -- I watch her until they answer.
posted by Ostara at 8:12 PM on June 10, 2012

Is she 7? My kids have gone to the park, walked to a friend's house down the street, and so on, by themselves at that age. I was glad to have them start managing their own friendships!

In our neighborhood, which doesn't have a ton of kids, it seems to be the norm that kids don't go into other people's houses until the parents have met each other or visited. But my sons did play in the yard of a kid a couple of blocks away last year. I have told them not to go into other kids' homes when there are no adults there.

Being the stay-at-home mom has sometimes led to me being the supervisory mom more than I was comfortable with. It got better when I learned that I could set boundaries: yes, your friend can be over but only if you play outside; no, I'm not providing snacks for everyone, if folks are hungry they need to go home for something to eat. Things like that. Sometimes I'm finehaving a pack of kids in the house, and sometimes I'm not. Sometimes I'm happy serving everyone some cheese and crackers, sometimes I don't want to. The whole thing got easier as I got more comfortable being clear about those things.
posted by not that girl at 8:12 PM on June 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Unsupervised - and unstructured - play is really important for development.

At age six, I was allowed to go to a friend's house down the street, or play with my eight year old brother anywhere within a certain limit (apartment building grounds, school behind and adjacent park). We were out of sight, but my mom could walk a certain route and find us.

as for tree climbing - I did, and I fell and I broke my arm. It's better now. Cars are a much more serious danger. Unless you live on certain quiet streets, I would let my children play at other people's houses even on another street, but tell them they had to be in the backyard.
posted by jb at 8:12 PM on June 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: She is seven, she'll be eight in December. She goes into second grade in August.
posted by Ostara at 8:14 PM on June 10, 2012

I wouldn't let my kids (ages 6 and 9) play at someone's house without an adult -- one I'd met -- present.

I let my nine-year-old ride his bike freely. There are streets he's not supposed to cross, because of traffic, and I hope he sticks to that. He has an amazing sense of direction and I'm not worried about him getting lost.

When we're in a park, especially if it's one we know well, I'm comfortable letting them run off into the woods without me.

When they have friends over I don't play with them or plan activities unless they really need me to. That's half the point of having kids over here; I get to sit and read Metafilter.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:18 PM on June 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think your instincts are right on. We were very lenient parents but had a few non-negotiable rules:

1. My kids were never allowed to visit a home without an adult present.

2. Never allowed to visit a home unless I met the parents first.

3. After a tragic event in my small southern community, I always asked if there were guns in the house, and if so were they properly stored. (Yes, I did ask!)

These rules continued all through high school, actually, and it really wasn't difficult to enforce them. My kids always knew what was required, and would comfortably pass them on to any new friends they made. "Oh, I can't spend the night until my parents meet your parents, so can you all come to a cook-out on Saturday night?" On all the other points you mentioned, I think you are right on the mark here. Especially with the "play at our house even if it's a little more work for me".

As a parent, you have to figure out what you're comfortable with and just stick to it. It's different for everyone.
posted by raisingsand at 9:08 PM on June 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

I don't have kids, but I live in a great neighbourhood with kids running everywhere, they are pretty much left to fend for themselves on weekends from around 8 or 9. The younger kids play on the footpath in clusters and there is usually a mum or 2 sitting on their front steps keeping an eye on the group as they ride up and down the path and chatting to other mums. We are only one short block from a very busy road but all the kids keep to our quiet back road and always seem to be doing something.

When I find myself freaking out because all the neighbours kids are chucking a football on my front lawn without a parent in sight, I find this site makes me calm down and realise I don't want to be the crazy neighbour. .
posted by wwax at 9:12 PM on June 10, 2012

My kids at 11 and 14 have been pretty free range- at 7 they played outside alone with me just keeping an ear out but I didn't let them go to kids houses without an adult. I figured if someone got hurt outside I would hear them, but at another kids house- not so much. I did then, and still do keep contact with parents, always have phone numbers etc and I always check in with parents. I do this mainly because I want to have contact with other parents in the teen age years but also myself and my siblings were the latch key kids who did scary things and got into scary situations that I wasn't totally equipped to handle. As an aside, a lot of kids have cell phones now, and my kids always knew my cell #. When my kids called from other kids phones I always keep the number- same with kid's parents #s. It's good to know how to call people- and to have that extra layer in case your kid wanders off.

I would also say too, it depends on your kid and how much she follows the rules. You might want to start her off with small responsibilities and rein them in if you feel like she can't do them- like if she doesn't follow the rules. Now that my girls are older and they do go to friend's houses after school- they know they need to call me and tell me where they are going and the same goes if they are bringing kids over after school- I get home from work about an hour after they get home from school so I want to know what kids are in my house and when.

I do try and make my house totally appealing to other kids because again, I want for my kids and their friends to feel comfortable here in later years, but I also agree with the PP, if I need a break or have had to much I make it clear that kiddos need to clear out.
posted by momochan at 9:17 PM on June 10, 2012

When I was in elementary school my older brother, his friend, and I would roam the neighborhood. All our parents worked so parental supervision was out of the question. We'd explore nearby areas, creeks, fields, etc. Not only did we survive, but those are the times from my childhood I remember.

However my neighborhood is not your neighborhood, and you should trust your instincts. However, I do think that if you are putting up a border ("parents must be present") you should be prepared for having to meet that border yourself (have the children over your house all the time).
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 9:56 PM on June 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I ran all over my (safe, quiet) neighborhood on my bike with friends at seven years old. That was 20 years ago, but I think your instincts are on track.
posted by woodvine at 10:42 PM on June 10, 2012

I think you'll find people are all over the map with this one. I grew up in the country, by age seven I was allowed to go wandering off into the rainforest or paddocks by myself, or go swimming in the dams >800 metres away for literally hours. The only injunction was "Take the dog" (honestly, he was a nice dog, but he didn't know cpr, you know what I mean?).

Would I have this attitude with my daughter in the city now? I dunno. I think it's very situational. The main thing, I think with kids, is you want them somewhere where there is like nobody at all around (paddocks etc), or where there are lots and lots of kids and other adults round (the cul de sac scenario). Semi-deserted urban areas can be a bit of neither - crowded enough your kids could get into trouble from other children or adults; not crowded enough that other kids and adults will keep behaviour on the straight and narrow.

The main thing, paddocks withstanding, we were taught as kids is don't go anywhere alone, or alone with someone you don't know; and never be afraid to ask for help from adults. I think those are pretty solid. You know your kid better than anyone else; if you think she's okay she's probably okay.
posted by smoke at 11:30 PM on June 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

We were allowed to go to our neighborhood pool alone at age 8--my mom would watch me walk up the street to see I made it there (it was about 6 houses away), but after that I was on my own. I'd have an amazing time up there and wander home around dinner time.

I would also go over to friend's houses in the neighborhood, but it was clear that I'd have to say if there wasn't going to be an adult there.

Those were the days.
posted by mck9235 at 12:16 AM on June 11, 2012

I live on what sounds like a similar street, though maybe with more traffic--it's dead end, but the high school parking lot is off of it, as are public tennis courts. There are six houses with kids, and the kids range from three to eleven. The general rule here seems to be that once a kid's in kindergarten, they're old enough to play outside while their parents are inside. The older kids know that they have to sort of watch out for the younger ones, and all the kids know that if someone gets hurt or something bad happens or they're staaaaaarving or whatever, they can go to whatever house is closest and they'll be taken care of by whomever's home.

They're allowed to ride their bikes around the high school (around the block, effectively) if there's a pack of them--either two of the older kids (girls between nine and eleven--just finished third or fourth grade) or one of the older ones and at least two of the younger ones. More kids are ok, fewer kids are not. My nine year old and her ten year old BFF are, as of this month, allowed to walk through the cemetery that runs along the backyards on half the street. (We can't see them while they're in the cemetery, generally speaking, though we can see them as they walk around the block to the cemetery gates.)

I wouldn't worry about planning anything--unstructured play is a huge developmental thing for kids. The extent of the structure around here seems to be limited to "Uh, there's some chalk in the garage, if you want it," and "Stop playing video games; go ride your bikes." As for putting limits on it, I never bothered unless I needed my daughter home for something. Otherwise, it was just understood that she'd come home when her friends were eating supper/getting ready for bed/their parents said it was time for her to go.

All that to say that I think that you sound perfectly normal. Occasionally I run into people who are horrified that I let my daughter run around unsupervised for most of the day, but really, it's about what I did when I was her age. By the time I was ten or eleven, I'd walk my siblings home from school and babysit them until my parents got home! I remind myself regularly that the world's safer now than it was when we were kids, and that letting our kids learn how to play with others is something that can only benefit them in the long run.
posted by MeghanC at 2:56 AM on June 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

It gets a little tedious sometimes because then these kids are over at MY house all of the time

While it might be tedious, your daughter's having friends makes her happier in the short term and in the long term. Unstructured play is probably best unless they complain of being bored or unless you have thought of something really cool.
posted by ersatz at 3:42 AM on June 11, 2012

You sound dead on target to me. You're doing all the things I did a few years ago when my son was your daughter's age. Whenever I had a lot of work to do at home I would make a point of inviting a kid or two over to keep my son busy and happy while I did my own thing. As for unstructured play, my mother always says, "They have to get bored before they get creative." So at that age I would tell my son "Here are three or four or five suggestions for what you kids can do this afternoon. Go do them." Are those older sibs kids you would hire to babysit your child in your home? If not, then it's understandable that you would not be comfortable having them do the supervision in their own homes. You sound like you're doing just fine.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 6:04 AM on June 11, 2012

You have to make the call as to what age she can roam the neighborhood with her friends, but I'll address this:

At this age, should I be planning out activities for the kids to do, or let them do their own things? I'm a natural planner, so I tend to feel guilty if I don't have an art project or outdoor activity planned.

If you keep planning things for them to do, they won't figure out how to keep themselves occupied. Let them free play until and unless one or more of them says they're bored (which is actually a "bad" word in my house) and then give them options of things to do (play-doh, paints, running in the sprinkler, etc) but don't sit there with them. There is far too much hovering/helicoptering going on these days and your kid will be far better adjusted in the long run if you give her the freedom to choose how to spend her free time.
posted by cooker girl at 7:12 AM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have two, a just-turned-ten year old, and a five-and-a-half year old. Leaving kindergarten and fourth grade, doing into first and fifth grades.

We live on a cul-de-sac, and I've been letting them play unsupervised just since it's started turning warm out. The rules are: No crossing the street, you have to go around; watch out for cars in the driveways; don't leave the block; no going into someone's house; don't go into anyone's back yard without asking. They have a bunch of neighbor children to play with, between 3 and 7, mostly. The littler ones have their parents come out with them.

The littler one is, ahem, adventurous, and she HAS gotten hurt a number of times now -- scabs on her palms, a big scratch across her ribs from failing to climb a tree, and so on. But the kids know to shepherd her home or fetch me, I can usually hear if she's crying, and... frankly, given her personality, I'd rather have her learn about personal safety and caution the hard way NOW than when she's 17 and behind the wheel of a car. Heaven knows she's not going to learn it without hurting herself.

I do feel like the liberty I've given them is a little more than is currently socially acceptable, so there's that.
posted by Andrhia at 4:18 PM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

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