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Discovering A World Beyond The Front Yard

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Discovering A World Beyond The Front Yard





Some Parents Defy Trends, Allow Kids to Roam Unsupervised


By Tara Bahrampour

Washington Post Staff Writer

Sunday, August 27, 2006; Page C01


One day a few years ago, Khady Lusby's twins were 5 and playing by themselves in the park that abuts their Arlington house when another mother called her at home.


"She said, 'Do you know your boys are at the playground playing?' And I said, 'Yes, I know,' " recalled Lusby, who is from Senegal.


"She said, 'Oh, you know this is not the way we do things here,' meaning in America. I just made a joke: 'Well, I'm African -- wherever I go I take my African way,' and she said, 'Well you can be reported.' "


Undaunted, Lusby and her husband, who grew up in Hagerstown, continued to let their three boys, now 11 and 6, go to the park alone (though at the creek they are to take along a sibling and walkie-talkies.)


Their neighbors, Mark Katzenberger and Mona Leigh, have a similar philosophy, allowing their two children to venture to the park on their own and walk to school unaccompanied by adults.


But the couples make up a small minority: parents who, despite prevailing trends, believe letting children play outside is ultimately less dangerous than what will happen if they never get to explore.


In some urban neighborhoods across America, children still pour into the streets to play, the older ones keeping an eye on the younger ones as they have for generations. But for a while now, to drive around America's suburbs is to see tidy but empty blocks, devoid of the kickball, hide-and-seek and aimless wanderings of earlier generations. For many parents, the thought of allowing their children out unaccompanied invokes spasms of horror and even accusations of child neglect.


It can be difficult for individual families to buck the trend without facing criticism. "When parents start to tell me about how their kids' lives are programmed compared to theirs [when they were young], they're very apologetic," said Roger Hart, director of the Children's Environments Research Group at the City University of New York. "But they say, 'You know, if I let my kids go out by themselves to the center of town, my neighbors just wouldn't accept me as a good parent.' "


Many parents speak wistfully of their own childhoods, before play dates and soccer practices, when they left home in the morning and roamed freely. But those same parents say that was a more innocent time, with fewer kidnappers.


"Can't do like you used to anymore," said Patricia Shackleford, who grew up in Arlington playing on a block with 50 other kids until nightfall. Now she drives her children, 12 and 9, to the playground and waits while they play. "Got to supervise them."


Cesar Llerena, watching from a bench as his children played at Alcova Heights Park, said he does not think it is responsible to let children walk to school, even if it is only three blocks away. "Someone might drive up" and kidnap them, he said. "It hasn't happened here, but it has happened."


Has the world really become more dangerous?


In some places, yes. Cherita Whiting, Advisory Neighborhood Commission chairman for Ward 4B in the District, said her Riggs Park neighborhood was full of children playing when she was young. Now, she said, drug dealers, drive-by shootings and speeding cars in the area have scared parents into keeping kids indoors.


"It's really a shame," she said. "A kid should be able to play without worrying that some fool is going to be racing up the street because they did something wrong."


As for kidnappings, Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said the number of abductions by strangers has remained steady over the years and is lower than many people imagine.


"I do not think there are more," he said. "I think the numbers have been very consistent."


According to center statistics, about 115 of 260,000 child kidnappings a year nationwide fit the classic scenario most parents fear: children snatched by strangers. Most kidnappings are done by family members or by people the children know.


Still, high-profile cases of abduction by a stranger have sowed fear, especially since cable TV and 24-hour news have made the details easier to disseminate.


Jane de Winter, president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, said she lets her children walk to a nearby park, but she theorized that she and other parents worry more because they know more about potential dangers.


"In my neighborhood . . . there have been people who have been registered sex offenders, and that puts a damper on whether parents want to let their kids outside," she said. Regardless of whether there actually are more sex offenders now, she said, "once you know someone is there, can you responsibly let your kids be out there without an adult?"


Hart calls such fears an example of "moral panic" -- a collective fear fueled by the mass media until it becomes self-perpetuating.


But he said there are also valid explanations. "In a more globalized world, people feel generally less secure about place, because the world becomes more and more anonymous as it becomes more mobile," he said. "It feeds on itself, and if you watch more and more television, you have more sense of these dangers. And there's less and less engagement with community. Outside has become more dangerous, because there's no longer multiple eyes on everything."


Accordingly, the freedom to explore and improvise -- which he called crucial to children's cognitive development -- has been reduced dramatically.


"They can no longer go as far, alone or with their friends, as they used to, and they can no longer be spontaneous in their planning, in their decisions about what they're going to do," Hart said. "Once you have adults having to be the supervisors, that means kids' schedules have to be coordinated with adults' schedules."


According to Richard Louv, author of "Last Child in the Woods," the radius beyond which children are not allowed to roam shrank by 89 percent in 20 years. "For tens of thousands of years, kids went out and played in nature, and we are reversing that in a matter of decades," he said.


Some communities in Europe are trying to reverse that trend, creating, for example, cul-de-sacs that make it harder for strangers to pass through.


In the United States, when children walk to school or play in a park unaccompanied, Allen recommended a "buddy system" that pairs them with other children. His center also encourages "block watch" programs in which adults take turns keeping an eye on children playing on the block.


Rebuilding neighborly connections is crucial to safety, he said. "In a world where so many houses are air-conditioned and so many people spend their lives inside, we've lost the use of the front porch. . . . People [are] so isolated in their jobs and their lives that they cease to be neighbors."


Darlene Allen, president of the District PTA, said that in her Southeast Washington neighborhood, children never stopped playing outside, though adults now look out more for each other's children.


And in Brookmont, a neighborhood near Glen Echo in Montgomery County, Carol Beehler sends her three children out with 30 or so other toddlers through teenagers who play outside, sometimes closing the street off for impromptu hockey games.


"I'm always kicking them out of the house," she said, adding that kids have played on her block since she moved there 20 years ago. "They're supposed to be within yelling distance," she said, adding, "I'll probably get a call now from Social Services."


Children from other areas have been shocked by the practice, she said, recalling a friend of her son's from a "big fancy neighborhood in Potomac" who came over when kids were running through sprinklers in the front yard. "He said to me, 'Wow, where I live, only the workers are out.' "


Strolling recently through Mace Park, along Four Mile Run in Arlington, Katzenberger pointed at where the grass dipped into a creek, sheltered by trees -- a favorite playing area of his son Clyde, 10, who has named it the Mysterious Beyond.


Other parents have warned him against letting his children play there. "I know that people are really afraid of their kids getting snatched," he said. "But the probability of a child getting snatched is so low that I think you're doing your child a disservice by letting them stay inside and not grow, not be creative, not be exposed to the Mysterious Beyond."


Lusby agreed. "If we're always there, surrounding them, they will never see past us," she said. "We're not raising children in a bubble. You have to let them learn from their mistakes. They cry and you reassure them and they go back, and that's the way it should be. Otherwise, they have these blinders, and their world is not as wide as it should be."


At home, Katzenberger and Leigh showed off the tarragon, basil and tomatoes they had planted out front, and the wooden porch they built this summer -- both undertaken with a specific goal.


"We're trying to turn the neighborhood around," Leigh said. "You build a stoop, and you sit out on your stoop."


Katzenberger added, "It might happen that we're going to be sitting out there and someone might stop by and have a beer."


"So we do," Leigh said. "We sit out there every day and say hi to people and do gardening and so on, and I feel that we've made a difference in how much people are out and about."

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