Playin’ at the Crick:  Kids, Free Play and Safety

Youngest entered the door from the garage and even around the corner, I could hear the shoes squishing with each step.  Dad, he said, I’m really sorry but I just slipped into the creek when I was down there with the guys.  My first impulse was annoyance that the kid had gotten his feet wet in the winter, even if it has been an almost Spring-like day.  But after listening to him describe his adventures, there was a greater sense of pleasure that the boy was having a Huck Finn experience with his buddies in the out-of-doors and the sneakers simply went into the dryer.  Many parents compare their kids childhood with their own and the sense – at least from other fathers with whom I’ve talked – is that there’s far less unregulated and unsupervised play today than before.  If we want to encourage this return to some simpler pleasures for our kids, what are some things to bear in mind?

In this age of media-driven angst over child safety, the first and obvious concern is safety.  Every parent fears the prospect of a stranger abducting Junior since these cases make the top of each newscast, but the statistics – the most recent that I can find compiled in 2002 – show that of approximately 800,000 missing children, 69,000 arise from abduction and of these cases, only about 12,000 were taken by someone not related to the child.  While the numbers in 2012 are certainly different, I expect that the general proportions remain the same with only a small percentage of abductions from strangers.  Having said that, safety is still the predominant concern.

  • I’ve reinforced to the kids that they’re free to go to the creek, in a neighboring municipal park, only with another person and never alone.
  • I’ve made it a point to visit the area myself so that I can see what the environment is like.  In this particular case, I visited the area – along with other local spots which might be of interest to kids – when we moved into the neighborhood several years ago and am already familiar with where he’s playing.
  • Youngest has wanted to show me his "fort" and in the next several days, with decent weather, I’ll take him up on his offer so that I can get another glance at the area in which he and his buddies are playing.
  • While this is a small creek, he’s been told that he’s not to be down there after rainstorms because of higher water levels.
  • We’ve reviewed basic safety rules, such as might be found at
  • The clear expectation is that he’ll only be there after clearing it with me first.
  • While I don’t believe that this merits a cell-phone, and others might disagree, it certainly means that he has to have a watch along with which to keep track of time.

We want our son to experience a wide variety of activities but he still needs the ability to simply play with friends.  The time spent at the creek is invaluable to his growth and development; he learns to interact with others in a free give-and-take that teaches compromise and resolution and it allows him to exercise his imagination.  Where else can he have a fort that boasts a second floor bedroom next to a laser battle station?

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