Monday, November 14, 2011

'Free-range kids' benefit from safe streets

Six children armed with Airsoft guns rush through a stand of poplars
as they advance on an unseen enemy, yelling, laughing and waving their
airsoft weapons in the air.
A 10-year-old boy falls to the ground dramatically, as if he's been mortally wounded. Then his friend, also 10, collapses nearby. They try to remain still, but giggles convulse
their supposedly maimed bodies.
It's a beautiful fall afternoon in Inglewood, where the group of five boys and one girl has gathered to play Airsoft, complete with airsoft guns, eye protection and airsoft biodegradable
pellets. On any given day after school, a number of neighbourhood
children get together to do battle, or play pick-up football or hockey.
Summer days bring them down to the south bank of the Bow River, where
they swing from a rope into a deep pool on the river's edge.
What's striking about the group is they're on their own. No adults are supervising. No parents are imposing limits on the fun.
"I like going out on my own because there's not as much supervision, so
you can be a kid," says 11-yearold Josh Leacock. Some of his earliest
memories are of being outside with friends playing street hockey and gun
wars (a game with wooden guns that don't shoot) when he was four or
five years old.
He is one of Inglewood's "free-range kids," children who are living a version of childhood similar to what their parents experienced, but one that is becoming rare. In today's
safety obsessed world, it seems a generation of kids is being encouraged
to play indoors or in fenced-in backyards.
Many Inglewood parents, however, are bucking the new parenting order in favour of fresh air, exercise and independence.
So what is it about this Inglewood group of families that are rejecting
mainstream ideas about childhood safety? Is Inglewood built differently? Do these parents have different skills? Do the kids know something the rest of us don't?
Experts say the answers to those questions are both yes and no, and they contain insight into safety in all neighbourhoods. While Inglewood is unique, the lives of these families
highlight many of the factors that experts say go into building safe, engaging neighbourhoods for children and their families all over the city.
"The most visceral fear, the one that taps deepest into our evolutionary hard drive, is the fear that our children are in physical danger," writes author Carl Honore in Under Pressure: Putting the Child Back in Childhood. The 2008 book, his follow-up to the acclaimed In Praise of Slow, advocates "slow" childhoods instead of those in which kids are micro-managed and overprotected.
Modern parents, he writes, fear everything from open toilets to sharp coffee table corners,
"hazards" that can be kept in check by vigilant baby-proofing. Outside the home the multitude of perils are out of parents' control: speeding cars, high playground equipment, even fast snowballs.
"The upshot is that the 21st-century child is raised in captivity, cooped up indoors and ferried between appointments in the backseat of a car," Honore continues.
Keeping children under lock and key all but eliminates risk, and prevents the most-feared threat from materializing: being grabbed off the street by a predator.
"Creepy people," "weirdos" and "scary dudes" are what give Josh and his friend Bowen Tompkins pause as they discuss the pitfalls of freedom on this fall afternoon. Even Bowen's mom Liz Tompkins and her friend Rebecca O'Brien worry that a story on child-safe neighbourhoods could attract oddballs to the community.
This line of thinking is what Lenore Skenazy calls "worst first" - thinking of the most terrible thing that could happen instead of considering the positive effects; that it could convince parents in other neighbourhoods to let their kids be footloose too.
"Predators aren't reading the newspaper to find out where the kids are," says the writer and mother of two who coined the term "freerange kids" with her 2009 book of the same name.
"You have to come to grips with the fact that even though things feel scarier than when we were growing up, they're actually safer," she says by phone from her home in New York City. She rattles off some stats: Since the 1980s, child abductions have gone down and the number of children hit by cars has decreased.
Even having a child die from cancer is less of a risk than it was 25 years ago. But parents are more terrified than ever.
We're scared, says Skenazy, because every time something happens to a child, the story goes viral through media channels and gives parents another reason to lock their kids indoors. She refers to the recent story of three-year-old Keinan Hebert, abducted from his home in Sparwood, B.C.
and returned, unharmed, four days later.
The Hebert's saga sucked in media watchers from across Canada and the United States because it
epitomized every parent's worst nightmare."It's sort of like a carnival ride. It's thrilling and terrifying at the same time," says Skenazy.
It also aligns with the popular culture messages we consume through television shows like CSI, Dexter and Law & Order. Namely, lurking in every alley is a predator that might target your child.
"On TV, there's always a child murderer. In real life murder by stranger is extremely rare . . . . In real life, the vast majority of crimes against kids are committed by people they know," says Skenazy, who was called "America's worst mom" for letting her nine-year-old son ride the New
York City subway alone (he was, and still is, doing just fine).
"There's also a risk if you keep your kids inside. There's a price to be paid that no one thinks about."
She lists off the hidden costs of a sedentary lifestyle: increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and depression, lack of socialization. Skenazy says seeing children outside, playing or walking to school, is a sign of a healthy neighbourhood.
By her measure Inglewood is healthy, in large part because many neighbourhood parents aren't buying in to the new norm. They gladly kick their kids outdoors to play, secure in the knowledge that the environment they're setting them loose in is safe.
"It all adds up to a sense of safety in our community," says long-time Inglewood resident Tompkins, whose two sons, Hollis, 15, and Bowen, 10, have been playing outdoors unsupervised for years.
"What I think it boils down to is everyone seems to know everyone in Inglewood. I feel we're in
a small town with a twist," says Julie deBoer, whose sons Adam, 11, and Luke, 8, are part of the neighbourhood posse.
Daughter Joy, 6, doesn't yet run free - unless she's with her big brothers."It's just a tight web of parents that know each other and trust each other," she adds.
Parents meet through the community school, which many children attend and walk
to. They also meet by volunteering on school council or with the Inglewood Community Association.
Both Tompkins and deBoer have setout clear boundaries for their boys, so the kids know which parts of the neighbourhood they're allowed to venture to, and which parts are offlimits. The boys let their moms know where they're going, and what time they'll be back.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, these children are street smart - they watch out for cars and creeps, and they almost always travel in a posse.
"Street smart means being able to cross the street safely," adds Rebecca O'Brien, whose
10-year-old son Freddy is part of the Airsoft patrol.
Indeed, for most Inglewood moms, their biggest isn't the fear of abduction that rattles their kids, it's the risk they'll fall into the Bow River or get hit by a car.
Community involvement, neighbourliness and parental lessons on strangers, open water and cars help keep kids out of harm's way. What else makes a community safe for children?"
There's not something as simple as a formula, but there are lots of things that come together for safety," says Byron Miller, an urban political geographer and associate professor of geography at the University of Calgary. He mentions density, walkability and ample park space as crucial
"Part of what goes hand in hand with (those) is making the streets safe for kids to play in," he says, adding that if he has to choose one culprit limiting kids' ability to own their
neighbourhoods, it would be the automobile."The single biggest danger to children is traffic," says Miller.
He points to Vauban, a suburb of Freiburg, Germany, as a child-dense and kid-friendly utopia that was designed to minimize car use. Multi-family buildings do not have garages (cars must be parked on the outskirts of town in community parkades). All housing features windows that enable parents to keep an eye out on their kids who are playing outside in the surrounding parks.
"Once people are out walking, they see each other. They know who belongs and who doesn't. It forms a stronger community," says Miller.
It makes for more "eyes on the street," a concept made famous by AmericanCanadian urban planner Jane Jacobs, and one that's acknowledged by Inglewood moms who feel their kids are safe because there are so many trustworthy adults watching the community goings-on as a form of natural surveillance.
While Inglewood is quite a bit different from Vauban - cars zip up and down busy Ninth Avenue, and many residents own cars and park them in back alley garages - the community is very pedestrian-friendly, ranking 19th on the Project Calgary's list of walkable communities.
It's also unique in that more than 40 per cent of businesses are owned by Inglewood residents who have an interest in the community. What's more, many of the neighbourhood children grow into teenagers who get jobs at the local franchises and businesses.
"I don't think it's the norm," says Inglewood BRZ chair Brian Imeson, who owns Circa vintage art glass on Ninth Avenue and walks to work. "It still maintains a really small-town community feel here."
Miller lives in West Hillhurst and practices free-range parenting when he shoos his son out to the local park. But Miller knows there are few risks: his son doesn't have to cross a street
and he's there with friends.
"When you say to your kid, 'Go be free-range,' you have to consider the environment you're turning them loose in.""Know your neighbourhood," says Julie Freedman Smith, co-owner of Parenting Power, a Calgary business that counsels parents on everyday challenges.
She says residents are best equipped to identify community threats facing the youngest members."It's not doing it without thought. It's taking the time to teach," she says.
"If we wait for our kids to be 15 or 17 before we let them out (alone), they're going to make big mistakes."Inglewood mom Liz Tompkins admits her boys have occasionally darted in front of traffic, or forgotten to tell her where they were going to be, but she believes letting her boys play outdoors on their own has done more good than harm, she says. Expanding their boundaries in increments, as they proved responsible, has taught them independence and helped them develop good judgment.
Conversely, parents who keep kids under their thumb are "doing a grave disservice to them. Not only are they not learning independence, they're not learning how to make good decisions on their own," says Tompkins.
Safe in their community and street smart from years of walking and biking to school and negotiating the back alleys after school, this group of Inglewood children love their freedom and
think their 'hood is unique in Calgary.
"All the kids are either home or out with kids . . . you can find them really easily," says Bowen Tompkins.His friend, Josh Leacock, contemplates his freedom more philosophically, with wisdom beyond his 11 years.
"I think that if your parents don't let you go out and experience life, then you're stuck inside all day playing video games or watching TV.

It's like my dad would say: 'It rots your brain.' "Instead, he spends his free time outdoors."There's no wasting a day."

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