Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Kids and Independent Play: How Parents can Create Hospitable Neighborhoods

In order for kids to freely engage in independent outdoor play, parents have to take the time to fully engage with their neighborhood,  integrating it into their daily lives.

Reading the independent play literature, I see a lot of references to adults who either generally disapprove of kids playing independently outside, or who have actually inhibited kids from playing in any number of ways including stopping the kids to ask what they're doing, haranguing the parents, or worst of all: calling the police.  Allowing kids to play independently outside is an important issue to me, and I'm glad to see it's being addressed, not only by concerned parents, but also by governments--Utah recently passed a law that 'legalizes' kids playing outside on their own.  Kids playing outside is an odd thing to have to legalize in a  'free' country, but in the face of the police being called when kids are spotted alone, I suppose some guidance is necessary.

While I've also written about how it would be nice if over-protective non-parents, (I call them ravens), would chill out, it occurred to me that I haven't seen pieces about how we--parents of kids who play outside--could help these non-parents to chill.

I don't know if there's a method that will help every neighborhood and neighbor.  I don't even know if the method I'm about to describe helped in our neighborhood where we haven't had any issues at all with people who live here.  It could be that we're just lucky and that our neighborhood is just naturally awesome.

Having said all that though, here's the one tenet I suspect has helped our family in our quest for the kids to be able to roam independently:

In order for kids to freely engage in independent outdoor play, parents have to take the time to fully engage with their neighborhood, integrating it into their every day lives.

How we Discovered this Tenet
Three years ago when we moved from our small town, suburban neighborhood to the 'big city' of San Francisco, my partner had only one request for how she'd like our lifestyle to change.  "I'd like to make sure that we know our neighbors at our next house."  In the neighborhood we were moving from, the houses were widely spaced apart, there were no sidewalks, everyone drove everywhere; we just didn't see our neighbors much.  In addition to all these excuses, I have to admit, I never made any effort to get to know our neighbors.

Meeting the Neighbors
Since we were moving to the city I had wanted to live in since I first visited it at the age of 10, I thought it was the least I could do to work as hard as I could on my partner's one simple request.  I made sure to approach each neighbor we saw to introduce myself, my partner, and the kids.  We also found out their story, their names, what they did for a living, how long they'd been in the neighborhood; all interesting stuff.

The layout of our neighborhood worked in my favor this time.  The houses aren't just close together, they're adjacent; the sidewalk is huge; almost no one drives everywhere because public transit is just that good; the weather is gorgeous most of the time, so people are outside more.

What Happened Next
Parenting books and websites talk a lot about modeling positive behavior for kids, so what happened next shouldn't have been a surprise.  The kids started meeting more of our neighbors on their own!  They became fast friends with the gentlemen who own our local convenience store--they were the first people then five year-old No. One wanted to invite to our house for Thanksgiving.  They met a retiree who lives a few blocks away and walks her dog every day.  While out with their Director of Tac Ops, (aka nanny), they met other people in the park whose dogs met our dog.  They met neighbors who rode the same buses they did.  You get the idea.  I routinely meet people who ask me if I'm the gangs dad because they see me out with the same dog they see the kids with, or they think they've seen me walking by with the kids that they ride the bus with.  The simple act of getting out to meet our neighbors is now self-perpetuating itself through the kids' daily lives.

And so...
The kids do hangout outside; they play by themselves in nearby parks; and thankfully, we've haven't had a single issue in the neighborhood.  Is it because we know our neighbors?  I think so.  Even if our neighbors weren't the super-cool people that they are, I think it's a lot harder to make trouble for someone you know than for someone who's basically anonymous to you.

Oh, and one other thing.  Even though I know it's safer than ever for kids to be out and about on their own, I also know that I still worry.  I don't worry as much as I might though.  The kids have built up a network of people that know them, and who are looking out for them.

I didn't realize when we met our neighbors--a simple friendly task--we'd be making the environment we live in so much better for the kids.  I'm so glad we did it anyway though.  I don't worry so much about ravens anymore, and it's really nice that the kids are getting to grow up in a world that's inclusive of them, rather than dismissing, or simply oblivious.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Catnip Reservoir, Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, Nevada

We spent our first night at the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge at Catnip Reservoir.  The reservoir and its resident avian conglomeration are gorgeous! We saw Canadian geese, wood ducks, and sandhill cranes.  (OK, I didn’t just see sandhill cranes, I was loudly escorted out of one section of the reservoir by a pair of sandhill cranes who had decided I was just too close to their hidden nest.) 

The campsites are ‘primitive’ which in this case means they don’t have running water, but they do have a tent pad of sorts, and a fire ring.  The campground also has a lone bathroom.  The eaves of the outhouse are populated by nesting (cliff?) swallows.

ProTip: If you take the campsite in front of the outhouse, the swallows have decimated the local mosquito population.

We hiked up and across the bluff bordering the reservoir in search of an attractive looking fishing spot and a trail down to it.  We found neither, but the hike was a blast nonetheless.  The gang—(7 y.o. No. One, 5 y.o. No. Two, and  3 y.o. No. Three)— invented a game of leaping from lava stone to lava stone as we crossed the top of the bluff.  After they finally talked me into trying it, I found out it’s a much more efficient way of hiking than crunching through the brush.  Interspersed in with the lava rock were occasional chunks of obsidian.

Camping overnight was loud and fun.  The kids went right to sleep, but the frogs were up and conversing about an hour later.  A few hours after that the cacophony of ribbits finally quieted down.  We came to Sheldon just to look at the stars, and it paid off.  The high desert night sky was clear, and perfect for constellation spotting.

It was cold enough over night that I found frost in low spots along the shore of the reservoir, but in true desert fashion, the temperature went right back up as the sun rose.  We were comfortable as could be in our 20 degree sleeping bags overnight, and back into short sleeved shirts by the time we were packing the tent away to make our next hop.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

"Bug! Adventures of Forager" Rings True

The creators of Bug! Adventures of Forager are coming to our local comic book shop today!  Seven year-old No. 1 and I read Bug! starting about a year ago.  I picked up a copy when we went to the same funny book shop to meet the creators of another of our favorites, Doom Patrol.  Both comic books are produced by the DC Comics imprint, Young Animal.

The book written by Lee Allred, drawn by Michael Allred, and colored by Laura Allred picks up where DC's 1988, Cosmic Odyssey left off.  Turns out Bug wasn't dead at the end of the '88 book he was, "...merely dormant. Science, blah blah blah."
Bug, aka Forager, almost immediately encounters a talking teddy bear, and a ghost girl.  The three become fast travelling buddies, after an accident triggers a Mother Box made of Dominoes to open portals that trundle them between adventures set in the realities of Jack Kirby's many, many superhero characters.

The six issue comic book series is great fun to read because the story is--there's no other way for me to say it--adorable, and the art is a pleasure to look at .  There's always something new going on with amusing puns and unexpected plot pivots.  There are also so many layers to the book, and so many things to learn!

First, there are all the Kirby characters.  So much comic book history squeezed into so few pages!  But, there's more than juts that.  Every issue contains references to other fascinating aspects of our own non-fictional world.  There are literary trails that lead off to famous French philosophers, The Himalays, and Chinese mythology, just to name a few.

There's also a secret decoder ring!  Lee Allred published liner notes, (from which the above excerpts were taken), that point out the finer points of each issue on Twitter.  You can head into the liner notes below  By the way, don't head past the notes, because there are spoilers!

OK, if you read this far down, don't go further unless you've read the story!

So, it turns out the book has one other aspect that makes it near and dear to my heart.  The gang of kids here spend their days out on adventures with their Director of Tactical Ops, traveling through San Francisco, and other Bay Area cities learning the environment, exploring new places, and meeting new people.  As it turns out, that's exactly what Forager, Kuzuko, and the bear are up to as well!  That's right, unbelievably, this is a a six issue comic series about adventure days!

Monday, May 21, 2018

Hanging with the Gang

I see this question a lot, "What kind of activities can I do with a kid that they'll enjoy?"

For me, the word activity has come to mean something designed specifically for children as in 'Activity Book'.  The question starts to answer itself when that word is removed to give, "What can the kid and I do that would be enjoyable?"

In my experience, kids really enjoy seeing, and participating in life, as it exists now, unabridged for their consumption.  So, my answer? They enjoy doing pretty much everything they're included in! Here's a list on answers I compiled the last time I heard this question.  Got any favorites you'd like to add?
  • Grocery shopping, putting them on them on the ground to help me with shopping, or just to explore as we go.
  • Running errands, the gang loves going pretty much anywhere to see new things. The pipe & tubing store was a big hit for example. 
  • Feed stores are fun. There's always something new going on. Where we used to live, they frequently had baby chickens, or ducks, or rabbits.
  • Library story times. Book store story times.
  • Coffee shops, especially with courtyards. The gang spreads out and figures out games of their own.
  • Playgrounds. If you wan to make friends, the homeschooling groups here in SF have playground meetups. I bet someone there might also. We also made play date cards for our kids in case they meet kids they'd like to play with again.
  • Adventure days: we pick something interesting, and go see it. We don't always see what we set out to see, but we always find interesting things. We went to C&H sugar near here. We couldn't get in, but we saw the factory, saw syrup trucks loading, met a cat, and explored town.
  • Hanging out at pubs. There's a pub here with tables in an alley where the gang runs back and forth playing games. We all get lunch, they play, I get to sip a beer. If friends come along, we get to hang out and talk. Oh, also, I've had some great conversations with the gang doing this.
  • Exploring downtown. The gang and I walk around checking out store fronts in neighborhoods we haven't visited before.
  • Fishing: The current five year-old here loves fishing. Whether we catch anything or not makes no difference.
  • Hiking: Park hiking and forest hiking are both big here.
  • Camping: The kids have a blast setting up camp, and hiking. We all go to sleep when it gets dark, it's the best sleep I've had since the kids arrived.
  • Wandering through college campuses: there are usually big grassy spots, libraries, art departments, and our favorite architecture buildings.

There's a corollary to the question above, "I had kids and now I really miss doing things I used to." I'll talk more about that soon.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Meerkats and Ravens

One... TwoThree.  One... Three... "Ummm... Oh hey! Hey Two!" Two, Three, Meerkat!  One just piqued a Meerkat!  I waved, just barely, quick eye contact, a tip of the head, a grin, a gentle raise of my hand in a faint parenting salute.  The meerkat's eyes flashed from mildly alarmed to mildly amused as they turned to watch One hook it down the sidewalk at a rocket pace, hands held flat for 'maximum speed' as she ran, jumping to a stop a few feet before the corner.

The gang--7 y.o. No. One, 5 y.o. No. Two, and 3 y.o. No. Three, were having a blast with their urban version of 'beneficial risky, independent play'.  They know they're free to do as they please as we wander around downtown, as long as they check every driveway, and stop to wait for me at every corner.  On the long city blocks, they tend to get way ahead.  I watch for a patch of pink polka-dotted tights, or a bouncing lock of ultra-blonde hair to flag them as they bob and weave through the crowds of San Francisco.  Sometimes they're running for the sheer thrill of the speed.  Sometimes they stop to check out new businesses they haven't noticed before.  Other times, they stop to strike up conversations with passers by whose attention they've nabbed.  I love it because we move along at a quick clip, I know where all of them are, (they're in front of me), and I get to watch their burgeoning independence.

As the kids gambol through the city, some adults, usually tourists, spotting an independent, rather small kid... well, they worry just a bit.  They look at the kid, then look again, then inevitably look up and around to scan the crowd for parents.  Meerkating, we call it.  I've learned to watch for it.  A little nod, occasionally a happy word or two, and the they're on their way.  I say it's mostly tourists because the neighborhoods the gang frequents have built up a certain familiarity with them.  When my partner and I get time for a rare date, staff near the front doors of San Francisco's downtown businesses come out to ask us where the kids are as we amble by. 

The first two kids, One and Two, learned the ropes of independent, risky play walking with, but tens of meters from me in grocery stores.  (Three learned not in grocery stores, but simply by hanging out with her sibs.)  The well-defined right angle turns of the aisles served as excellent intersections to get used to my hollered directions when necessary.  "Hard Left!"  "Hard Right!"  "U-Turn!"  The kids seemed safe enough.  They were contained inside four walls with lots of space and a pretty good line-of-sight from them to me. We soon discovered though, that grocery stores host ravens rather than meerkats.

Grocery stores--depending very much on their location within the country, and even within individual neighborhoods of various cities--can contain an odd lot of ultra-territorial shoppers.  They seem unconvinced that kids belong in their store at all, but unsupervised kids?  Surely disaster will ensue.  To be fair, the gang and I have been the recipients of amused grins from harangued parents with screaming kids tucked safely into their carts, but we've also seen the disapproving glares of shoppers certain that kids, free, happy kids roaming a grocery store must be, at some very visceral level, wrong.

Cruising through a grocery store years ago when No. Two was in fact probably 2 years old, he became fascinated with the bulk food bins.  Not with their contents mind you, but with their tied on shovels for scooping out said contents into a bag.  At the tail end of a slightly grueling shopping trip--Two had pulled out, and then re-inserted every bulk shovel he could reach--I wasn't very surprised when he peeled off from me at the checkout line to, excuse the pun ,check out yet another set of bulk bins across the aisle.  "No problem," I thought. "I'll just holler for him before I pay.  He loves the buttons on the debit-card machine.  This'll be easy."

I hollered.  Two did not appear.  I hollered again.  Still nothing.  Feeling a little nervous, I hopped out of line and went to check on him.  Two was gone.  He'd been captured by a raven.  Meerkats, verify safety and move on.  Ravens, collect.  Having found a prized treasure, they make off with it.  I'm sure they think they're helping just like the meerkats.  They are however, in my very biased, and not at all humble opinion, huge pains in the butt.  I'm sure the feeling is mutual.

A frenzied search for Two revealed that he was safe.  The raven had deposited him with a 'responsible adult', one of the store's staff who had seen Two wandering to and fro with me during the entire shopping trip.  She had immediately set out in search of me, and found me soon after.  The employee giggled, Two giggled, I heaved a sigh of relief.  All was well.

Two seems to attract ravens.  Perhaps it's the mop of shiny blonde hair on top of his head, I don't know.  When playing another of our urban games, 'splitting the route', he was captured again, this time by a more persistent raven.

We were hanging out at a playground adjacent to the museum we were headed to when my phone rang.  It was work.  My partner didn't even blink.  She took the kids and headed in so they'd still make their event on time.  I stayed and dealt with the call.

A few minutes later I was headed to the museum.  Needing to blow off a bit of post work-call steam, I took the route to the museum that went through the tunnels of Golden Gate Park.  As I emerged into the concourse in front of the museum I spotted Two.  He'd also decided to take the tunnels independent of my partner and the rest of the gang.  His approved plan was to wander up to the cross-walk, wait for Mom-person to turn up on the other side of the street, and then re-join the rest of the gang.  it was a gutsy plan that almost worked.

He never saw the raven coming until it was too late.  As I approached, I saw the raven stand over him, peering down into his eyes, in a surprisingly bird-like manner.  I was still a ways off, but I could see that she was asking Two something.  Transfixed by her avian stare, Two looked back unblinking, unresponsive.  I walked up, said, "Hey Two!" That was enough, taking the time to blink he regained motor control and wandered over to me.

"Is this your child?"


"Well, I just found him here!"

"Uh hunh.  Yup, you did."

"Well..." uncertain of where to go with this whole conversation, the raven side-stepped away.

Two and I headed for the museum.  My work call had been tense.  Ravens are a tense lot for me, our values tending to be at the polar ends of a spectrum.  A spectrum so wide it sometimes feels like a chasm-y void.  So, it is with some chagrin, but perhaps not so much surprise, I tell you that when Two decided further explorations of the area were in order--rather than heading directly for the museum--I had a less than respectful parenting moment.  I told Two we'd be late.  I'm sure I mentioned one of us sitting in a corner.  I feel certain it was Two who would have been doing the sitting in this scenario, not me, (admittedly it should have been me).

When I looked up form my stern rebuke the raven was back, but they weren't alone.  I was confronted with a conspiracy of ravens.  They'd brought three additional adult members of their family who were bouncing along behind in their raven-like gait, chests puffed out with the clear importance of their business.

"Are you sure this child is yours?"

Floored at the query--seriously, if this kid wasn't 'mine', (a word loaded with connotations of ownership that I personally try not to use),  wouldn't I already be inside the nice, quiet museum doing something blissfully calm?  I snapped.  "God-Damn-It! What the hell do you think!?"

Paradoxically, the conspiracy of ravens now seemed completely convinced that Two and I were inextricably linked by the sacred bonds of parent and child.  They all wondered off, gazes diverting to a hundred different places, their bounces ever so slightly smaller, chests ever so slightly less puffed.  Two and I made amends, and happily headed into the museum, taking time as is two's wont to occasionally explore a bit more.

I mentioned grocery shopping as our independent urban-play boot camp.  Grocery stores still serve as one of our key playing fields, but the game has evolved.  Now, the gang does part of the shopping.  The saved time cuts our trips in half.  The gang comes back beaming with their groceries in hand.  They've learned from their experiences.  They travel as an unstoppable pack now.  Ravens be damned.

Varied urban games weave through the cloth of the gang's history.  Actual shopping didn't evolve from learning to move about semi-freely in grocery stores as I might have expected.  It evolved instead from another game, wandering back into cafe's to retrieve napkins, water, or whatever small convenience the gang or I might need at the time.  That game didn't just become grocery shopping.  Now that One knows how to make change she also handles our takeout ordering.  I get to wait outside, blissfully taking in San Francisco's awe-inspiring architecture, immersed in the moist, yet somehow crisp with cold Bay air.

The gang continually invents new urban games.  Prepping for the day--not too many years from now--that they'll be able to head out on their own, they take charge of showing me how to get places.  I give them our destination.  They run ahead, waiting at key turns to make sure I've seen them before they head for the journey's next juncture.  The whole thing is another natural evolution.  Two is a precocious geographer.  Even as a three year-old, he'd break in each new nanny showing them how to get to the places the gang went, insisting they travel on the same side of the street as the way he'd memorized the route.

We take public transit everywhere, and the gang considers it both a right of passage, and a matter of intense pride that they get on and off on their own, and find their own seats, or simply hang on if it's too crowded.  The years when Two and Three were largely regarded as too small to do such things were rough for us.  The rage expressed in the scream of a kid who was successfully extricating themselves from a bus with their siblings when a 'helpful' stranger lifted them out has few parallels.

Are there benefits to risky, independent, urban play like the ones so often touted for risky, independent play in nature?  I think so.  The gang have made friends with kids and adults all over the peninsula.  Their independence is through the roof.  The city isn't daunting.  It's, quite frankly,  theirs.  They're aware of their surroundings, whether it's weaving through crowds as they go, or gazing at the oh so shiny treasures in Gumps and Burberry's.  Even the ravens have served a happy purpose in the end.

Recently One was 'captured' by a museum guard as she was free-ranging, checking out exhibits on her own, while her sibs attended a class.  As it turns out, free-ranging is simply not allowed there until your 12.  The guard told One she should come with them.  One, not knowing the guard from the man on the moon replied that no, she wouldn't be coming with him.  Her nanny and her sibs would be coming out of the door across the way in just three minutes.  They could wait together if he liked, but they'd wait where they stood.

The flip-side of course, is that after awhile, the kids won't need me anymore, at least not for outings.  But that's OK, because oh the things they'll do without me!  I suspect they'll do them all well and with a certain independent sense of adventure and panache!