One of the fondest memories of my late 1950s and early 1960s rural New England childhood was spending most days each summer roaming and exploring throughout our neighborhood and the surrounding small farms. Our little development of post WWII middle class track homes had been built on a former pig farm and was surrounded by peach and apple orchards and working cow farms and horse stables.
In actuality the entire area was probably no more than a couple of square miles, but to a child it seemed like a huge and mysterious paradise. There was so much to explore and do: paths in the woods, huge trees, streams and swamps, and lots of rabbits, birds and other small animals, as well as horses, cows and even a bull. The fruit orchards went on for acres, and once a child turned 10 or so it was possible to be hired to pick the dropped apples and to earn a quarter or so per bushel.
Perhaps the best part of each summer was what we all took for granted. Each morning after breakfast the local children would gather in packs throughout the neighborhood, usually segregated by gender and relative age. We would spend the rest of the day freely investigating the many wonders of that little world, breaking only for lunch. There was no adult supervision required, although there were plenty of stay-at-home moms within earshot should they be needed in an emergency.
This rich rural world was ours to be directly experienced and discovered, without the prism of adult perspective. Each child also learned the dynamics of a social peer experience without a grown-up's constant intervention and mediation. For sure this was not always a pretty or sanitized social world: feelings were often hurt and everyone knew who were the dominant players and who were the tagalongs. And yet this largely unsupervised experience provided a rich opportunity for identifying one's strengths and weaknesses, and in figuring out how to adapt, accommodate and compromise.
As an early childhood educator for over three decades, I deeply regret the loss of this kind of experience for children growing up today. Children today are almost always monitored and closely supervised. Rather than time spent freely investigating and exploring, their summers are filled with organized camps and structured experiences. Although entirely understandable given the needs for safety, one wonders just how many opportunities for identity formation and experiential learning have been unnecessarily sacrificed in the name of security.
One small way at our preschool that we try to compensate for some of what has been lost is the teachers intentionally do not intervene in every disagreement or conflict. We do not comment on every social interaction, and we check our tendency to impose an adult perspective on every peer-to-peer exchange. Of course a teacher is always aware of what's happening and available to intervene when necessary. We understand, however, that there is a rich learning opportunity that often occurs when the adults intentionally step back and let the children work things out on their own.
None of us can replicate the suburban or rural lifestyle of forty or fifty years ago, and most likely those more innocent times are lost forever. We can, however, resist the inclination to constantly intervene in a child's world at every upset and disagreement. When you do step back I think you're likely to be impressed with your child's resourcefulness and resilience, and his emerging ability to manage life on his own.
Originally published in 2010.
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