Playing alone

Hara Marano’s classic, “What is Solitude?”, is among PT’s most read blogs. Its closing line is: “Solitude restores body and mind. Lonelinesss depletes them.”

So we may regret the passing of solitude, beginning with children no longer being allowed to play alone.

No, really, it’s illegal.

Almost. But “good” parents don’t let children go outside alone. It’s simply not permissible. It’s not that our city and suburban streets are less safe than they once were (the reverse is more likely true). But those rare events in which a child is kidnapped and killed (think Etan Paetz, who was snatched in 1979) are so present in our minds that we simply refuse to take the chance.

Our fears and refusal are understandable.

What do we lose? I was talking with my Brooklyn neighbors, a young couple with a young child, about how you simply don’t let a kid out onto the streets. They are both artists. When I said, “You can’t be an artist if you can’t be alone,” they both nodded knowingly.

Not playing alone outside especially hits boys. Writers have been noting for years that boys are an endangered species. New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote:

A decade or so ago, people started writing books and articles on the boy crisis. At the time, the evidence was disputable and some experts pushed back. Since then, the evidence that boys are falling behind has mounted. The case is closed. The numbers for boys get worse and worse. . .

Boys are much more likely to have discipline problems. An article as far back as 2004 in the magazine Educational Leadership found that boys accounted for nearly three-quarters of the D’s and F’s.

Some colleges are lowering the admissions requirements just so they can admit a decent number of men. Even so, men make up just over 40 percent of college students.

Which brings me to my grandson. I love taking kids to–and watching them play at–playgrounds. They are so free, independent, and self-determined. They are much less so in houses, which have so many limits. Girls do better with those limits–thus, playing outside is especially valuable for boys. It makes them who they are.

So I was really happy to accompany my son, his four-and-a-half-year-old son, and my daughter (his aunt) to a New York City public swimming pool. We all took turns trying to teach my grandson how to let his body float parallel to the surface of the water in order to swim (all three of my children love the water and learned to swim early).

Finally, while we three lounged on chairs nearby, my grandson played on the railing along a graduated ramp leading into the shallow end of the pool. It seems like he could do this forever–which is good, since at home he tends to get into destructive modes when left to his own devices. But cavorting in the water and climbing the railing was all good; it was perfectly permissible in terms of pool rules, not jeopardizing my grandson or anyone nearby.

Then a lovely family comprising a mother and her two preteen daughters came by. I saw my grandson gesture towards us, undoubtedly in response to the question, “Are you alone?” or “Where are your parents?” or “Who is watching you?”

This family never left my grandson’s side, helping him climb, teaching him to swim. Part of me thought, “Well, he’s made some new friends–and they do seem a lovely family.” And part of me thought, “Can’t a kid just be alone, left to his own devices, ever?”

I guess the answer is “No.”