Free Range Kids in the Country

The sounds of my kids’ play fills the small stone house in the French countryside. We have no real plans, no where we have to go. We’re not rushing out the door to make it to school or soccer or ballet. We have no play dates, no commitments.

Funny thing is, they have never gotten along better.

In the five days since we arrived — at a tiny rented gite in the French region of Champagne — Cole and Adele have roamed free. Soon after waking, they pull on their coats and mittens and run outside, excited to do nothing more than romp and explore; to follow their imaginations in the rough-hewn grounds that surround the house.

They’ve picked green apples that hang from backyard trees, crushed dozens of walnuts and built a “tree house” with found twigs, logs and thatches of shrub. They’ve collected rocks and studied ladybugs, made bouquets out of fallen leaves and constructed play walls from moss covered bricks. 

We’ve taken family hikes through the trees and along wooden paths entertained by damp clusters of wild mushrooms and remnants of fallen bee hives. Healthy cows graze in the surrounding fields and oblige us when we offer fresh grass from the roadside. Along our route, we stumbled upon the remains of an ancient stone house, its crumbling walls climbing with wild foliage. We crept inside to get a closer look and peered through an old window opening, imagining the lives that animated the home hundreds of years ago.

I do not hover as they engage in this play. The grounds are mostly enclosed and passing cars are rare enough. Sure there are hazards: a muddy stream flows along the back of the yard; a miscalculated jump from tall stone piles could land us in the emergency room. There are masses of twigs and sticks for imaginary sword-play and stinging nettles in the foliage.

But I find that the longer I hang back, the better and longer they play. They take turns initiating the games and seem to take equal delight in each other’s imaginings. There have been plenty of squabbles but nothing so far that has curtailed their fun for long.

I’ve never been a very “free range” parent myself, tending to fill our days with outings, classes and kid-centered activities. Looking back on our busy Boston days, I think about the endless singalongs, story hours and park outings. Who were they really for, anyway? Mostly me, of course. The kids would have been just as happy rolling in a pile of leaves in our backyard as they were being lugged to the toddler play gym. But I needed the company, the activity and the distraction. Without it, I might have gone totally nuts. In fact, I could hardly bear to stay at home all day and would venture out no matter the weather.

But now that they’re older (four and six), they’re at an age when the best toys are their own minds and open space in which to let them roam.

The other truth is that they’ve started to need me a bit less. They can put on their own shoes and coats, create their own games and carry them out without my help. I don’t change diapers or haul sippy cups around and although I’m still a top choice playmate, I know those days are numbered, too.

So for now, I’ll watch from a safe distance and occasionally manage to read (or even write) a page or two. There are still consistent calls of “Mommy, see this!” from Adele and “Look what I made!” from Cole. And for as long as it lasts, I’ll stay just close enough to be part of it.

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