I recently attended a workshop for a program I work with called Safe Routes To Schools. During the workshop, a very animated and dedicated fellow by the name of Mark Fenton asked us to reflect back on our days of growing up and whether we spent time in trees and roaming the landscape, free of parental and adult interference.

Were you in essence, he asked, free-range kids?

Those of us who were more than forty, fifty, or sixty years old answered, why yes, we were booted out of the house in the morning and expected to make a day of it. We had our forts and rickety tree houses made of scavenged lumber strewn and perhaps only loosely nailed into branches. There was a rope hanging from a higher branch that we could use to swing out from the tree house like Tarzan and learn the mechanics of motion as we swung out into the blue sky, only to swing back a little off angle and into the side of the tree, driving bark into our shins and the bottoms of our feet.

It was a learning experience and we got pretty good at judging the angle of the swing.

Tarzan never fell but we did. I was 10 years old and it was October 25, 1964, and a bunch of us were in a tree when a buddy named Buddy swung out as far as he could, only to have the rope snap as he reached the apex of his outward swing. He flapped his arms in a feeble attempt to fly or right himself and landed in a pile, his arm twisted back behind his neck in an odd way. He was broken.
I ran through the woods to my house to alert someone about the pile of bones that was Buddy, and it just so happened that his parents were over visiting and watching the Vikings on the old black and white television set on wheels. I ran in the door sputtering about what happened, but the parents were waving me off and yelling at the TV. Jim Marshall had picked up a fumble and was running 66 yards the wrong way and into the Vikings’ end zone. Celebrating, he tossed the ball away and was surrounded by San Francisco Forty-niners all slapping him on the back.

The parents groaned and laughed and I have to admit that I was caught up in the moment as well. Buddy wasn’t going to die or anything, he was just broken. Finally, my mom or dad asked me what was up and I reiterated that Buddy fell, oh, maybe 20 feet from the rope and landed funny. He was writhing in pain but alive when we got there and the dads hauled him down our trail and tossed him in our station wagon and away they went.

Free-range kids.
Many of you folks know exactly what that means. I know there are a million stories of injuries and adventures that no parent ever knew about because we pretty much survived.

An embarrassing moment for me came when I was thinking I was Cheetah, not Tarzan, tiptoeing across the top bar of a playground swing set made out of steel pipe. Well, I was pretty good on the trip across, but on the way back I slipped and was impaled through my left bicep on one of the bolts that held the swing far below. It was 1961 or 1962 and the bolt, as I recall, was sticking up about three inches from the bar. It didn’t go through my arm but it sure was trying to. If I was quiet and didn’t kick my legs in agony, the bolt didn’t move much under my stretched skin. I tried to lift myself up doing a one-armed pull-up, and my pal Nels Lombard was doing his best down at my feet to try to give me a lift but to no avail. He hopped on his bike, rode a couple miles, and retrieved my mom, and the two of them managed to lift me enough so I could get that stupid bolt out of my arm. Oh, there was blood and my mom took off my pants and then tore off my underwear to use as a tourniquet. We made our way over to the doctor with ten kids that lived a few miles away, and as I sat there with no pants and a bloody t-shirt he stitched me up while the rest of the family watched, eating chow mein.

Free-range kids.
Back to the Safe Routes workshop.
The reason we were there was to try to figure out ways to get kids moving, and walking or biking to school is one of those ways. Kids just don’t do that anymore for a number of reasons, including the fear their parents have that they’ll be taken and never returned. It happens, yes, goofy people steal kids, but it just doesn’t happen that often. The closest real number to the likelihood that your child will be taken by a non-family member is never. But moms and dads don’t feel that way today. The culture has shifted and we’re all a part of that. Most of us live more sedentary lives and eat empty foods, processed foods, that will cause these younger generations to be the first ones in history to have lower life expectancies than previous generations.
We are in the midst of a health care crisis of our own making.
The problems aren’t complex. The culture has shifted and we are less active and more dependent on ample supplies of “nutritionally challenged” foods. Those are the problems, plain and simple. And even though childhood obesity has tripled since 1969, it’s not an obesity epidemic—it’s the twin epidemics of physical inactivity and poor nutrition.

A crisis of our own making.
You are what you eat, you are what you do.

We need to address the fears of today’s parents, teach ourselves about good food and activity. Only then will we begin to understand the direct link between chronic diseases such as diabetes and the lack of play and good food. You don’t have to be an adult to get adult-onset type 2 diabetes these days. Inactivity and poor nutrition are the devils in the details.

Bring free-range kids back to our landscape. Let them play and run and occasionally stumble. Feed them right and let them play.