How Far Did You Roam as a Child?

Via Kathryn Cramer (on Facebook, of all places), an article from the Daily Mail about how kids these days don't get around much:

When George Thomas was eight he walked everywhere.

It was 1926 and his parents were unable to afford the fare for a tram, let alone the cost of a bike and he regularly walked six miles to his favourite fishing haunt without adult supervision.

Fast forward to 2007 and Mr Thomas's eight-year-old great-grandson Edward enjoys none of that freedom.

He is driven the few minutes to school, is taken by car to a safe place to ride his bike and can roam no more than 300 yards from home.

I'm sort of curious about how widespread this phenomenon really is. I know I've had a few "kids these days" moments, watching the neighbor kids be driven three blocks to the local school, but at the same time, there doesn't seem to be a shortage of kids walking to and from the high school when I'm out walking the dog.

I know my readers span a wide range of ages, so I thought I'd throw this out for a totally unscientific four-question poll:

1) When you were a child, how far were you free to roam unsupervised?

2) Was the area urban, rural, or suburban?

3) If you have kids or young relatives, how far are they allowed to roam unsupervised?

4) Is the area urban, rural, or suburban?

It'd probably also be nice if you could note the approximate time frame (e.g. "the early '80's" or "the late 90's"), but that's optional.

I suspect that my childhood was a little anomalous, in that we lived out in the sticks. We didn't think so at the time, because there were plenty of kids in school who lived way the hell out in the hills, but it was a pretty rural area.

As a kid in the early 80's (age ten-ish), I used to routinely wander over to the Depression-era flood control dam, and a bunch of neighborhood kids spent whole days playing on the far side of the dike (where there used to be a lot more trees than are in the photos on that site). That was probably a mile or so, depending on where we went. Our parents would walk over to the top of the dike and yell for us when it was time for meals.

A little later, I used to routinely walk to and from school, both the middle school down in town (maybe two miles away) and the high school half a mile from the house. I also remember riding my bike to the local library (three miles, maybe), and walking to a summer day camp at the park on the other side of the lake (maybe three miles).

I don't think I ever walked all the way around the north end of the lake by myself, but I did spend a few afternoons stomping around in the woods up the road, where there were a couple of abandoned houses. That was later on, though, when I was in high school.

As for kids, well, SteelyKid can't even crawl yet, so she doesn't get far. She wants very badly to be walking, though, so I'm sure she'll be hard to contain when the time comes...

More like this

When our son Jim "graduated" from preschool, there was a very formal ceremony, complete with little caps and gowns. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), we had already planned a trip to Disneyworld for the same dates. Forced to choose between Disney and sitting through a…
Back when I was a kid, and dinosaurs roamed the Earth, I spent about a week one summer staying with a great-aunt in Arlington, VA. I don't remember exactly when-- some time in the early 1980's-- and I don't remember where my parents and sister were at the time. I recall that they came down later…
Did you ever watch cattle? I mean, really watch them, for a few hours? Mostly they just sit or stand around munching on grass, chewing their cud, or snoozing. But every once in a while a handful of them will stand up and point in one direction. And they may take a few steps in that direction.…
... Continued ... I started out walking a good six feet behind her, to avoid the sand she was kicking up and the occasional thorn-lined branch that might swing back in the wake of anyone walking through the African Bush. We were traversing open country in the Kalahari, in an area sealed off from…

I was allowed to pretty much go as far as I wanted, so long as I came back "on-time" (on time for dinner, curfew or whenever the 'rents wanted me home). But probably the furtherest (~2.5 miles) I went was during my last year of middle school, when I'd occasionally ride my bike instead of taking the bus. This was in a suburban area back in the 80's when I would have been around 10ish myself.

I was born in '84 and had a fairly wide roaming range as a child. We lived in a suburban subdivision of a medium-sized college town, and I was free to walk to any friend's house in that same subdivision, or ride bikes all throughout the residential area. The subdivision was off of a pretty busy road so I wasn't supposed to go out there, but I regularly wandered off two miles or so from home, either to go play with friends or explore the pine forest behind our house. We lived in that house until I was 10.

After moving to a slightly busier suburban area our "neighborhood" was smaller, but I was older, so I could walk a mile or two down the bigger roads to places like the Boys and Girls Club or the library. I spent a year walking to high school from that house, too (a bit over a mile). When we left and moved to yet another neighborhood I was almost old enough to drive; once I got my hand-me-down car I was free to go wherever I wanted as long as I was home by curfew.

I mostly grew up in suburban west Houston in the late 60s & early 70s. On weekends and during the Summer, it was common for us to walk a couple of miles a day around Buffalo Bayou. Occasionally we might walk as much as 10 miles round trip. Our longest bike rides were maybe 20 miles round trip. All this would have been from maybe ~ 5th through 10th grade.

My kids also grew up in the suburbs. I'm pretty sure they had smaller walking and biking ranges than I did. No doubt that was partly due to our increased protectiveness and increased willingness to drive them places, but it's hard to compare. Location played a big role. Every place we lived while our kids were growing up was suburban, but some places had significant undeveloped areas within easy walking/biking distance, while others didn't. Looking back, it's clear they ranged much farther when we lived in the former locations than in the latter.

I was born in 1970 and grew up in the suburbs of a small city. I don't remember having any specific limits once I started school, but I'm not sure what the rules were before that. I certainly took a city commuter bus downtown every day by myself.

My oldest nephew isn't allowed out of the yard unsupervised, but he is not yet four.

By Johan Larson (not verified) on 27 Jan 2009 #permalink

1) Miles and miles.

2) I lived, mainly, in urban settings. I was an Army brat. Even when I lived in Germany I was given pretty much free rein to bike wherever I wanted. Thinking about it, it seems like the area I roamed was much wider in Germany than the years I lived in Texas.

3) My children are allowed to roam pretty much up and down our street.

4) We live on that fringe between suburban and rural.

When I was pretty young, I went to a home day-care. Every day in the summer, all the older kids would walk about a mile to the public pool, with the supervision of the baby-sitter's teenage daughter. When I was about 8, I started to go to my best friend's house while my parents were at work, because her mom worked from home. The two of us, along with her teenage sister would walk around our small town, often to the playground or to pool. I lived in a town that was on the rural side of suburban. This was only in the early 1990s, not even that long ago. My older brother had a bike and he went even farther than I did, because his friends lived farther away. I don't have any kids, but my 10-year old nephew is allowed to ride his bike wherever he wants. He has a cell phone that can only receive calls from his parents' numbers, so they can tell him when to come home.

I was born in 49 and grew up in South Vancouver (Canada). By the time I was 4 or 5 it was quite common for me to walk over to my grandparents place about 4 blocks away and then some. Elementary school was about a mile away and I walked it both ways. By the time I was in elementary school I was regularly roaming with my friends, both on foot and on bike for many miles in each direction. The area was semi rural at that time, still some woods, the Fraser river only a 1/4 mile away. For anyone here that knows Vancouver, by 4 or 5 I was walking from Columbia and Marine Dr. to Marpole or to Fraser St. and most of the adults along the way knew who I and my friends were and where we lived. Every house (well except for the one where the old witch lived) was a safe house.

Early 1980s. About a mile without checking with my parents, maybe two miles if I told them where I was going. Suburban.

By Ambitwistor (not verified) on 27 Jan 2009 #permalink

In the early 90s, I was in a very small town, and I was pretty much allowed to go anywhere in the town (which maybe had a diameter of two km).

Late 80's, from when i was about 5 or 6 and my parents were confident i could cross the roads safely i was basically allowed to go anywhere i pleased, as long as i was back at the house before a set time (usually a meal time). This was basically the british equivalent of suburbia and some rural areas.

Suburban montreal during the 1970s. Our rule was "be home before the streetlights come on". Other than that we could roam as far as our bikes and our 10 year old legs could take us.

My nephew has had his beginner's drivers license for almost a year now and has not once gotten behind the wheel of a car to learn how to drive. I was behind a wheel within a week of my 16th birthday. Of course for me, if you wanted to do what 16 year olds naturally want to do (slay dragons), you had to get over to a friend's house and play D&D. These days, you just have to flick on a computer. My nephew has little need to get out into the world when he wants to slay dragons.

I was a child mostly in the sixties, in a very rural area (Maritimes). We could go where we liked in an area of about five by ten km.(on foot), bounded by natural barriers including two lakes, several streams and a large bog. Most of the area was woods, and we explored them thoroughly. I had to be home for meals and back before dark in summer.

I was born in 1982. My roaming area expanded with my age, naturally, and would be an important thing to cover in this poll. Comparing the roaming areas of an 8-year-old with a 14-year-old doesn't make much sense.

By my early teenage years, my 'roaming area' was about a half dozen miles in any direction from my suburban home. This limit was not self imposed, but more practical. Using our bikes, there was a limit to how far we really wanted to go. I would have gone further, if there were really a reason to (though I wouldn't have told my parents about it.)

My only daughter is 9 months old. We don't even let her go out in the yard unsupervised!


Up to age 7 (mid-70s, quiet Toronto neighbourhood) I don't remember much. I do remember being walked to school by an older kid (older probably meaning about 10 or 12) in grade 1 and 2. I don't imagine I was doing much running around by myself, but I really can't remember -- I expect if there were any kids my age on my block, I was probably allowed to go visit them.

Age 7 to 11 (early 80s, semi-guarded housing compound in Nairobi, Kenya) I roamed fairly freely in the immediate vicinity -- at least, I remember biking to the riding stable nearby without supervision pretty much whenever I wanted. I was driven to school, or to a common area for school bus pickup. I don't think there were many other options. Unfortunately I haven't been able to go back and inspect the place as an adult, and I can't even really pick out my homes and schools on a map, so I don't have a really good sense of how far apart my usual haunts were.

Age 12 (semi-rural area, outskirts of a medium-sized town in the Netherlands) and high school (early 80s, urban Toronto again): pretty much allowed to roam wherever I wanted, provided someone knew roughly where I was and when I'd be back. Bike in the Netherlands, foot and public transit in Toronto.

In the summers I went (and still go) to my family's cottage, which is one of several cottages belonging to my extended family; kids were and are free to go anywhere they like on the property provided they don't drown themselves or annoy people, and come back for meals. Fairly idyllic and not at all typical.

Like SteelyKid, most of the kids I know well are too young to go anywhere without an adult, so I can't answer the second part.

I'm not sure I remember, myself, how much I was "allowed" to wander on my own. I certainly did quite a bit when I lived in a small California city in the mid-70s, at ages 10 and up -- I rode the bus, or my bicycle, all over the place. When I was a little younger, and lived in a more rural area, I didn't get around much on my own, but more because there weren't many places I could get to without a car. I did walk around to play in the nearby stream.

Very much on topic: if you're interested in this, you should find out more about "Free Range Kids", and the associated blog ( and forthcoming book. Apparently this started in response to a newspaper column by a journalist explaining why she lets her 9-year-old son ride the NYC subway alone -- and how many people this fact bothers.

In suburban 80s and early nineties (Fairfax co., VA), I walked or rode my bike several miles from home (to the library, 7-11, friend's houses, pool...) all the time. Several times my parents sent me to the drug store to fetch my brother who'd been playing arcade games all afternoon. I think the farthest I went without adult supervision was a bike ride with my brother and a friend on the bike path, probably over 10 miles round trip. I'd spend hours in the woods of the little park near the house. Once I started driving, I went wherever; my parents were so glad they finally didn't have to go to orchestra rehearsals and lessons all over the county.

My folks now live in a rural-ish area of Tuscaloosa co., Alabama. My 10-year old sister can walk in the woods out back or to my house (parent's have 4 acres, I'm on an adjoining acre). She doesn't ride her bike on the road and is scared to walk on the road without an adult. That might change since one of her friends may move in a mile of so away. This isn't so much a change in my parents, as the difference locations - our road is narrow, curvy and people drive crazy on it, also there's not really anywhere to go.

By marciepooh (not verified) on 27 Jan 2009 #permalink

1) Yes, and pretty much wherever I wanted, and from when I was about five. And this was in the seventies.

2) It was kind of post-industrial stripes, with intense residential density in valleys and wilderness higher up the hills.

3) I didn't let Sasha roam alone until he was fifteen or so.

4) This was urban/rural, and then city.

Also please note, that while I am here to tell you this, my sister was killed by a car while we were crossing the road roaming free. If you let your kids out, you will lose some of them. This is why people don't. Bear in mind as you see these happy posts about kids roaming that you're only hearing from the survivors.

By Jo Walton (not verified) on 27 Jan 2009 #permalink

Oh, I forgot to give the answers to the supervision I give for my own offspring -- I have a 6-year-old son, who is still below the "going places unsupervised" age for us. In a year or two we'll probably let him walk around our small suburban town on his own...

I was 10ish in the mid-80s, I grew up in a rural-ish area (town of about 3000 in the middle of North Carolina farm country), and I was not allowed to wander far at all. I was either driven to school or I took the bus (mostly it was the bus), and I could ride my bike around the block or -- with permission -- go across the street to my friend's house.

I think this was largely different from a lot of the other people my age, in part because when my mom was a kid, a friend of hers was kidnapped, raped and murdered. In the same small town.

Suburban (Phoenix area)
By the time I entered kindergarten, I was walking to school (just under a mile one-way) and routinely walked to visit friends who lived on the other side of the school by a half-mile or so.

Long before high school (having a bike by then) I routinely rode to Camelback Mountain (which at the time was still around the edge of town) for hiking, climbing, etc.

"Roaming distance" was never an issue, but time was.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 27 Jan 2009 #permalink

Duluth, MN, ~1970 - I would have been ten at the time. Small city, so technically urban, but closer to suburban in some respects.

Walk to elementary school (~1 mile)
Bike to public library (~2 miles)
Bike or bus to friends house (~4 miles)
Bike to mother's work (~3 miles, last couple of blocks on busiest road in town)
Bus to downtown (~4 miles, usually took bus home with father afterwards)

These limits were more interest-based than boundaries placed by my parents. My younger brother (eight at the time) was biking to places up to 15 miles away. From what I recall, he was pushing the standard limits of the time & place, and I was definitely staying well within them.

I think my brother's girls (in high school & junior high in 2000) had limits at least as broad as my brother's when he was growing up. They lived in very rural NY State (nearest shopping mall or large retailer ~30 miles away) - there wasn't anything closer than about 3 miles!

1) When you were a child, how far were you free to roam unsupervised? Anywhere and everywhere

2) Was the area urban, rural, or suburban? First, it was in Panama, and then on a military base

3) If you have kids or young relatives, how far are they allowed to roam unsupervised? Where I can see them, so not far. But when we went to visit my sister on a military base, I let them play without always supervising them.

4) Is the area urban, rural, or suburban? suburban

I always got to school either by myself or with my younger brother in tow, either walking or (later) by bike. First elementary school was about 0.5 miles from home, then we were rezoned for a new school a mile away (some people across the street from the older school were similarly rezoned). The summer before I started junior high we moved to a different neighborhood, and I biked or walked to junior high (about a mile) and senior high (about 1.5 miles) before getting my drivers license. Outside of school, we could wander the neighborhood (about 0.5 mile radius in elementary school, 1 mile radius in junior/senior high), but anything of interest other than friends' houses was further away than that. This was suburban Miami from the mid 1970s to the mid 1980s, including the heyday of the Cocaine Cowboys. (An infamous 1986 shootout, at the time the deadliest incident in the FBI's history, took place about 3/4 mile from my high school.)

I don't have any kids myself. My sister's current boyfriend (they live in West Seattle, an urban/suburban hybrid) has a three year old son from a previous marriage who, when he stays with them (the boy's parents have joint custody), is not allowed outside without one of them along.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 27 Jan 2009 #permalink

Grew up in the suburbs in the 70s (born in 1967). Walked to grade school (about half a mile) as early as kindergarten. Walked to junior high (even though the bus was available) and high school, about 1.5 miles.

For recreation we were basically limited by the busy streets that surrounded us. Our neighborhood was fairly self-contained so there wasn't much desire to go farther. As we got older that restriction was removed; by high school (but before driving) I would ride my bike to the large park about 5 miles away.

No kids myself. I often wonder how I'd handle this if I did have kids. Some of the things we did (riding bikes without helmets) seem almost unthinkable today.

On the other hand, if we'd had XBox (or even Atari!) I probably would never have left the house anyway...

We don't know the equilibrium value of this random walk coefficient for homo sapiens.

We know that extreme walking is good:. despite a high fat diet, the Masai participants had significantly lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and a significantly lower average body mass index than the other participants in the study.

The most striking lifestyle difference between the Masai tribespeople and the other participants was their high level of physical activity. Indeed, the Masai participants expended an average 2500 kilocalories a day more than the basic requirement, compared with 1500 kilocalories a day among the Bantu farmers and 891 kilocalories a day among the Bantu town and city dwellers. Most Westerners would have to walk roughly 20 km a day to achieve the same energy expenditure as the Masai participants, explain the researchers."
22 July 2008
Regular activity protects the Masai against heart disease

My rule of thumb in Mathematical Economics studies of transportation is that the average working human commutes one hour per day -- independent of whether that's by walking, horseback, car, or train. Half an hour from home, half an hour back. The distribution is broad: many walk an hour away, and an hour back every day. How many? I don't know.

However, there are roughly 10^9 people without adequate access to clean water. A significant fraction of these send someone from each family to walk closer to 2 hours out to a source of clean water, and 2 hours back.

Many people in the Tokyo megalopolis take a train 2 hours each way, for 4 hours total. Cities with poor urban transport infrastucture (i.e. Los Angeles) have a lot of people driving 1 hour each way, for 2 hours per day.

When I was a boy in New York City, I walked a mile each way to elementary school (P.S. #8, Robert Fulton Elementary School). Unsupervised, my cohorts and I regularly walked a mile to a park for baseball playing, or to a public library. Further when we used bicycles.

My parents let me take the subway essentially anywhere I wanted to go, in several boroughs (i.e. Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan,...) alone from age about 8. I'd run errands, such as going to distant art stores for painter friends who needed special rare oil paints. I took subway to The Brooklyn Children's Museum. I took subway to the Grand Army Plaza main library of Brooklyn, where I read Asimov books a few blocks from where little Isaac wortked in his Dad's store, carefully reading Science Fiction magazines without bending the covers or cracking the spines, and then putting them back on the stands for customers.

I do get the impression that my son walked slightly less than I did -- we drove him the mile to and from Montessori preschool. We pulled him out of his first elementary school because of bullies that the administration would not deal with (many now in jail). We drove him to and from the other primary schools.

He did not go to high school. I usually drove him to and from his university campus when he was 13 through 18, although more and more he took bus and metrorail combinations and carpooling.

We don't know the equilibrium value -- things changed when we made the transition from hunter-gatherer to settled agriculture and domesticated animals (starting over 20,000 years ago, interrupted by Ice Age), and the invention of Cities, Money, War, about 10,000 years ago.

If we consider the train and car to be replacements for the horse, which only a minority utilized, then walking is indeed the default transportation. And how different has that ever been, in the mean, than an hour a day? What was, and is, the standard deviation? How does it vary from rural to suburban to urban?

Half the world's people are now urban.

1) By kid, I am thinking middle school age. I would basically stay within a 1-2 mile radius of the house.

2)It was suburbanish, but there were some corn fields around. I guess it was sort of a mix (this is in the 80s).

3) I have kids. My oldest is 8 and she doesn't go out of the yard by herself. This is mostly suburban area.

4) see above (mostly suburban)

As a note. I like these "poll" questions. It must be hard to compile the results. Maybe you should look at using one of the free online survey thingies.

1) Born late 60s. From the time I learned to cross the street to 10 yo, I was limited to the neighborhood (~1 sq mi). 10-12 yo, the "boundaries" were the major streets, maybe 3 sq mi. 12+, the limit was wherever I could get to walking or on my bike as long as I made it home at a specified time or my parents knew who I was with.

2) Zoned suburban, but on the suburban/rural edge; became more suburban as I grew up

3) Children <10 yo about 1 block unsupervised. No children in that cohort are older than that yet.

4) suburban and suburban/rural

When I was growing up in Wellington (New Zealand) in the 70s, I was not only allowed but expected to travel by foot all over the city from one end to the other, usually miles per day, picking up and delivering stuff for my mother's business. A little later, while I was in high school in '80 and '81, I would regularly walk two miles or so through some of Detroit's worst areas.

Fast forward to suburban Boston in 2008, and my four-year-old daughter never leaves the house unsupervised, or even crosses a street without having her hand held. In only three years, she'll be the same age that I was when I started playing messenger boy, and I'm not even sure she'll be walking to school (less than half a mile away) alone. Granted, we live on a busy street, but with crossing guards and a new sidewalk about to be put in it shouldn't be that unimaginable.

At 6 I was walking 4 blocks up a hill to school.

At 8 I was only going a few miles, up to some woods near by. Garret Mountain just 14 miles from NYC.

By 12 I have built my own moped and was going 20+ miles with friends to the mall and arcades. My parents never knew.

By 14 I was going into NYC, Newark, Brooklyn and the Bronx on moped to work on people computers and audio gear. My parents never knew or they would have killed me.

By 16 I was living on my own. Had fake ID for a full time job and went as far as Disney World Florida on stolen credit cards with a group of other 15/16 years olds in secret from our parents. (I have long cleaned up my act.)

At 17 I waked 50 miles to the Delaware Water Gap.

At 18 as soon as I had a car I drove to California and never returned!

Early 80's, I walked or biked all over the small town I grew up in, fairly rural. I'd say from about 7-10ish I would cover up to 2-4 miles. After 10, we moved way the hell up in the sticks. The town I went to school in was 15 miles away and I did bike into town a few times before I got my license. Also, I got my first motorcycle when I was 11 and that greatly increased my range since our property bordered state land and national forest wilderness. I know there were times I covered more than 50 miles one way. I just had to be back before dark and let my dad know what grid square I planned to ride in.

In the late 70s and early 80s I was in middle and high school. We lived in a pretty distant suburb with houses on 1+ acre lots, no sidewalks. I was allow to wander anywhere in our subdivision and the neighboring one, maybe 2-3 square miles? The town center was a 15 minute car ride away, and not really walkable or bikeable. However, I did start walking from my school to my piano teacher at an early age (maybe 7). I would have about 30 minutes to kill before my lesson started, so I would go to the ice cream store to spend my allowance on Hello Kitty supplies. That was so great...

My kids are 8 and 5. We live in a small college town. Our house is about a mile from downtown. The kids walk to school, which is only 2 blocks away. We let my older one run around the neighborhood, as long as he calls to let us know where he is and he comes home on time. The little one can walk to a friend's house about a block away unsupervised, but we moms call ahead to let each other know she is en route. I sense that I am unusually lax in this regard. All the other parents accompany their kids to our house. I fully intend on allowing my kids to wander further a field when they get a little older, as long as (a) they stay out of trouble (b) they come home at the agreed upon time.

1) As far away as I could go, with the constraint of having to return home for food without fainting of hunger on the way back. I think we explored the whole southern part of my city in India and the wilderness to its west.

2) Suburban, tending towards rural. Population 1M is a small place in India.

3, 4) Wife's nephews (7 and 4 yrs) here in the US are practically on a leash, even in a small college town/rural area like Davis. Niece in India would be outside till dinner time, but not roaming the streets of Pune, a much bigger city than the one I grew up in. The housing societies generally have fences to keep kids in. School-going is still on their own or in shared rickshaws.

5) 70's-80's.

1970's, rural England. My brothers and I were able roam as far as we could get given the time limits so long as we let my parents know the approximate direction we were heading. Occasionally we got up to three miles from my house. My journey to high-school was a quarter-mile walk to the bus stop, then a mile walk at the other end. I don't recall ever having an umbrella.

2009, suburban New Jersey. The bus stop where my children get picked up is about 100m from the front-door. The bus drops them off literally in front of the school doors. No roaming outside our development, because of heavy traffic on the feeder roads. I get them out as much as possible.

By NoAstronomer (not verified) on 27 Jan 2009 #permalink

1. No limits. I was (am) kind of a homebody though; I don't know what sort of limits my parents would've set for a wanderer.
2. Extremely rural.
3. Nowhere unsupervised; always has to be able to see a parent (or responsible adult).
4. Suburb of major metropolitan area.

1) Free to roam, don't remember, but I did roam wherever I wanted, sometimes with consequences when my parents found out.

2)The city I grew up in (Edmonton Canada) is very spread out, so although I lived 5km from downtown it was basically a suburban atmosphere.

I did most of my exploring in the early/mid 90's (born in 84). One time when I was about 13 I went on about a 100km bike ride one afternoon about 30 km out of Edmonton to a small town near by.

Although my younger brother had the same freedoms to get in trouble for going to far, he never really did.

And like many of the other posters, I just had to be home at the time given. Usually if I was on time I wouldn't even have to say more than "I went bike riding today"

Q 3) & 3) are not applicable to me at this point.

1) When you were a child, how far were you free to roam unsupervised?

I was born in 76, Started walking to school unsupervised (but with neighborhood kids) at 6. It was a mile at most.

After that it gets fuzzy, but I have a memory of riding my bike to a friend's house, which was probably 6 or 7 miles, around the age of 8 or 9. I think by the time I was trusted to not kill myself on my bike there were no rules other than letting Mom know I was leaving and getting back before dark.

Around 13 I took a 12 hour Greyhound bus ride from Southern up to Northern California to visit a friend, all by myself. Only now that I'm older can I appreciate how well my Mom buried her fears on that one. I don't have kids yet, but I know that kind of thing is not on the cards once I do.

2) Was the area urban, rural, or suburban?

Suburbs in Southern California, mixed income (high and low), so there were good and bad areas, but I learned which on my own, and not through any rules that I can remember.

Much as I find myself wanting to mock parents these days, the truth is I'm just as unlikely to be so lenient when it's my turn. I really don't know how my parents survived it...

When I lived in rural Virginia in the early 80's (age 4-8), I was allowed to go as far back into the woods as I wanted, but when it came to the street, I could only go up to the bend in the road (about a quarter mile from the house). We then moved to a small town in North Carolina (about 20,000 people). I used to walk a mile to elementary school. By age 10, I was allowed to go anywhere in town on my bike, but the town was probably five miles across at its widest.

My oldest son is now only three. When he was two, we lived in rural Georgia and he was allowed to play unsupervised in the backyard, but he had to be within eyesight in the front yard. I just recently moved my family to Morgantown, WV, and now I don't ever let him out of my sight outside of the house.

I hope that I trust the world enough when he's older to let him roam wherever he wants (as long as we're not in a big city). I loved being able to explore the neighborhood and the woods when I was a kid, and I would hate to rob my children of the same experience. But to be honest, even knowing how much fun I had as a kid, I cannot imagine letting my son just disappear beyond the horizon for hours at a time. Now I really want to know how my parents felt at that time...

I was born in 1968. I'm something like a military-brat. We always lived in the suburban/rural are between Dad's job & the town where Mom found work. I was allowed to go anywhere my feet could take me, provided I returned before a parent worried. I can remember, at age 8, walking (literally) into the jungle. 18 months later I played in the cleared, but otherwise undeveloped land across the street bounding the subdivision. A few years after that, a five-minute walk put me into the Woods. Getting into any vehicle was punishable; no public transportation, rides with friends, leaving the schoolbus early, etc. The rule-of-thumb seems to have been "boondocks OK, humans not."

I have no children. My niece & nephews are too far away to observe consistently. I believe they roam the immediate neighborhood at will, provided a parent knows about where they are.

(Not the same Tom as #10)

Suburban, graduated high school in '80. As a younger kid I was pretty much free to roam the local neighborhood, several blocks on a side, up to the boundary of busy streets (one of which was a 4-lane intercity thoroughfare). We had a bell that could be heard pretty much the whole area of the neighborhood; my folks would ring it when it was time to come home. When I got to be a teen I could start riding my bike on one of the busier roads and get to more distant neighborhoods, out of earshot.

I did walk home from middle school on occasion; I'd be bribed (lunch and ice cream at Friendly's) on half-days to go get a haircut. I did the rare jaunt to and/or from high school as well, but the road the high school is on isn't really well-suited for pedestrians or bikes going along with traffic.

If I got driven to school it was because I missed the bus (twice, since it made a wide path and came back, two blocks down, 5-10 minutes later) and that was not a move that made the mom happy.

Late 60s/Early 70s -- urban residential.

In my memories, I wandered for miles unsupervised, with very few restrictions other than "Be home for supper!" There was that huge, undeveloped lot with woods and a swamp and some old abandoned machinery to play on. I walked to school a mile away. Sometimes I'd walk all the way to Lake Michigan!

Then I looked up my old neighborhood on Google Maps. School is, at most, half a mile away. So is the lake. The field (now filled with commercial development) is about a half acre. The whole area in which I wandered is at most a half-mile square. I encourage everyone to look up your old haunts online -- it's smaller than you remember.

Of course, I was only three feet tall at the time, so everything seemed much further away.

1) When I was 5-9 years old I often played 1-3 kilometers away from home (although mostly I stayed within 500 meters or so). I just could not cross the Big Road, but there was nothing much interesting there anyway. I walked to school about 1.5 kilometers.

When I was older I often went farther away, especially if I was on bike or skis.

2) Really rural. This was in the 80's by the way.

3) I have cousins in the ages 5-10, but I'm not sure how far away they can go. They live in the city, so I assume their parents try to keep them away from heavy traffic. My own daughter is only three, and I'm not letting her go more than two meters away from me on a city street. In the countryside I'm happy to let her play out of sight as long as there is no water and as long it's within earshot.

4) already answered.

1) When you were a child, how far were you free to roam unsupervised?

When I was 8 and living in Seattle, I had a range with a radius of about 1/2 mile from home. This was defined partly by how far I was comfortable walking; also, the elementary school I walked to alone, starting in the first grade, was just short of half a mile away.

When I was in the 4th grade, we lived in Munich (1971-1972) when my dad was a Gastprofessor at Garching. All the kids went to school on pubic busses, and thus was I introduced to the possibilities of public transportation. I remember taking my little brother shopping with me to downtown Munich, the two of us all by ourselves. Also, there was this bone-stupid British babysitter for the family upstairs who used to take me with her when she wanted to go down town. In principle, this was adult supervision, but the reasons she took me along were that (a) I knew where I was going and (b) I could read a map.

The summer I was 10, I visited my grandparents in Houston. I recall that they were not amused that I went off to the Zoo, a mile and a quarter away, by myself without telling anyone.

Once I returned to Seattle, my public transportation habits stuck and within a year of so I would take the bus into downtown Seattle to go shopping at the department stores, certainly by age 11. By about 13, I would sometimes take the ferry to Bremerton by myself.

2) Was the area urban, rural, or suburban? urban

3) If you have kids or young relatives, how far are they allowed to roam unsupervised?

We have two houses at present. In Pleasantville, NY in suburban Westchester County, the kids go to the house next door and the house across the street by themselves, and that's it. This is because of craziness on the part of some of the neighbors who think it criminal if a 9 year old is allowed to leave the yard without an adult escort.

In Westport, NY where our other house is, the kids are allowed down to the lake shore by themselves (the house overlooks Lake Champlain, though it is not waterfront). I'd estimate their range is about 0.2 mile from the house. I would give my son a wider range there. But since he has lived all his life in captivity, as it were, he cannot conceive of roaming much further, though on one occasion, we managed to get him to roam as far as a third of a mile away.

4) Is the area urban, rural, or suburban? Pleasantville is 1 acre-zoned suburbia; Westport, NY is a very small town in a rural area (60 miles into the Adrondack Park).

My favorite anecdote about childhood freedom is from the a friend. He's about 10 years older than me, so I would guess he was born about 1952. When he was 12, he was sent (without parents) on an educational cruise of the Mediterranean. They would dock at places like Istanbul and say, "kids, this is Istambul. Here's twenty bucks. Be back before dark." City after city. They didn't lose anyone.

Looking back, inasmuch as my own unsupervised freedom lead to unfortunate incidents, they were almost all within a block or so of my house. So sticking close to home wouldn't have helped prevent them.

What I worry about in this decade is NOT child molesters, traffic, etc., but rather well-meaning people who think it is wrong for me to let a child out of my line of sight. Because well-meaning idiots call the cops, and insecure cops call Child Protective Services. And then, because you let your kid out of your yard, you have CPS banging on your door in the middle of the night wanting to check things like whether all your laundry is in the hamper. It's just nuts.

Until I was about 9, I lived in NYC and wasn't allowed to go out without an adult. When we moved to the suburbs, I was allowed to ride my bike to to friends houses and around the neighborhood with them; probably up to a mile or two total. When I was about 15 I started going into the city on my own or with friends, by train.

Growing up in suburban Los Angeles in the 1950s and 60s I had a pretty wide range to roam, as long as I told the parents where I was going and was back before dinner or dark. At age 6 or 7 I was walking or riding my bike to school about 3/4 mile away and going to the park swimming pool and library a mile or so from home. By 10 or twelve I was roaming two or three miles from home to the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains. At 12 to 15 I was roaming all day in the mountains and canyons; up to 5 or 10 miles from home. Roaming in the mountains and canyons always had to be done with other kids, never alone. By 15 I was taking bike rides 15-20 miles from home.

I don't have children, so I don't know how I'd react to them roaming as I did. But I am always saddened when I see how kids today are restricted in their roaming. I can now appreciate how liberating it was to have the freedom to roam and explore the world at that time.

1) 1 block at age 5 (mid 80s) to as far as I could ride a bike and still be back before bedtime or the next meal. I was required to let my parents know where I was going and when I'd be back, though.

2) Suburban.

Jo: that's very fair (and, as you know, I'm very sorry for your loss). Certainly when I think about the stuff I got up to, I recognize the risks; how I will weigh those risks against the benefits to SteelyKid is still an open question.

This is a most amusing subject to me.

My brother and I grew up in the 60s in a pleasant suburban area split up by major streets but still containing some wooded areas. We walked to school (a few blocks) until high school, at which point we car pooled. Two miles or so is a bit much in winter, although I did walk that distance at times. But that is not the fun part.

We went pretty much wherever we wanted to go on our bicycles. There were some alleged boundaries, but how could Mom check up on us? Dad had the car most of the time. I'd say that we had a range of several square miles on any given day. There was one major highway that we didn't cross until my Grandparents moved over there, and another that we didn't cross except to go to an electronics store, but we pretty much went where we pleased. We would also take the bus downtown, unescorted, to go to the city library. We did have to be home on time, but I have no idea how they would have known which wooded trail or neighborhood to search if we didn't show up. At least we used the buddy system.

We didn't quite cover the ground that my Dad did as a teenager, commuting on his bike from NW Chicago to the South Side for a job, but close. Not much difference there.

My brother's kids, however, were rarely let out of sight in the 80s. I think they were limited to the sidewalk circumnavigating their (admittedly very large) city block. Needless to say, I was stunned - but held my tongue.

Me: small northeastern city in the mid 70's. We could go as far as we wanted as long as we were back by suppertime.

My kids range from 8 to 21, the younger two have only had rural experiences, the older two small town/rural. Range depends on capability. My oldest's father lived 1/2 mile or so away and she'd drift from house to house starting when she was about 7yo. Both older kids routinely walked to school by themselves after 1st grade ditto to the library or friends' houses. The older two got to go through the AMNH in NYC, without an accompanying adult, when they were 7 & 5 (I was doing a craft show right on Columbus ave and they were desperate to get out of the booth). Younger two are so rural that there isn't really any destination they'll walk to but they've got various "settlements" that they visit regularly. I ask that they tell me which one they're most likely to go to and to be back before dark. I've also asked that they not visit the hemlock bog unless there's fresh snow because it's so easy to get turned around.

As others point out "range" is a factor of age and surroundings.

I think a key piece of my job as mom is creating safe environments for my kids to explore independently. When they were young it meant fences and latches up too high for them to reach (or in the case of the youngest putting some power on the bottom wire of the electric fence so he couldn't slither under to get to the pond). As they get older it means teaching them the skills they need to survive and thrive in the places they spend the most time. (My dd laughs that her littlest brothers at 8yo and 10yo have a hard time crossing not very busy streets but can use compass, gps and maps to orient themselves and rarely go out into the woods without being prepared to spend a night.)

I know my brother and SIL, living in suburban Boston, think I'm crazy. They keep my neice and nephew on much shorter reins. Their choice. As a parent you have to do what makes sense to you.

10-15 miles around the nearby mountains in the mid 1990s. As you might guess, this was very rural. I saw more black bears than people.

Regarding Jo's comment (her sister being killed crossing the street; letting her son go out by himself at 15). Given our situation, my son Peter may be on track to have pedestrian independence at about 15 as well. Here's the problem with that as a threshold: driver's license at 16. I have a strong suspicion that many of the teenage drivers in our area have very little experience crossing streets by themselves on foot. And because this area is not really set up for walking in the first place, at the very first moment they can, these kids want a car. (Many of them get cars for their 16th birthday.)

1) I grew up in suburbia in the 90s.
Probably our maximum normal range was ~2-3 miles (forest preserve bike trail). But there was no actual limit.
I think my father (who grew up in the late 50s/early 60s) was always disappointed. He still tells tales of the Epic Bike Trip to Kankakee of his youth (it must have been near 40 miles one way...and they had to make it back the same day. That's a long way on 12 year old legs. I've never been quite sure if he remembered it 100% accurately).

Born late 50s, lived in Long Island suburb. I used my bike more than walking, but routine walked to school from grades 2 - 12. By 14 I was biking over most of Nassau county, by 17 I was biking to NYC and NJ, often illegally over the 59th Street bridge.

I'm childless in NJ at the moment. Living in an observant Jewish community the kids in town walk to each other's houses on Saturday and religious holidays. Other than that I don't see any signs of kids doing the sort of unsupervised exploration that I did.

By Larry Lennhoff (not verified) on 28 Jan 2009 #permalink

So I realize this post is slightly old, but I just started reading and thoroughly enjoying your blog.
Onwards to my answer.
I am a fifteen year old high school student. (Sophomore). I live in a semi-rural town, surrounded by more suburban-esque towns. When the weather permits, I ride my bike anywhere and everywhere. I have been around the entire county on my bicycle and on foot. I ride and hike through reservoirs, busy streets, and even near highways. I am not the only one, either. I have several friends who accompany me on these adventures, and we have the time of our life.
Hope is not lost.