Lance Mannion has a really nice contrast between childhood now and back in the 1970's that doesn't go in the usual decline-of-society direction. He grew up not too far from where I now live, and after describing his free-ranging youth, points out some of the key factors distinguishing it from today, that need to be accounted for before lamenting the lack of kids running around outside:
-- A lot of the houses in "the old neighborhood" are still owned by the people who owned them back in the day, so the only kids around are visiting grandkids,
-- Those homes that are occupied by families with kids are usually occupied by families with fewer kids than back in the day, so there are fewer older siblings to keep tabs on younger kids and that kind of thing,
-- Most importantly, back in the day, there were fewer two-career families. Those kids running around out in the neighborhood were always within shouting distance of multiple parents.
I'm a bit younger than Lance, and grew up way out in the country, but this rings pretty true to my experience. And as I said, we live in a neighborhood not all that far from the one he talks about, and the changes he describes also ring true. Our neighborhood is great, but it's split between families with kids and empty-nesters. The "with kids" fraction is increasing, but there are probably two childless houses for every one with kids, and most of the families are on the smaller side compared to the 70's-- I can't think of anyone in the immediate neighborhood with more than three kids.
So a lot of things have changed to make it less likely that you'll see kids running around outside. Which doesn't mean there aren't kids running around outside-- my computer sits in front of a window that faces the street, and when I'm home during the day, I regularly see kids running and playing outside. But the overall numbers are reduced to a point where it's fairly likely that people driving through the neighborhood could reasonably be clucking their tongues and talking about how sad it is that no kids play outside any more. You have to live here to know that there are kids around, because the density is lower than it used to be.
And the lack of kids is more apparent during the day, for the economic reasons Lance notes. Basically all of the families with kids in the area are two-career families, which means that during work hours, the number of kids around drops to nearly zero. They're all in day care, even in the summer. Not because parents are overly controlling, or afraid to let their kids roam, but because they're at work, because they have to be to live in this neighborhood. This also feeds some of the "never away from parents" thing that people talk about, because the time parents get to spend with their kids is more limited and thus more valuable.
But there are pockets that seem a lot like the old days-- down the block from us, there's a cluster of three families all with kids about SteelyKid's age (including one of her kindergarten classmates). Those kids are in and out of each others' houses and yards all day long, often with no visible adult supervision. SteelyKid had a friend over yesterday, and we wandered down there after lunch, where the kids ran around a lot like it was back in the day. It's a little too far to just send a six-year-old off there on her own (and none of the houses between here and there are families with kids), but within a few years, I can easily imagine pointing SteelyKid in their direction after school and on weekends, and having the kids from down there show up in our yard.
Anyway, it's worth reading Lance's post, because it's a cut above most of the hand-wringing you see about the way we raise kids these days. It's really not as dire a situation as a lot of cultural critics make out, if you look carefully at what's changed from the "good old days."
Taking a mental inventory of my street: Of 17 houses with addresses on the street, four have children high-school age or younger (I'm including one who may have graduated last month), and there are a total of six kids in those houses: the possibly-graduated high schooler, one middle schooler, a pair in elementary school/middle school, and a pair where the older is in elementary school and the younger is a preschooler. There are other kids in the neighborhood, but I'm not sure there are enough for two complete baseball teams.
There are also five houses owned by empty nesters (including two whose kids grew up elsewhere), two owned by heirs who grew up in those houses (neither of which have children of their own), two occupied by students, and four (including me) owned by people who don't have children and didn't grow up on that street.
I live in a university town, so we probably have more childless homeowners and more group rentals than most places, but I don't think these numbers are extreme.
One thing that has really changed since the 1970s is that the leisure/cultural activities of adults and children have merged. In 1974 it would have been unthinkable for my 40-year old father to accompany my brothers and me when we rode our bikes along the muddy trails in the woods behind the school. Today, it's often the parent who initiates the mountain bike adventure.
In a strange way, this merging of youth and adult culture is actually a trend back to the way things used to be. I think the 1950-70s were unique in that "youth culture" was very separate from culture in general. You can see it clearly in photos from the era, where kids dress very differently to their parents. Today, dad and junior will be wearing the same t-shirts and hoodies -- just as dad and junior would be wearing similar clothes in a pre-war photo.
Maybe what we are mourning is the end of a unique era when -- as Chad and Lance point out -- the economic and social situation allowed children to be children rather than smaller versions of adults.
I am older than both of you, and that analysis is spot on. (A common factor might be that our neighborhood was fairly new and affordable so it was occupied by people who moved in and had kids. Exactly when that happened is not important as long as it was before the changes that took place during the 70s and 80s inflation years and structural changes that got built into law starting with Reagan.)
Every house had kids and most had a parent at home. I had classmates at the end of the block or on the next block that I never played with because there were plenty in the next house or two. All we had to do was tell mom where we were going and be home on time. It probably helped that the parents knew each other, either in the neighborhood or via the PTA.
That doesn't explain why we were allowed to ride our bicycles miles from home. The probably assumed (sometimes incorrectly) that the other neighborhoods were just as safe as ours, but we had also developed a bit of sense along the way (e.g. supervised ride on a city bus) in the same way my parents had learned to be on their own.
As you note, those same neighborhoods became depelted of children because all the homeowners remained around the same age. I know one in particular where the turnover is now complete, but the age distribution of the owners (and thus the children) is now more diverse because the change happened over decades, and the number of children per family is also smaller. Affordability also plays into this shift.
Finally, IMO, the nationalization of one-in-a-million local events onto every local TV news show came later and is another important explanation of the differences seen today. Local TV news was only 15 minutes long when I was in elementary school and both TV and newspapers were fundamentally local until after I was in college. Paranoia became rampant and seems to generate exactly what is feared the most.
I have to disagree with Hamish @2, although I can understand how photographs would lead to that impression. You have to remember that photographs were expensive and posed until well into the 50s. You have to get into the Instamatic era to see informal situations, and even those were far less common than today.
First hand stories tell a different tale. I won't go into details, but my father and grandfather had more freedom of movement than my generation did, and we had a lot.