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Is 'Go Outside and Play' a Thing of the Past? Could Be, If We're Not Careful

Once upon a time, kids bravely climbed trees, and were forced to let the chips -- or limbs -- fall as they may. Now, though, a tree might be able to grow in Brooklyn, (I've even give money to plant them in loved ones' names,) but they certainly may not be climbed.
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I'm scared of the direction the world is going if kids can't climb trees.

A note was left on the bulletin board of our Brooklyn co-op recently that called out "the teens" who were climbing trees in the courtyard, and "rudely said they wouldn't stop because 'it's fun!' "

The note then threatened that "individual parents would be talked to, or management would be called."

Bring it on.

The note appeared at least a day after the incident, like the anonymous neighbor had been just stewing about these terrible heathen children who dared to play outside in our communal courtyard.

When I took down the note (which was, after all, directed at me), I shook my head. I was mad at my kids if they had been disrespectful of a neighbor, but madder still that when they finally get the gumption to leave their screens, they are often scolded.

What if they did say, "But it's fun?!" Would that be so terrible? After all, they weren't lying!

Sitting down at the dinner table, we discussed the incident. From their telling, they hadn't been climbing, or said the fun thing. But the woman had warned them against wrecking the foliage.

"You just have to go to the park," I said. "Then you don't have to worry about getting the neighbors mad." It was a sad fact that we often wouldn't let our kids play in our building's communal space because of the potential for trouble. They weren't perfect, after all, and one errant throw or fall into a bush could incite the ire of one or many, and it just didn't seem worth it.

But when I mentioned going to the park, my 12-year-old piped up.

"You aren't allowed to climb trees in the park, Mom," he said.

And all of a sudden I realized he may be right, and there was really no place my kids could climb trees.

Tara Deighan, a spokeswoman from the city Department of Parks and Recreation, first sent over info on all the fun things kids can do in the park, especially upcoming programming like the Imagination Playground "a breakthrough play space concept conceived and designed by internationally acclaimed architect David Rockwell ... to encourage child-directed, unstructured creative 'free play.' " Right, I thought, "free play," the kind of play, the park's literature offers "that experts say is critical to a child's intellectual, social, physical, and emotional development."

But what about trees? I wanted to know. Is it illegal to climb trees?

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After a bit, she got back to me. Yes. It is illegal. Turns out "free play" has to be a structured thing these days, created by groups of adults, paid for with big money, scheduled and overseen. Climbing is a no-no. "Violators can be fined from $50 to $200 for unlawful entry to or climbing on park property, including walls, fences, shelters, trees, shrubs, fountains, vegetation, or any structure or statue not specifically intended for climbing purposes." It falls under the category of "disorderly behavior."

Bummer. And it's not just New York. According to Patty Jenkins, executive director and co-owner of Tree Climbers International, most city parks don't allow tree climbing because of liability. She carries an insurance policy which has allowed her permission to a single park in her hometown of Atlanta, where she books thousands of Girl Scout groups and birthday parties to help kids climb up trees safely with ropes and special equipment, and trains people from all over the world to take people up trees for the great mental and physical benefits of doing so.

Sigh. Solo climbing is a thing of the past, a distant nostalgic memory for old people like me who remember the days before everyone was worried about being sued.

Ms. Jenkins agreed with me.

"It used to be a right of passage to break your arm climbing a tree," she said slightly wistfully, though was quick to point out they've never had a fall happen or made a claim on their $2,000-a-year insurance.

I knew what she meant. Once upon a time, kids bravely climbed trees, and were forced to let the chips -- or limbs -- fall as they may. Now, though, a tree might be able to grow in Brooklyn, (I've even give money to plant them in loved ones' names,) but they certainly may not be climbed.

This article first appeared in The Brooklyn Paper's Fearless Parenting column, which runs every other Thursday on BrooklynPaper.com.