Sitting at a train crossing tonight, I looked up expecting to see freight cars zooming by. Only flat cars carrying huge dull looking container boxes flashed in front of me. I was sad to realize that the freight cars I loved as a kid might not exist anymore.

Growing up in South Jersey farmland, my brother and I would run or roller skate to the end of our street to watch the trains go by. Slow moving open freight cars of every color rumbled by piled high with good Jersey tomatoes, carrots and potatoes. First was the engineer, always waving as soon as he spotted us. At the end, our favorite, the caboose guy shouting out a booming “Hello there!” We waved wildly and called back from our safe spot across the street. The train rattling off out of sight was our cue to cross and scoop up giant veggies that had wiggled their way off the train cars. We raced home, warm tomato juice dribbling off our chins

How old did you picture us as you read this story? Did you see a mom with us holding our hands?

My brother was four, I was just six, and we were all alone.

Many hours of playing outside every day taught us to recognize and feel the rumble from the ground move up into our feet as trains approached. From that moment, we knew exactly how fast we had to skate to make it to the end of the street in time. From lots of experience, we also knew how to cross and when it was safe to gather up the vegetables. Mom was home taking care of the babies. Maybe, just maybe, we yelled, “train!” She trusted us and we trusted ourselves because, even at such a young age, we felt capable, with many experiences of unsupervised play under our belts.

“Play is a process not a product. We need to trust in the innate wisdom of children and let them get on with it.” Penny Wilson, master playworker, Playwork Primer

Historically how have humans learned to be independent and safe, to accurately assess risk and trust that they can take care of themselves? Through the process of freely chosen, personally directed, intrinsically motivated play, from birth to young adulthood and beyond.

Trust in their innate wisdom and capability is key to allowing children the opportunity to experience the many benefits of authentic play, without adult interference and direction.

As Penny Wilson says, the importance of trusting in our children’s “innate wisdom” and allowing them opportunities to build their capability through authentic play is clear. And that means giving them the space to “get on with it” without our constant direction or interference. But if we are petrified to let kids out of our sight, how can they gain this valuable experience? Is it even possible in today’s world to really trust our children and ourselves enough to allow them the play process?

In the 80’s, when my sons were the same age as my brother and I in the above story, I doubt that I would have let them do what I did. Even then there was a big disconnect between the childhoods my friends and I experienced and what we felt comfortable allowing for our children. However, I did allow my kids lots of time out in nature. They fished together under the bridge up the street, ran in the dark climbing on catamarans at the beach and enjoyed many hours of play in parks with a large mixed age group of my friends’ kids. Much of the time, if they were four or older, they would be out of sight but within calling distance.  I knew I could trust them because of all the tiny steps they had taken away from me in previous years. My group of friends and I trusted our own judgment. We valued the opportunities for independence and practice at risk assessment that safe, unadulterated (meaning without adult interference) play could provide for our children.

Fast forward to 2012 and it’s a whole different world. There are no more cabooses, and parents are afraid to let their children out of sight for even a moment. I think trust plays a big part. Trusting yourself as a parent and trusting your child. What happened to the trust in the innate wisdom and capability of children?

Take a breath. Think about it. More to come….

© Susan Caruso and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2012

Photos © Haidor Truu and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2012