When we moved to our house ten years ago, we were most excited about the fact that it abutted Baxter Woods, a 30-acre city forest in Portland. But I'll never forget the day we showed Tim's parents the path leading from our yard to all the family-friendly trails in the woods. On that first tour of their grandkid's new playground, the first person we came across was actually passed out, sitting against a tree just beyond our property line. He looked just like Rip Van Winkle.
Tim and I were unfazed by this, since we'd spent the prior ten years living on State Street in downtown Portland, but we had hoped to impress the grandparents with the safety of our new neighborhood. Mission not accomplished.
Having people passed out on our front steps was a regular occurrence on State Street. It was so common, in fact, that one morning as we headed out the front door to get Finn to pre-school, he walked right around the person sleeping on the front steps without even mentioning it. He did, however, comment on the hole in our front flower bed where someone had dug up and stolen our rhododendron sometime during the night, "mama, a skunk took our plant". Nooo mention of the Sleeping Beauty on the front steps.
That was just part of our life on State St...and we loved it there. We actually never felt unsafe living downtown and never once worried about the safety of our kids. We moved because we wanted the kind of neighborhood where our boys could roam free and have more kids to run around with. We found all that, plus the woods, in our Deering Center neighborhood.
Since moving in, we've used Baxter Woods daily and our kids have been running around in these woods since they were 2 and 5. We used to spend most of our time at the frog pond along Forest Ave, but when our kids got a little older (8 or 9?), we just let them explore the woods on their own. Finn never loved being out there ("Ma, the bugs!"), but Henry has been mesmerized by the woods since he was young. Now at 12, he'll spend hours in the middle of Baxter with friends, building stick forts and imaginary civilizations. They've been working on one recently that they've named "The Square". This kingdom has its own laws and currency (coins made from wood). Everyone has their own stick fort and their own job, including a blacksmith, king, lumberjack, forager, and an army.
Here's where the safety question comes in.
Are there sometimes people doing sketchy things in our city woods?
Are there occasionally concerning items found in the woods?
You know it.
Is it ok to let our kids play alone here anyway?
The magic that happens when kids play together in their neighborhood woods, it outweighs any risks. I also believe that our city forests are actually pretty safe and that most people are good, and harmless, and well intentioned. Of greater importance, our kids are smart and I trust that they'll run from an unsafe situation. I should also mention that Portland Trails and the City of Portland, do a standup job keeping our city forests clean and well maintained, which is a monster of an undertaking.
That said, I have always given our kids two pieces of advice when venturing off into the woods (phone and watch free, I should add):
1. Trust your gut. If you see someone that makes you uneasy, get out of there. Run if you have to and don't worry about offending anyone. As Mike Milliken, a trainer at Dynamics Fitness, used to say, "If it feels sketchy, it is sketchy." I love this line and use it with my kids in just about every scenario. Never underestimate the intuition of a kid. They know when something is sketchy.
2. Don't pick up anything suspicious that you find in the woods. If it's seemingly dangerous, tell an adult who will return with gloves and a bag to pick up any questionable items (I've done this many times).
Parents are keeping close tabs on their kids these days. Maybe that's a good thing, maybe not. But I think that when we trust our kids, give them freedom to roam untethered, and expect that they will know how to keep themselves safe by trusting their intuition and using their street smarts, they usually do. We could keep our kids home "safe" on screens, or let them live life fully outdoors. I think the former option is much riskier than the latter.
To wrap this up, my answer to this safe or sketchy discussion is this:
Without question, I believe city forest play is not only SAFE, but extremely beneficial...for the creativity, health, connection and happiness of our kids.
But if you're worried about it, just join your kids outside. They will put you to work as a blacksmith or lumberjack. Maybe you'll even get to be king for the day. Whatever happens out there, be prepared to go home with dirt in your hair and a smile on your face.