Parents who wait with their kids at the bus stop, cheer every soccer game, and can't imagine a child walking home alone from a play date two blocks away go through some kind of looking glass/time warp/brain transplant when they pull into a campground. "Bye, kids! Be back in time for dinner. Don't feed the bears!"
What is it about camping that turns 21st century worriers into parents with positively Spielbergian nonchalance?
"At campgrounds, everyone just seems to expect to see kids roaming around," says Lindsay Smith-Munoz, a scientist in Edmonton, Canada. "Maybe it's just that there's no one for the do-gooders to call? Social services isn't going to drive two hours out of the city because some kids were spotted at a camp playground unsupervised."
Polly Karr, a Cleveland mother of three, has watched snowplow parents melt into '80s moms and dads over the course of a single afternoon. "A few years ago we organized a camping trip with lots of families from our different friend groups," Karr says. "They were all clutching onto their children when they first arrived."
Karr urged them to let go a little, and demonstrated by releasing her own kids into the wild. At first the other parents would let their children go "like 20 feet," she says. But once they "had an hour without someone clamoring for a snack," it clicked: Their kids were having more fun without them, and vice versa.
Many families take to camping "because that's the kind of childhood we want for our kids, and they don't get that in real life anymore," says Jillian, a mortgage lender in Massachusetts. Last year she and her husband let their 6-year-old ride her bike around a campground by herself—something they wouldn't have dared do back home "because people in our neighborhood might look at us funny." (It is for this same reason that she didn't want her last name used.)
What explains the way campgrounds dial back the worry and dial up the independence? Probably some mix of these factors.
Unstructured time: One reason so few kids play on their own back home is that they have something else they have to do. Ballet. Kumon. Karate. At campgrounds, kids are sprung from their scheduled activities—and from their homework!
New friends: The kids don't have their usual buddies. Fun requires forging new friendships. Play is how that happens.
Mixed-age mingling: Kids who would be segregated by interest, school, or age back home become a Peanuts-like gang at the campground. Older kids assume some responsibility for the younger ones. Little kids granted this proximity to greatness don't want to lose it, so they toughen up. Karr says that when an especially helicoptering family saw their child fall off a rock and not come running to them, their whole outlook shifted.
Small spaces: At home, says Courtney Bias, a communications strategist for the industry group Go RVing, a lot of kids "have their own rooms they can escape to." Not in an R.V. The alternative to being cooped up is to get the heck out.
Outside is where the action is: The food, games, animals, nature, and fun are all out there. A kid in motion tends to stay in motion.
Fewer cars and slower speeds: parental Paxil.
Campfires: a bonding ritual old as time.
Nature: plenty interesting.
No garages: "When people come home from work, they park in their garage and enter the house," says Ann Leach, a homeschooling mom—and camper—in Australia. "There's no opportunity for even a casual encounter." Similarly, "Here in Australia every house has a 6-foot fence around the backyard and sometimes around the front too." Everyone is more visible at the campground.
And add one more factor to the list: trust. Parents who don't trust their neighbors to drive sanely or to refrain from calling 911 if they see an unsupervised kid are more likely to trust their fellow campers. Camp folks have all forsaken some creature comforts to create a community. They walk around in pajamas. They share their beer and hot dogs. They let their kids be kids.
It's sad that in the neighborhoods where we spend most of our time, we feel less at home and happy than when we're surrounded by trees and strangers. Maybe if we scheduled our kids a little less, took down some fences, and banished homework, the magic of the campground could seep into our everyday lives.