Sometimes playing on grass is illegal

A few years ago I gave my nieces a picture book called Beeju, by Alexis Deacon, and they gave it back to Wally last year. 

It’s about an alien who ends up on earth. She makes friends with a litter of puppies, but the mean guy at the shelter tosses her out. Then she makes friends with kids on the school yard, but the cranky teacher makes her leave. Finally, her parents find her and they beam back up to outer space. In the spaceship “Beeju told her parents all about life on earth. How Earth creatures were mostly big and unfriendly, but there were some small ones who seemed hopeful.”

Wally loves this book, and is always happy at the end when Beegu finds her mommy and daddy. We read it many nights.

During the day, lately, in the afternoons, we've been playing outside not on the playground as much but just on the grass near our house. We're lucky to have the nearby playgrounds, but they can be confining, overwhelming (full of teenagers), and aggravating (fights over plastic cars and tricycles). Plus there's just something great about free play outside with grass, dirt, trees, birds, and squirrels darting about. As Richard Louv points out in Last Child in the Woods, there's always enough nature to go around, whether it's sea shells, pebbles or pine combs, there are enough for everyone.

Wally and his friends in the neighborhood been playing so well together. Sharing, laughing, inventing little treasure hunts, collecting rocks,  throwing foam rockets, kicking balls, digging holes, searching for worms. All without any input or involvement from us (the parents). Exactly what you hope for. So natural and yet – in this city at least – such a rare sight. It's a dream. I'm out there thinking, this is so peaceful and what the hours after school should be like – quiet, no scheduled activities, no specific playdates to rush to, just meeting with neighbors outside, casually, whoever's around. No hovering. No torturous "watch me" from the monkey bars. No climbing backwards up the slide to the chagrin of other parents. No danger of running in front of the swings. Right here in the middle of Chelsea, a great scene of a fantasy American childhood...

Except – of course! – big loud except, because this is how the universe works – now that they are playing so well and easily and casually, running, hiding, wrestling, whispering secrets behind trees--neighbors are calling security on them. Why? Because the rule is, you have to stay on the little strip of sidewalk between the laundry room and the gate. You cannot walk on the grass. It is "ornamental". 

Even though there is this enormous, lovely yard just calling out to them. They are not picking flowers or littering or running with soccer cleats, they are just frolicking, and it baffles me that people would walk by or look out their windows and get so upset at the site of kids (there aren't many, no more than four at any given time) hopping and skipping outside. I never see kids hop and skip in the playground. I want to see kids frolic. To be carefree, joyful, uninhibited. But not everyone does.

So the kids come over to us, looking sheepish after the security guy says they have to get off the grass.We try to reassure them that they were not doing anything wrong, at all, that they were playing really nicely, but it's just a rule. Some people don't think kids should run and have fun on the grass. What can we say?

The security guys are really nice about it and feel bad, but they get complains  (tenants calling management on us) and they have to give us the old hook. So it's off to "watch me" on the playground, spotting on the monkey bars, pushing on the swings. The kids have a harder time playing together in small groups, since there are so many of them there, babies grabbing, older kids eye-rolling, helicopter moms negotiating. Lots of noise. Very little nature.

The other day we were in another little nearby yard. Wally's friend was sleeping after school, so he was playing by himself. A lady in her 90s was out on a bench. I thought she must be happy to have this little kid bouncing around nearby. Kids and old people both have time on their hands. They often co-exist in a peaceful place, in the moment, not worrying about what they have to do next. But the minute Wally hopped onto a dirt path she hollered at him: “That’s not funny. Get off!” Wally jumped, startled, and ran back to me, immediately.

"Beegu wasn't wanted there, it seemed."

Looking for seeds, bug hunting, collecting treasures, running free, skipping along a dirt path--all that would have to wait for a day when we can get to the park.

"That woman was just cranky," I told Wally, as we say goodbye to our friends. "Don't worry."

“There are a lot of cranky people around here,” he answered, walking back to our apartment.

“I know,” I said, feeling bad that my irritation with the neighbors (there are so many cranky people, it’s shocking, really truly bizarre) is going to transfer over to him because of these continued attempts to play on grass and dirt.

"There are a lot of cranky people," he said,  holding my hand. White petals were falling softly around us. Anyway, it had been a long day and it was time to go home and start making dinner. 

“But,” he continued as we strolled past a patch of yellow daffodils, “there are a lot of good ones, too.”


  1. Cool. Have you seen Richard Louv's recent post?
    "Research suggests that exposure to the natural world – including nearby nature in cities – helps improve human health, well-being, and intellectual capacity in ways that science is only recently beginning to understand."

  2. just do it anyway - go on the grass (I guess you are0)

  3. I really must post that much-belated video of Wally and Memes playing on that very patch of grass. I'm appalled at your neighbors but sadly, after all my run-ins with city busy-bodies, it's not surprising. I just want to know, if we all stay in NYC for the rest of this waking dream, will we turn out like that? It's rhetorical, but is this the logical progression of our neurotic, cynical, self-involved city attitude? I love the combination of Free Range and Nature Mom--braving the wilds of NYC crazies to just allow the kids to touch a piece of the God-given beauty that surrounds us. Keep up the good work, be brave, and when they come for you and Wally with pepper spray and handcuffs, we'll all come out of the woodwork where we're currently holed up, denying the research on nature's benefits, and we'll finally take a stand for you, and for all the grassy patches all over this broken city, and we'll all go down screaming.

  4. I LOVE Wally's comment: "There are a lot of cranky people around here"

    I always feel terrible when Sion "hides from the old people" as he puts it, by burrowing into his stroller or turning away when they say hi and try to touch him in the elevator... but he's just not a kid that wants to perform on command, and he has had quite a few cranky neighbor experiences that in his age-of-categorizing-and-stereotyping means old people = cranky, at least in Chelsea. I try to counter that stereotype of his, but getting yelled at for ANYTHING by our neighbors doesn't help.

    It is a weird dynamic, I hope that when I'm an old lady sitting on the benches in Penn South, that I enjoy the little ones running by.

    What about the grassy "Active Recreation Area"? Can that just become our communal backyard? "Occupy the ARA"?

  5. Wendy - I went over to Richard Louv after posting this. Love that he is a constant champion for kids spending time outside. Research definitely backs him up. Anon - we are! Bearette - How do we keep them that way?
    k.b.e. Please do post it soon. When you can. Yes it was that very patch of grass. And since I can't seem to get the "article" published ANYWHERE, maybe I should just publish it here? DIY style like most everything I do. More and more I think we could live out our waking dream here, with community gardens, taking over vacant lots to grow fresh vegetables like in 596 acres link you sent. Free Range and Nature Mom - I like that! I hope I can live up to that. And by the way you've always been out there, too, on the watery razor's edge, taking a stand, not afraid to dive in.

    Becky - Poor Sion -- hiding away -- and I know what you mean. I always prompt Wally like a trained seal to be polite and greet people, but why should they have to "perform on command"? It's awful about the high proportion of cranky old people. Old people are supposed to be sweet and tell long stories? It does make me worry about the neurotic, cynical, self-involved city attitude...that so many of the old people here are miserable. But maybe they're just tough - had to be - and it manifests itself in strange boundary-crossing. I agree, I hope I enjoy little ones!

    Love Occupy the ARA! Let's do it. We played there 2 nights ago, after Whineless Wednesday on the Blacktop, and it wasn't so bad. Occupy the ARA really sounds hardcore.

    1. It does sound hardcore! It sounds like a fight over the British Isles or retired people or taxes. I think it's pretty hilarious that we have all this green space, but this small amount that is actually designated to be used the way one would expect to use green space... and yet surrounded by some gardens that the kids can't go in, so we still have to police that area! (And god forbid if you have a dog, they can't experience any nature.)

      I sound cranky myself, but I am SO THANKFUL that we have the big blacktop space and even the ARA right in our backyard, and I look forward to the day Sion is old enough to ask to go play and I can keep an eye on him while I do the dishes or peek out the balcony. Not so common in Manhattan... but it will be so liberating to be able to give them that bit of freedom sooner than they would have otherwise living in NYC.

  6. Yes - I think it reminded me of IRA. Haa. I have wondered about people with dogs. I definitely see them "on the loose" in the forbidden areas. It seems the watchdogs though are more concerned with kids than canines messing up the gass.

    You're right- we have to be grateful for the space we do have, the blacktop (open, if not all that natural), plus the ARA. The scene you describe makes me think of the place we played at this age. We were allowed out at 3 and 5 unsupervised, to play with other neighborhood kids. My mom was upstairs with a balcony view (if she wanted to peek out - I don't remember her ever doing it). The funny thing is people will say "Back then it was safer" which is categorically untrue. There are fewer abductions now than there were then. I think it's awesome you will give Sion freedom sooner rather than later. You must be a free-range kids fan!


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