"First one there is a loser!" Josie Smith yelled to the girls running ahead of her. • On one of the last afternoons of summer before school, four little girls were off to a corner store, alone. Two of them are just 7. • "Come on, hurry," responded Jewely Smith, at 10, the oldest. • Not a parent in sight, the two pairs of sisters crossed the streets of an urban neighborhood bordered by a highway and busy streets. All together, they traveled 1.2 miles. • Are their parents crazy? Don't they worry about abductions, or sex offenders who might live nearby? • They told the girls to not cross the busy streets, to follow a printed map, to not talk to strangers. • Jewely spied a vine with yellow flowers hanging from a tree over the sidewalk and tried to swing on it. Each took a turn. Josie kicked a crumbly foam football loose from a gutter and then across a side road. They passed a fenced day care yard where a woman watched children playing in a bounce house. Then they consulted the map and took off.
• • •
The girls' parents joined an online group earlier this summer called Free-Range Kids. The website describes the mission: "Fighting back against the idea that our kids are in constant danger by teaching them to trust their own instincts and in the idea that people are generally good."
These parents wistfully remember being kids who had to be home before streetlights came on or in time for dinner. They had time to explore and play. They built forts and climbed trees. No one worried about abductions.
They are raising their kids alongside helicopter parents, constantly hovering and intervening on their child's behalf, and tiger parents, packing their child's life with structured activities in hopes it will pay off with an edge in life. For the most part, the free ranging occurs organically. Kids go out to play, with siblings and with friends, at home and at outdoor concerts and in parks.
This day's treasure hunt was somewhat more contrived. But it was a first for the kids. They were going to the corner store. Alone.
They were at the right place: a house with a "for sale" sign in the yard. The map showed a palm tree in the yard where the money was hidden. They walked around a palm tree. Morissey Montgomery, 7, whose father is a reporter at the Times, saw another palm tree and found a flowered print pouch. Jewely pulled out $8 and counted $2 for each.
"Or we could get something cheap and save the money," suggested Josie.
• • •
Courtney Smith was shocked when she first heard a story a few years ago of how Lenore Skenazy let her 9-year-old son ride the New York City subway alone. Skenazy wrote Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry, later subtitled How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry).
"I thought she was insane," Courtney said.
She and her husband, Chris, had started out as cautious parents. When Courtney breast-fed their first baby in public, Chris had warned her that she was making people uncomfortable. Things have changed now that they have four daughters.
"He's turned all weird and crunchy," Courtney said. "He tells guys about home birth. 'Don't go to the hospital. Have your baby at home.' "
That's where their last two were born. Now Courtney makes diapers from old T-shirts and they raise chickens in the back yard. Their front windows are decorated with marker scribbles.
Courtney came to believe allowing her kids more freedom is more like common sense. She thinks they'll learn confidence. She remembers when she was 10 and plastic covers started appearing on the swing chains.
"I remember thinking it's good for us to pinch our hands in the chain swing every once in a while. I'm not going to have those on my kids' swings."
Still, Chris asked that the neighborhood where the girls roam not be identified in this story.
• • •
Bells jangled as the corner store door opened. One of the girls counted the dollars again and they considered options.
"Okay, so, I'm going to get an ice cream," said Jewely.
But then she changed her mind. It would melt on the walk back, and it would use all her money. Instead, she got her standby, a box of Whoppers.
"How much is bubble gum?" Josie asked.
"Ten cents," a man said.
She counted out 10 pieces.
"We have $2 left — no, $1 left."
"We could get a ring pop."
"We should just give him all the money and ask him what we can get," Josie suggested.
The cashier scanned the candy: $9.79.
Something costing more than $2 went back and someone counted the dollars again.
The new tally: $6.86.
They handed over the money, sang a sweet soprano "thank you," and the bell jingled again 13 minutes later.
• • •
The idea for the afternoon trip came about at the park one day. Josie had wanted to go home. She asked her mom to draw her a map and let her go. But a busy road runs between the park and her home, so Courtney compromised by dropping the two oldest off closer to home with a hand-drawn map, with landmarks familiar to the girls: the "mustache house" and the "castle house."
They had been planning this trip for a month. Two days before they went, Jewely considered the plan.
"What if someone else finds our money?"
"What if we can't find it and it starts to get dark?"
Courtney told her they would have to solve these problems.
Jewely, as the oldest, takes the role of the leader, "kind of," she said, although she admits to being childish sometimes. Before they left for the store, she ran inside her house with a library book Josie wanted. When she emerged, she told her sister: "I hid it where you will never find it."
Jewely contemplated the ideas behind free range: responsibility and freedom.
"Sometimes being responsible is terrible," Jewely said. She cites cleaning messes she didn't make as evidence. "Other times it's amazing."
Freedom, to her, is a game of hide-and-seek outside with no parents.
"No grownups allowed," Jewely said.
• • •
Courtney sat on her front porch with her younger daughters, Juniper, 4, and Coraline, 1, waiting for the girls to come back.
The porch was strewn with sunflower seeds, a baseball mitt, a vacuum cleaner nozzle, a baby's handprint in a chunk of concrete and a bowl of cat food. Plants struggled to grow in pots under oak and palm trees and an assortment of children's toys dotted the yard.
Somewhere a rooster crowed.
Juniper sucked a strawberry ring pop, sharing licks with the baby, and told a visitor about a Saturday in May when her mother dropped her off at a park almost half a mile from home with her older sisters. All together, seven girls were left at the park for an hour. That day, kids all over were left unaccompanied in parks, encouraged by the free-range movement.
Courtney hadn't planned to let Juniper go to the park, but she had begged and Courtney thought she would be safe with the older girls. That day also, Courtney had sat on her porch and worked on homework for a class she was taking at Hillsborough Community College. For an essay about free ranging, she wrote: The world is a classroom.
Juniper remembered seeing someone camping at the park. And saving a "nature" turtle.
When her sisters and their friends came in sight of the front porch, they were running.
It had been 45 minutes of freedom when Josie yelled: "Who's going to be the rotten egg?"
Details of the girls' trip came from a recorder Josie Smith wore around her neck. Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.