Urban Exploration

Living in the city, there is high priority placed on playtime in greenspace for our kids. For calling Los Angeles home, we are so privileged to have access to more than concrete and asphalt. Parks are plentiful. The mountains and beaches are not far. Diverse hiking trails abound. Botanical gardens offer affordable memberships. We’re even among the few fortunate enough to have a yard; no less than three of them, actually, and although they’re small, being outside is gift, especially in the glorious weather we have year round.

However, in all the important push to get our kids out in the dirt and sunshine, there is no lack of fun and adventure to be had even in the manmade concrete spaces. While obviously not a replacement for the tactile diversity and freedom of the wide open spaces of nature, I want to encourage parents who maybe don’t have easy access to free and wild expanses of trees and rocks and grassy fields. Yes, make every effort to seek that out, our kids need it for healthy development, but don’t lose heart if all you’ve got nearby is a parking lot or a weedy vacant lot. Kids, resilient and full of natural adaptation and imagination, will not be denied their sweet creative and curious childhood.

I grew up across the street from a church parking lot. Most of the week, except for Sunday or special events, it was our kingdom and we ruled it well. Countless hours “driving” bicycles and scooters between the empty parking spaces as if they were towering skyscrapers of a big city. Inspired by the Olympics, we took to the wide open space on roller blades as if we were figure skating medalists. Wagons, chases, hide and seek in the sparse landscaping, even crazy experiments like a cozy coupe play car towed by rope behind big brother’s bike (*cringe*). Our imaginations were not dampened by lack of green, although we did have access to climbing trees and lawn games in the backyard behind our house, a creek running through the park only a few miles away, the shady playground at the school or library within a few blocks. It was dreamy. But honestly, my fondest memories are set on the stage of that parking lot.

I remember playing city, circling the long rows of painted lines pretending I was a grownup on my way to the airport to pick up a dear cousin friend who was coming to town to visit. We rarely made airport runs as all our family lived close by and traveled via road trip mostly, so I have no idea where I got the fantasy. Now, as an adult, I’ve made countless trip by car to the airport to pick up loved ones, navigating the very real big city full of traffic and tall buildings. Funny how life works out sometimes.

Now, just around the corner from our home in this big city is a small abandoned parking lot. We often walk there, Eddie bringing his bike, to tool around between the painted lines, zooming down the long ramp. He makes believe the airport scene too, because he’s lived it, and always wants to play house in the meager bushes and fallen leaves from the large oak trees shading the lot.

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Now that Xanderman wants nothing more than to be free of the stroller’s harness and run wild, he gets in on the fun. They run and climb, hunt for “food”, visit imaginary places like the coffee shop, the grocery store, each other’s houses. Watching them I thought how carefree they are, that childlike freedom, fully in the moment, making the most of the hard, fairly colorless city space. And it turns out, making the most of it is actually a whole lot of fun!

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Now, as I said, it’s abandoned, so it’s safe for them to have free rein and zoom around mostly unrestrained, and I realize that’s not the case for many urban dwellers. Finding somewhere with a little open space but also relative safety for our kids to be wild and play? Sometimes it’s not easy, but what I want to emphasize is how our kids don’t need much. All they need is what they already have: imagination. This was my epiphany as I sat down beside our rock “table” and was served leaf “toast” with “sugar” seeds on top.

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The public parks we frequent tend to be the ones with underwhelming play structures. Give them a place to dig, scavenge, explore, hide…they’re set. And don’t always just watch or pull out the phone to get some emails answered or lose yourself in scrolling, sometimes eat the toast you’re offered learning that sweet in-the-moment, making-the-most-of-it, childlike presence. It’s the kind of thing they’ll remember into adulthood.

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