I’m not sure when it happened, but sometime after I had my daughter 13 years ago, I realized that something about many of our lives was off balance, particularly for families. Parents seemed frazzled and hurried, spending more time transporting their children and dropping them off than playing with them. Children seemed to do specific, monitored activity instead of free play. There were arranged “play dates” and lessons, and, for all the hovering, many of us went about the task of parenting relatively alone.
My family was sometimes the strange one. When a local restaurant offered a session with a pizza chef, we signed up as a group. Other children were dropped off, but all three of us spent the afternoon handmaking delicious brick-oven pizza and designing chef’s hats that stayed on top of the fridge for years. (We were slow to take them down.)
Later, when my daughter was in 4th and 5th grade, her girl scout troop would meet down the street from her school at the conveniently located Scout Hall. As the leader, I loved walking (and marching and singing) with the troop the few blocks to the hall. It was great for the kids to get a little exercise after school, to have fun with each other, to get from Point A to Point B on foot, and to learn things about their town and neighbors that you can only learn when you slow your pace.
As a lifelong walker and biker, these ideas were nothing new. But for some of the girls, Scout meetings were the only times they were ever out walking. The really sad thing is that I had to fight for them to do that. And it was the parents I had to beg off. Parents invariably arrived at meeting time, offering to drive everyone the few (and safe) blocks. They thought the meeting could start more quickly that way. They could perform errands and pick up again at meeting’s end, and no one would have to walk. I protested: Walking was part of the meeting. It was the girls’ fun, relatively unstructured and meaningful time together.
Walking, in and of itself, had value.
Because of well-meaning parents who experience their days as a race against time, much is actually lost. There are now initiatives to get children out in nature, or at least out of the house, to experience unstructured play. There are lots of reasons why play is good for children. Richard Louv’s book
Last Child in the Woods was seminal to me in spelling those out, and also in outlining the differences between my relatively free childhood and today’s often constricted childhood, which is frequently rooted in fear of crime (usually unfounded), lack of public space, and a less communal, more structured, more private way of living.
As I read Louv’s book, I kept saying, “Yes! Yes!” Nearly every word resonated and expressed ideas I thought important. The book also helped me feel less alone.
(An earlier book that had had a similar effect on me was James Howard Kunstler’s brilliant, insightful The Geography of Nowhere, which shone a light on our need, and hunger, for communities that feed us on a spiritual level by being pedestrian-friendly, human-scale, and conducive to gathering.)
Not that I haven’t encountered many kindred souls. We found a pre-school called Kumara School that emphasized process over product. Teachers listened to kids and let them play and direct the play, with water and sand and animals and swings and gak and recycled cardboard and tape from a dispenser. Yes, tape. This fascinated my daughter for about a year, proving that you really don’t need expensive toys and that, developmentally, children may well be better off without them.
Kumara also had a mock post office and a trampoline and a tea party area, all child-directed. We had actually visited other pre-schools where kids sat on specific cushions and learned the letters of the alphabet, in order to get “ready” for kindergarten. No, thanks.
Along the way, we gardened, visited farms, made jam, created art, celebrated the seasons, and found community. We connected with a burgeoning group called “Sustainable Mill Valley” that was championing better use of resources, local food and other goods, stewardship of our beautiful land and town, and community gathering. People of all generations and professions were involved. My toddler came with me to meetings, and thrived.
Cheryl Ross and the Sustainable Mill Valley folks turned out to be pioneers, as did Wende Kumara and her school. As did my wonderful friends who provided the energy for the Mill Valley Babysitting Coop for years. As did my neighbors who purchased Open Space before people even talked about it that way. As did Molly de Vries, in whose beautiful, sustainable fabric shop my daughter learned to sew and who is now helping Anna and her teen friends prepare for an Eco Fashion show, marrying creativity with sustainability and fun.
The threads of allowing free play; using resources wisely to help the planet and ourselves; getting better in touch with our food, lives and health; reclaiming lost tactile arts; and forming healthy communities and loving families have all kind of woven together into something called the Slow Movement. Perhaps it started in Italy, with the idea of Slow Food, and then Slow Cities. Then Carl Honore wrote the incredible, hang-on-every-word, disease-and-prescription In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed (which I actually — incongruously? — read on a plane) and, somewhere in there, the ideas took on the force of a movement.
Richard Louv started the Children and Nature Network. A Free Play Movement Formed. The Congress for New Urbanism gained ground. Alice Waters, an original slow foodie, began her Edible Schoolyard project, which has influenced the Obama White House, the first to have a vegetable garden since the 1940s. Seed sales are up. Canning supplies are up. Children are walking and biking to school again. The Slow Family Living site has supplied a manifesto. Real Simple is one of the surviving magazines in extremely tough publishing times.
We have a long way to go, but there is change in their air, perhaps simply because enough people felt off balance all at once. Enough people said “Enough” to super-parenting and consumerism and running around (“racing to yoga”, as it were) and not being happy anyway.
The secret: The Slow Movement is really about having more fun. It’s also about being authentic, deciding what’s really important, restoring a sense of wonder, appreciating and helping one other, and taking time to enjoy and honor life’s simple pleasures in the relatively short time we’re all here together.
It’s about connecting to that part of ourselves and our families that somehow got lost in the shuffle.
I hope you’ll visit the ever-growing Resource Page and discover new aspects of the Slow Movement and add your own. I hope you’ll join me and similar kindred spirits on this journey.
Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman