Bringing Up Kids in the Great Outdoors

By Bonnie Bellow

I’m a New Yorker and I raised two daughters right here on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked, “Wasn’t raising kids in the city difficult? Didn’t you feel bad about them not being able to play outdoors?” The answer is absolutely “no.” City kids grow up outdoors – on stoops and sidewalks, in playgrounds and some of the greatest parks in the world.

I survived the isolation of first-time parenthood by wheeling my infant daughter in her stroller, onto the elevator, down the street and into a playground in Riverside Park. There, on the park benches, I encountered a network of mothers and fathers and an army of babysitters and nannies who offered me company and more sound advice about babies than Dr. Spock. No car seat, no car, no play dates needed. Birthdays were also celebrated in the park. My husband and I would pack crayons and paper and other arts and crafts, a cooler of food and drinks, pick up a cake and balloons on the way and lay claim to a picnic bench and a grassy field. The parents sipped their wine and beer looking out on the Hudson, while the kids ran free in the biggest backyard anyone could imagine. My daughters learned to hang upside down from the high bars on a park jungle gym (remember the monkey bars) and to hit a baseball in the local school playground. They practiced riding a bike and roller blading right on Broadway. They went ice skating at the Harlem rink and played in a soccer league in Central Park – admittedly with very little grass and sometimes a lot of goose poop in the goal box. On weekends, their travel teams played on Randalls Island in the shadow of the Wards Island Wastewater Treatment Plant. I will always remember the expressions on the faces of their Westchester competitors as they got out of their parents’ cars and were hit with the telltale smell. “What’s that? Ooooo!” It was an early environmental lesson for everyone.

Ask any New York City high school kid and they will tell you the best outdoor locations in every borough for hanging out. From spring to late fall, and even in the winter, you’ll find teenagers in local playgrounds, in the city’s grand parks and on the street playing basketball or pickup soccer, skateboarding or just doing what teenagers do. I still have my own fond memories of doing my high school English reading on warm spring days in Central Park perched against the trunk of a tree.

City kids learn at an early age that the fastest and most efficient way to get from place to place is by foot. From day care through high school, my daughters traveled to school by bus or subway, with a walk at both ends. They had snowball fights in the winter, sloshed through puddles in the rain and learned to avoid the blazing sun by walking under scaffolds and store awnings. They walked to the grocery store, to soccer practice and their friends’ apartments.

All that time outdoors taught my kids the essential New York City lesson – on foot, there is always a new discovery to be made – whether it’s a fabulous pair of shoes in a store window or a new community garden or just the perfect slice of pizza. And, it’s good for your health and the planet too!