freedom children free range walking corner store unstructured play

Corner Stores and Coal Mines

Coal miners once brought canaries down into the pits with them. The birds were more than company; they were an early warning system. If carbon monoxide levels were rising, the birds would feel the impact before the men. I couldn’t help but think of those coal mine canaries this week as I reflected on what the loss of corner stores has meant in our communities.

I’ve been vacationing in Cape Breton, driving along the streets where I spent my childhood summers, and trying to imagine my children having the same freedoms to walk to the store as I once enjoyed.

A typical day for my friends and I, from about age nine, was to scrounge up a few dollar bills (yup, I’m that old) and walk to the corner store two kilometres away. I certainly didn’t realize it at the time, but now I can appreciate the confidence and independence built up during these adventures. We felt mature and responsible, reaching the neighbourhood milestone of being one of the ‘big kids’ allowed to make the trip. We knew and were expected to follow the rules of walking on the proper side of the road and not horsing around near traffic. We had decision-making power, carefully choosing which items to purchase with our money – not to mention the math skills we practiced trying to stretch those bills to consume as much sugar as possible.

On the way home, we often stopped at the community playground. There were no parents hovering nearby, reminding us to be careful on the equipment. No one breaking up disagreements or suggesting we save some of our treats for after dinner. We were on our own – and we were fine.

My kids are still a few years off this age, but I have a hard time imagining the day I’ll give them that same freedom, in large part because the local corner store is so much farther away, with so many alternate routes. There was only one way my friends and I were traveling to get to the store, our parents knew the family that ran the store, and at least the names of most neighbours between home and there. I don’t have that community knowledge now.

I used to work with a man named Bill Doyle. He had a lot of interesting insights and opinions about society, but one particular topic sticks with me. Bill was the first person who pointed out to me that we were losing the culture of the community corner store – and that wasn’t a good thing. He was also the first person to talk with me, then a twenty-something single woman, about the value in unstructured play for children and what we as a whole were losing with the disappearance of that as well.

I don’t recall Bill and I talking about how these two things go hand in hand, but to me the link has become quite obvious. As the economy changed, and the local corner store became a thing of the past, there were fewer destinations close enough to allow a child to test their independence while still being within boundaries comfortable to parents. At the same time, simple neighbourhood playgrounds were losing popularity to larger, centralized attractions, leaving fewer chances for kids to play unsupervised.

We lost a lot with those corner store and community playground canaries. Let’s pay attention to the warnings they’re sending and find more ways to let our children test their independence and imaginations. Let’s look at the neighbourhoods we’re building and make sure we’re also creating community. And if you’re lucky enough to have a local corner store, get out and support it.

A version of this post appeared originally in the Times & Transcript in 2017. Click here for more of Jenna Morton’s column, She Said.

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