Where are the children?

Something has happened to the vacant lots, and no good can come of it.

I realized this Saturday in an older Reno neighborhood that, for some reason, still has a few empty parcels. I rode my bike through it twice, then figured out what was nagging at me.

No kids.

No kids in the vacant lots. There were plenty in the schoolyards, mostly in uniform, all engaged in Supervised Play Activities.

In a park, I was cheered to see what I first took to be a pickup football game. When I circled the field in search of a drinking fountain, though, a woman got out of an SUV and eyed me suspiciously. I was an adult male, therefore a possible danger to the 9-year-olds.

Full disclosure: As a parent, I was protective to a degree a psychologist might call pathological. Still am, probably, though my children, adults now, don’t seem to mind Dad checking up when there’s a chance he’ll buy breakfast.

Still, render unto me a break. Have we reached such a level of paranoia or ambition that our kids cannot be allowed simply to play?

Not play as in “play a sport,” learning to field a ground ball under the tutelage of a grown-up. That’s fine; it has its place. But it’s not for everybody, and it shouldn’t be for anybody all the time. There’s a lot to be said for freeform amusement, for imagination—but you can’t say it around many parents, because they’re schlepping Madison and Mykal to practice or lessons. And when the session is over, the kids still can’t play, because some creepy guy on a bicycle rode around the field Saturday.

Under this combination of parental fear and ambition, kids have forsaken the vacant lot, and that’s too bad. With its brush and dirt, random rocks and occasional reptiles, there’s no better place to turn play into, well, play.

Parks? Sorry. Modern parks, with their sterile lawns, safety-first equipment and stifling rules about dogs, are part of the problem.

OK, here comes the geezer lament: “When I was a boy, we …”

We did, though, after school and all summer long, until we got girlfriends or cars and had to become productive sub-adults. We played basketball for hours on asphalt in the sun, or football, with rules adjusted for teams of two, three and four or more players. ("Checks over center” was one; it meant no defender could rush the quarterback without first making contact with the center.)

We’d play all morning, walk half a mile to a store for cold drinks, then hike back and ride homemade skateboards on the steep ramps of Roosevelt School until dinner. My parents were loving and attentive, but from the time I learned to ride a bike until I went into the Army, I was free to roam with just two restrictions: I had to go where I said I was going and be home when I said I’d be.

I have some pictures from those days, and I pulled them out this morning to check my memory.

It was accurate: Nobody was fat.

Sorry; of course I mean, “No one was above recommended weight.” But nobody was. There must be 25 or 30 kids in snapshots, plus my whole high school in the yearbooks, and you’d have to search for a double chin. Jeff Stuart, a fireplug football guard often described as “chunky,” would be in the slender 25 percent of most teen groups I see today.

And yet we ponder, as a nation, how we can reverse The Obesity Epidemic.