Of course some still do. Take the group of boys from Raleigh, North Carolina captured in this slide show.
I love the rough-hewn quality of this photoset. We are being given fleeting glimpses into the children's private realm. We see real adventure - and real danger - alongside depictions of great creativity and camaraderie.
The photos were taken by the mother of one of the boys, Tina Govan, who is a local architect. Tina heard me speak a few years ago at the annual Growing in Place conference organised by Robin Moore and colleagues at the Natural Learning Initiative. She emailed me the link out of the blue last week, generously saying that my talk had made a strong impression on her. She adds that a version of video may be shown at this year’s conference.
Tina says: "most parents in my neighborhood are very fearful and their children are tethered to their computers and video games. My older son, though, was fortunate and was able to able to connect to a group of boys whose parents were less controlling and less worried about 'what's out there'."
Here in London, I sometimes see evidence of children and young people’s everyday outdoor adventures when I go for walks or cycle rides in the woods near my home. Just before Christmas I came across this den.
It too is a refuge, a place of escape and maybe of transgression. The writers Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley, in their book Edgelands, note that “part of the unspoken contract of dens includes elements of danger, as if the nest-like space is all the more cosy and secure for having some darkness or threat it needs to keep out.”
I have no doubt that such experiences are in decline. But Tina's slideshow reminds us that what playwork theorist Bob Hughes calls "wild, adult-free play" still happens. In the right places - urban woodlands, canals, derelict factory grounds, beaches near coastal towns - you can see the tell-tale signs.
These sorts of experiences are resonant to many of us, and I am sure these photos evoke strong memories. However, what I would really love to hear is more evidence that children today are making the same kinds of memories for themselves. What 'play traces' from childhood today can you share with me?