Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

The Summer Idyll of Free-Range Children Could Last All Year

As many families head back to school (at last), what should they keep from the summer, besides jars of shells? New York City schools start after Labor Day. My family, like many others, tries to make the most of summer by going on vacation during the last week of August. Our getaway of choice is Fire Island, where, for the past four years, we’ve rented the same house. It isn’t ours, of course, but by now there is comfort in returning to the same corduroy sofa, the same mismatched mugs, the same rusty bicycles.

Familiarity means that we can quickly adapt to a way of life that feels very different from our daily existence in Brooklyn. And it isn’t just the lack of deadlines. The kids go in and out on their own, wandering to a friend’s house or biking to the next town over, with no more than a word of departure or a confirming text on arrival. We meet up on the beach and pretend to read. If you need to go home to use the bathroom, you go—the house isn’t locked—and come back with a bag of chips. I am not texting, calendaring, accompanying at all times. I can sit. My phone stays in a Ziploc bag for hours. Suddenly, it’s dinnertime.

For a week, I catch a glimpse of the family life that previous generations are always telling us about: “My mother kicked us out of the house after breakfast and said, ‘Don’t come back until dinner!’ ” Or, “We went out to the woods behind our house after school and built forts.” Or, “As soon as we scraped together the change, we walked downtown and went to the movies.”