When Kids Roamed the Streets of Chicago (on their own)

26th Street in Bridgeport

These colorful images of kids on the streets of Chicago reveal how much childhood has changed in America.

Today, mothers and fathers routinely chauffeur their children to school, "playdates," organized sports, and enrichment activities of all sorts. Children rarely, if ever, escape the watchful eyes of teachers, coaches, and parents.

The idea that adults should be constantly-monitoring children is now enshrined in law. At the turn of the 20th century, Chicago kids of 14, and even younger, routinely held jobs in factories. By the dawn of the 21st century, the State of IL had passed a law making it illegal to leave a child under 14 at home without adult supervision. 

For most of the 20th century, Chicago's kids enjoyed a great deal of autonomy. As these pictures show, they routinely did what few do today: traveled and played on the streets alone. 

In fact, kids all across American occupied physical landscapes of their own creation. In 1972, the British geographer Roger Hart studied the physical movement of 86 kids in rural New England, creating what he called a "geography of children."  Hart was struck “by the large amount of time children spent modifying the landscape in order to make places for themselves and for their play.” Adults, Hart found, rarely even knew exactly where their kids went during play time.

Beginning in the 1980s, though, parents began to wrest autonomy from their kids. The media focused intense scrutiny on rare and terrible cases of kidnappings; fearful parents ceased to let their kids out of sight. And many parents pushed their kids to make use of time for enriching activities which would give them an edge in the competition to earn spots in top colleges and, eventually, a cutthroat job market. Good parents, it seemed, should never leave their kids alone.  

Some child psychologists, however, suggest that this intense monitoring of kids has not been good. Children who had greater autonomy developed better judgement and became more responsible at an earlier age. They were not overwhelmed by the sudden transition to adulthood in their 20s, as so many are today. 

Here are some images from that bygone era when kids took to the city streets on their own. 

230 W. 23rd Street, 1949

550 W. 13th Street

1349 S. Morgan Street, 1949

Lexington at Dekalb, 1949

Photos by Charles W. Cushman, Indiana University Archives.