True Tales from Stranger Things: Kids on Bikes

Stranger Things tells a tale of inter-dimensional entities battling kids in the 80s. To get around, the kids use their bikes, a genre that launched its own RPG. And yes, kids really did have that much freedom then.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

It's Not for Everybody​

It's worth noting that despite the reputation of the Kids on Bikes genre taking place in the Midwest, my experience was in the Long Island suburbs. There are a few elements required for a Stranger Things-style of gaming, so being a kid on bike was potentially feasible anywhere :
  • A lot of kids of similar age within biking distance. I grew up surrounded by kids all the same age. We all walked to school, and later took the bus, together. Two of the kids were my next door neighbors, and one a little further (we're still Facebook friends). The rest were from the surrounding area and could bike to meet up.
  • Stay-at-home parents. Most kids didn't understand this at the time but parents trusted that if there was one stay-at-home parent (almost always a mom), then that was the default parent to talk to if there were issues. My mom didn't work until I was in high school, so it was usually her.
  • A place to game. Not every house was suitable for this: some were too small, some were too raucous, some had siblings that wouldn't let you play in peace for hours at a time. That was usually my house.
  • Kids have free time. None of our families could afford to send us to camp, go on vacations for long periods of time, or otherwise keep us occupied. We filled that time with Dungeons & Dragons.

Did Parents Really Let Their Kids Do That?​

Yes, or at least my parents did.

My best friend was a few blocks over, and I would ride my bike to visit and vice versa. We did this just about every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and practically every day during the summer. We would also sleep over each other's houses for as long as we were able, sometimes several days in a row.

How Did Parents Keep Track?​

Because we played Dungeons & Dragons, our parents were collectively happy with the assumption that all of us were easy to find at one house. This expanded to playing Laser Tag at certain houses where we could range freely (this was one case where my house wasn't suitable but two of my friends' houses near open land were perfect for).

During the day, when we were playing outside (which we did often, usually street hockey), our parents would simply open the door and shout out our names. My one friend's dad could whistle a high-pitched whistle that was unmistakable and could be heard at a distance.

You also knew generally when you had to be home. Mostly, we woke up, had breakfast, watched cartoons, ate lunch, and then left to play whatever until dinner time.

What If You Got Lost?​

With no cell phones and no maps, this rarely happened. But it did happen at least once, when we tried to go to a new friend's house on our bikes, and my one friend peeled off in one direction while I was looking the other way. I got so lost I had to bike home.

There were a few times where I miscalculated how far away my house was from other places and attempted to walk home, including wrong bus stops. You only have to make that mistake once to learn the hard way the geography of your home town.

In short, it wasn't much of an issue because everyone was within walking distance and if things really got confusing, you just went back to where you started which was home (or home base, if you knew a friend's house nearby).

Add this all up and it was fertile ground for tabletop gaming, with a large enough group that we never lacked players for a good five years, from seventh grade to graduation.

You Turn: Were you a kid on a bike?
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


People who weren’t there really have no concept of how deeply weird the 80s was for being a kid. From Seeing movies my grade school self had no business seeing, to there being toys aimed at kids based on those movies, to just how far we could roam. A real good documentary to get a sense of it is “Class Action Park” it was on HBO Max when I watched it. Watch it, then if something comes up in a game just think “is it worse than letting your kid go to Action Park, if no let it continue.” But yeah parents and kids of the time had this weird oblivious sense that everything would work out for the best.
 


WarDriveWorley

Adventurer
I mostly grew up in Maine (but had some southern California as well) and I was definitely a kid on a bike/skateboard. Also plenty of open space for exploring, which, when we lived in CA we lived next to a major weapons testing facility, also caused a few issues.
 


GuyBoy

Hero
I was a kid on a bike in the mid 1970s, part of the time in semi-rural Kent UK where everywhere was an adventure and every piece of fruit could be stolen. The other part of the time was in the East End of London; no bike, no fruit and a lot grimmer.
The Kent bit also had ruined castles and Mesolithic sites to hit the fantasy vibes.
 

I grew up on a farm where both parents also had day jobs. So my siblings and I had bit of that vibe just not with the bikes. The D&D started in high school and it was every other weekend as a friend's mom let us stay and game all day and night on his visitation days.
 

wellis

Explorer
I recall it was an oversensationalized kidnapping and murder of a 6-year old girl (news channels kept on playing it again and again) that helped set the stage for parents becoming a lot more clingy toward kids nowadays.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
Wait... do kids not ride bikes anymore? What is the world coming to!?

Ditto. Louisville, Ky. Near absolute freedom. Not what it’s cracked up to be. I’ll save the details, but the amount of trouble I got into ranged from trivial to comedic to catastrophic.
Catastrophic? So you're the reason that the economy tanked? Cold war, was that you? 🤓
 

Mistwell

Crusty Old Meatwad (he/him)
I don't even know where the "Midwest thing" came from. E.T. was filmed down the block from where I grew up, and that was the most "kids on bikes" movie of that generation. And I lived (and still do) in Los Angeles, a suburb called the San Fernando Valley. Other "kids on bikes" movies were also filmed in this same suburb. This was all "kids on bikes" territory in the 70s and 80s.

We'd ride out during the day and usually need to be back around dinner. And yes, there was always one house where a parent was home, a mom who had the phone numbers of most other parents in case there was an issue.

But we could range pretty far. Up to five miles away, to the nearest mall. We could also go to places without adults, like through the storm drains and around hillsides in brush. We'd even sometimes play D&D out in "the woods" which was mostly just bigger brush.
 

Mistwell

Crusty Old Meatwad (he/him)
People who weren’t there really have no concept of how deeply weird the 80s was for being a kid. From Seeing movies my grade school self had no business seeing, to there being toys aimed at kids based on those movies, to just how far we could roam. A real good documentary to get a sense of it is “Class Action Park” it was on HBO Max when I watched it. Watch it, then if something comes up in a game just think “is it worse than letting your kid go to Action Park, if no let it continue.” But yeah parents and kids of the time had this weird oblivious sense that everything would work out for the best.
I just watched the ad to Class Action Park and oh man, it's on my must-watch list now. Thanks for mentioning it!
 

innerdude

Legend
Absolutely a kid on a bike. Age 10-13, can't tell you how many times I packed up a roll of quarters, biked 3 miles down the hill to the local gas station, because they had a pinball machine and a Double Dragon arcade game. Rode the bike trail along the river, rode up to the local golf course to the driving range (try slinging a golf bag over your handlebars sometime) or the local mini-golf course.

Many, many summer days were spent riding from home to the city library completely alone, where I was free to rummage through the entire sci-fi / fantasy shelves, sit and read as long as I liked.

The phenomenon is, sadly, pretty much unique to us in Generation X, those of us born somewhere between '64-66 up through '81-'83.

It's described pretty well here --- Why Generation X Might Be Our Last, Best Hope

"If you wanted to play, you had to leave the house and mix it up with the ruffians. That is, we are the last Americans to have the old-time childhood, wherein you were assigned a bully along with a homeroom teacher. Our childhood was closer to those of the 1950s than to whatever they’re doing today. It was coherent, hands-on, dirty, and fun."
 
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FitzTheRuke

Legend
I grew up right in the middle of Vancouver (Canada) - not a suburb (like I live now), but we did all of that. The C64 games, the bikes (though I think we more often hoofed it), the D&D (and other games), the various petty criminal antics (mostly harmless).

My kids are jealous that they seem to have to "schedule" time with their friends when we were at each other's houses EVERY DAY (mostly mine, I had a vast spare room in the basement with the video games, futon couch, and weight set).
 

I grew up in a small town of a little less than 2000 people on the border of Washington and Idaho. We had free reign of the town and the fields around it As kids. Bike to the pool in the summer, sled in the fields in the winter.

I lived on a hill and my best friend at the bottom between us undeveloped land an an old gravel pit. Lots of us kid used to meet at the "Pit" after school. Build forts, have rock and stick wars, what not. It seemed huge as a kid but I just measured it and it was only about a 10 acre area where we roamed.

We all played D&D but were more preparing for Red Dawn than Stranger Things. We were convinced as 10 year olds our hidden forts would form the resistance against the Russian. Obviously they did too because they never launched an invasion.
 

Dire Bare

Legend
Wait... do kids not ride bikes anymore? What is the world coming to!?
Yes and no. Kids still ride bikes of course . . . although not as much anymore.

It's the freedom and lack of constant supervision. During school, you'd get home, check in with mom, and then you were off on your own until dinner. During summer, you had the entire day.

While it varies of course, kids these days aren't as "free-range" anymore. Parents are expected to know where their kids are at all times, and kids are expected to be under direct supervision at all times. It's gotten to the point that parents, in some areas, have been arrested and had problems with CPS (Child Protection Services) for allowing their kids to roam on their own to the local park.
 

GuyBoy

Hero
I grew up right in the middle of Vancouver (Canada) - not a suburb (like I live now), but we did all of that. The C64 games, the bikes (though I think we more often hoofed it), the D&D (and other games), the various petty criminal antics (mostly harmless).

My kids are jealous that they seem to have to "schedule" time with their friends when we were at each other's houses EVERY DAY (mostly mine, I had a vast spare room in the basement with the video games, futon couch, and weight set).
I guess one of the (many) reasons that Stranger Things hit such a note was memories of a time before play dates being organised by parents online, when kids used to go round to their friends’ houses and knock for them. Society has change and we can’t go back but the memories are still good.
 

Dire Bare

Legend
I was a Gen-X "kid-on-a-bike" and have great memories of roaming the neighborhood with friends, getting into fights, getting lost in nearby corn fields, being outside and unsupervised practically all the time. I compare that to how my nephews are being raised today, they are never out of sight of at least one of their parents.

I don't know exactly when or how this shift occurred in how we raise kids in the US, but we've lost something.
 

GuyBoy

Hero
I tried to recreate a bit last week with my grandkids (12 and 9) by taking them up to the ruins of Sutton Valence castle to play out the Cragmaw Castle section of the starter set.
Had a blast but didn’t try to steal any fruit from the local orchards!

PS just an idle question to US friends, in UK we called fruit-stealing “scrumping”. Didn’t sound as dishonest and was a bit of a time-honoured childhood tradition, now vanished. Is scrumping a word in USA?
 

WarDriveWorley

Adventurer
PS just an idle question to US friends, in UK we called fruit-stealing “scrumping”. Didn’t sound as dishonest and was a bit of a time-honoured childhood tradition, now vanished. Is scrumping a word in USA?
I have never heard of the word scrumping over here across the pond (I'm 46 and have lived in a variety of different locations in the US for context), especially for denoting the act of stealing fruit. I likely would have broken out laughing as a kid if I did.
 

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