On a Tuesday afternoon in early spring, the athletic field in front of Darien High School is littered with boys and girls working on their lacrosse skills, as small rubber lacrosse balls soar in choreographed chaos, from one teammate to another.
The youth lacrosse practice officially begins at 6 p.m., as afternoon meets evening and the air grows crisper. Softball players are wrapping up practice a couple hundred yards to the left and baseball players are still taking cuts a few hundred yards to the right.
“There’s always lots of little munchkins running around those fields after school,” Superintendent of Darien Schools Stephen Falcone said.
That’s no surprise. Tiny Darien has a higher concentration of children than any other town in the state, census data shows. In total, 37 percent on the town’s population is under age 18, which is significantly higher than the state’s total child population, which rests at 23 percent.
More than two-thirds of the towns in Southwestern Connecticut exceed the state average for concentration of children, and seven of Connecticut’s top 10 towns with the highest density of kids are small towns in Fairfield County. After Darien at No. 1, Weston, New Canaan, Wilton, Ridgefield, Westport and Easton round out the top seven; they’re followed by Sterling, Hebron and Burlington at eight through 10, respectively. Greenwich is No. 11, Bridgeport is 17, Stamford is 23rd and Danbury comes in at 27.
Falcone, who has headed Darien’s school district for three years, said he thinks the town’s well-respected school system has something to do with creating a desirable atmosphere to raise children in Darien. But it’s not the only factor that draws young families, he said.
“It’s relatively small geographically, and I think people make connections ¦ We have a lot of parents who want to be involved, whether that’s coaching sports, or other ways to be active in the community,” Falcone said. “People say, `Hey the kids are really active and you can get involved too,’ and I think that’s attractive to families. They can have an involvement in their children’s lives and in these extracurricular activities.”
As the first small town over the Connecticut border from Manhattan, Darien boasts a shorter commute time to the city than any of the other small towns in the area, which allows parents to work in Manhattan and be involved in their children’s lives, he said.
That’s what drew Erik Dahlquist and his family to the area when they first moved to Darien from New York City 13 years ago.
“I’d grown up in Wilton, so I’m familiar with Connecticut, and Darien was an attractive commute to New York City for a Connecticut town,” said Dahlquist, who still works in the city. On Tuesday afternoon, he took off from work early, grabbed a train into town and changed into his lacrosse gear to coach the seventh grade youth program on the high school field.
“We fell in love with the ability to be near the water and the access to the city. Darien was just a good fit,” he said as his 7-year-old son, Ryan, worked on his ball-handling skills a couple paces away, his small head bobbling inside a helmet with “Coach Ryan” marked on a slab of masking tape.
Real estate agents Eileen Hanford and her daughter, Tammy Hughes, who work for Halstead Property in Darien, said Dahlquist’s profile when he first moved to the town fits the bill for the most typical Darien homebuyers they see.
“The general profile we see is either a couple who’s pregnant with their first child and they want to get out of the city to raise their kids, or the families with the 4-year-old and the 2-year-old who are realizing how virtually impossible it is to get your child into any type of private school in New York City,” said Hughes, who grew up in Darien and moved back a few years ago to raise her family in her hometown, where her mother, Hanford, still lives.
“There’s that family feel,” Hughes said. “It’s a small town — 14.9 square miles, and I moved here from Manhattan because I liked the idea that my children could ride their bicycles all over town.”
While the towns and cities closer to New York City have numerous schools, Darien is the first in Connecticut with only one middle school and one high school, which Hughes says helps seal the small-town feel. “Other towns, you can feel like there are seven towns in one,” she said.
While Hughes and Hanford can tick off a laundry list of attributes that draw young families to town, there’s another factor that could well be the key to Darien’s high saturation of children: Darien families are larger than families in other towns.
For instance, “Coach Ryan,” who attends first grade at Hindley Elementary School, is the youngest of Dahlquist’s three children. And like other kids stationed around the lacrosse field, he is just one of several in a line of budding athletes. For Kim Corcoran, lacrosse is a family thing; she has four sons and on Tuesday she was dropping off one child at youth practice, while picking up another from his high school practice.
With an average family size of 3.54 people, Darien has the largest families in the state, according to census figures. While the state of Connecticut as a whole sits in the center of the pack for family sizes when compared to other states, at No. 24, Darien’s family size is almost exactly on par with the state of Utah, which with an average family size of 3.55, has bigger families than any other state in the nation.
In total, eight of the 10 towns and cities with the largest families in Connecticut are in Fairfield County, with Darien, Bridgeport, Weston, Monroe and New Fairfield taking up the entire Top 5.
“Kids? Yeah, we have a lot of kids in Darien,” Falcone said.