Here is a challenge for you parents of kids age 8 or older: The next time you are out on errands, stop by the local park and let your kids run around and play. Then leave them there.
No, not forever. But give it 15 minutes. Go get your groceries and come back. Your kids will thank you.
The advantages of unstructured, unsupervised play are many. Kids get fresh air and exercise. They learn social interaction away from their parents. They get to explore. They gain a sense of freedom. They become self-reliant problem solvers. They have adventures.
And most likely, they will be just fine. And so will you.
Life is full of calculated decisions about what level of risk we are willing to take—with our kids, our partners, our work. But while a debate rages and parents question how much freedom to give their children, those children increasingly find themselves stuck inside. A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that kids age 8 to 18 spend seven hours and 38 minutes of time on entertainment media every day. Another study found that only 13 percent of children walk to school. When kids do get outside, they often play sports in a structured program, or they’re constrained in structured and stuffy playdates, usually under the watchful gaze of parents.
Many parents cite fear of crime and abduction as reasons to keep close watch over kids who, in prior generations, would have been roaming their neighborhoods freely. Yet studies show that crime is actually at a historic low. Kids are less likely to be victims of abduction or violent crime than their parents were as children, decades ago.
There is a growing number of parents who believe we’re restricting our kids too much, however. These parents are starting to challenge the societal limits of what is considered safe and acceptable, even spawning the Free Range Kids movement. Of course, there is no manual we can turn to for definitive advice on when it’s OK to let our kids out from under our wings. Some families have large backyards or woods behind their houses, while others live in busy urban centers where parks are a walk or a bike ride away. Below is a sampling of ideas some parents are exploring. You can decide for yourself what works for your family.
- Have your kids lead the way to the park. This increases their confidence and spatial awareness, and it shows you whether they are capable of getting back and forth on their own.
- The next time you are shopping, have your younger kids fetch something for you from the other side of the store. This is a building block to kids gaining independence and confidence.
- If your kids are 8 or older and reasonably mature, let them walk a few blocks to the park in a group. Try short durations at first. Fifteen minutes will lead to half an hour then to an hour.
- See if your town has designated Safe Routes to School or parks and use them.
- If you are nervous about leaving your children alone around the neighborhood, have them band up with other local kids.
- As you ease into free parenting, have kids check in periodically by cell phone.
- Teach your kids how to interact with strangers and when to say no.
- Don’t worry if you hear kids say, “There is nothing to do outside.” They will find something to do. Just give it time. Boredom is the mother of invention.
- Abandon the playdate. Just go outside and play.
This story by Ethan Hipple originally appeared in the May/June issue of AMC Outdoors.
Photo by Squared Pixels/iStock
Labels: Ethan Hipple, free play, Free-Range Kids, safe routes to school