Free play is so important, yet gets short shrift in our safety-obsessed culture. Parents need to learn how to cut a child loose, for his or her own benefit.
My boys spent several weekends this fall building a tree fort in the forest across the road from their grandparents’ house. While I’m a big supporter of outdoor projects, it is slightly nerve-wracking to see my 4- and 7-year-old sons heading into the bush, hauling brush to create their special place.
My inner dialogue runs wild: What if they got lost in the forest? No, they’re unlikely to wander away from where the action’s at. What if they get hit by a car, crossing the road? There’s hardly any traffic. What if a bear comes along? Don’t be ridiculous. Bears would stay far away from all the noise they make.
Worries melt away when I see their fabulous structure, built with some help from a teenage uncle. Red-cheeked and sweaty from the hard work, they are proud as can be. They show me their cannon, their spyhole, their battering ram, their cave, their lookout. This is heaven for them.
Kids need time and space to run wild and free, but it depends entirely on parents allowing them that freedom – something that is increasingly rare in a safety-obsessed culture. This is especially tragic because my generation of new, youngish parents is arguably the last generation to have enjoyed childhood freedom. If we fail to pass on that experience to our own kids, it will be much harder for them to implement in their future parenting.
There are legitimate hang-ups that get in the way of allowing kids freedom; so how does one go about addressing these? In an article for Outside called “The Importance of Free Play for Kids,” writer Katie Arnold gives helpful suggestions for how to set your child loose.
1. Build a community
Not everyone may feel the same way about free play as you do. Speak with neighbors to explain why and how you’ll be letting your child roam. Encourage other parents to let their kids out to play, too, so yours won’t be alone.
“Open the lines of communication with other parents about your shared goals for getting kids together for unstructured play and together strategize ways to make it a reality.”
2. Schedule unscheduled playtime
It may sound like an oxymoron, but in kids’ over-scheduled lives these days, it is helpful to set aside specific blocks of time that allow for free play. Purposely leave some after-school hours or weekends empty. The more you do it, the more normal it will feel for your family, and the more you’ll see the surprising benefits of unstructured activity. You don’t have to go completely overboard and cancel all extracurriculars. As Richard Louv, author of Last Child In The Woods and Vitamin N, says, “Some is better than none and more is better than some.”
3. Be a ‘hummingbird’ parent
Hummingbirds are much less obnoxious than helicopters! Sometimes parental supervision is necessary because your child is quite young and really cannot be unattended. In this cause, hover on the periphery, keeping an eye out but allowing him or her to explore independently. Sit on a bench in the park, stand at the kitchen window, read a book on a step. Be present, but uninvolved, ready to rescue if truly needed.
4. Aimlessness and adversity are OK
Why do we have such a phobia of boredom? Kids’ boredom is surprisingly fleeting, as I’ve learned from watching my boys. They complain, but inevitably find something to do. As long as their go-to distraction is not a screen, let your kids be bored. They’ll figure it out, and there is probably a lot more going on in their minds than you’d ever think.