Since my daughter was three years old, she’s gone outside to play. By herself.
All right, she’s not really by herself. Although she’s an only child, we live in a townhouse complex where a number of other children also play. There are stumps, bushes, and small trees to climb, and a big bamboo forest to hide in. There are bigger kids to help her along. Last summer found her and her eight-year-old friends hiding in nooks around our complex, creating forts in the shrubs. It’s an attempt at a free range childhood, suburban style, and it’s exactly why we live where we live.
I listen to older adults reminisce about a childhood spent exploring the fields and forests around their home. “Oh, but you couldn’t do that nowadays,” they say. And why not? Often, it’s because we’re terrified. Risk has become something that scares us silly. We’re afraid of other people and afraid of the risks that kids might bring on themselves.
I value a free range childhood – letting my daughter just play, preferably outdoors. Why? Because just playing is one of the best educational tools.
Unstructured Time Builds Creativity
Whatever happened to finding your own answers? Children have a lot of structured activities nowadays. Between dance and piano lessons, soccer and baseball, it’s hard to find time to just play. But free play is what allows children to talk out social scenarios, create imagined worlds, mess about with building things, and generally get creative without adult interference. If we’re trying to create a society that will have creative solutions to future problems, our children need to be able to create their own solutions rather than only participating in scripted activities.
I’m not saying that you need to get all Lord of the Flies in the forest, but putting kids together in free play does help them make their own social decisions. I like to watch my daughter learn how to navigate social situations by herself. If she’s having trouble, she can come to me for a discussion about what to do next. It’s tempting to micromanage every small social situation, but it’s important to give her some space to make her own decisions as well, since that’s what she’ll need to do more and more as she grows up.
Connecting With Nature
Something else that’s disappearing from our kid culture is free play in the outdoors. When children are outside, they are often playing a specific sport. Afterwards, they head inside to play on their electronic gadgets. In a world that’s facing numerous ecological crises, and in a world in which reclaiming good, old-fashioned homesteading skills is very important, what better way to learn about nature, gardening, and animal care than by playing outside?