Free Range Childhood

I’m dead tired and sat down to write a few happy thoughts while watching a TV show online. One of the happinesses, as you’ll see when I post them, was in watching Cameron play without direction, without too much of a time limit, and only a little guidance.

Mom mentioned how important unstructured play time is to children’s development, possibly more important than all the structured lesson time they get in school. We sat on a driftwood log at the beach, watching Cameron stuff a sand-and-rock ‘house’ with at least sixteen rocks and shells he hopped over, calling them Santa, and giving each a unique Santa name. The only guidance I had given him, I think, was in building the house with four walls and a roof. This type of playtime is when he reinforces patterns he already learned, explores new ones, and creates with minimal judgment or interference. As I’ve mentioned before, I firmly believe that just as tiger cubs learn the hunting skills they need to survive in the wild by playing, creative play is how Cameron and other kids learn the tools they need to survive and be effective in our wild world.  Free time for play is something that has come up in conversations with local parents frequently, and I’m quite glad that the parents of the kids Cameron spends the most time with outside of daycare are on a similar wavelength.

You never see kids in our neighbourhood just going to the playground or just riding their bikes. At an age where my friends and I as kids roamed the yards freely, “bye, be home for supper, say please and thank you,” was the parental attitude, and we were walking to and from school unchaperoned, these kids don’t seem to walk to the neighbour’s house without a parent guiding them.

The after-daycare or school activities are mind-boggling. I spoke with the mom of one sweet little four-and-a-half year old girl at the playgym the other week – I’ve known Lucy for some time, as she marched right up to me over a year ago and introduced herself. Lucy’s mom was talking about how she picks up her daughter after daycare and they’re off to classes – music, swimming, ballet, you name it. They’re looking at kindergartens and one appeals to them simply because it’s Monday to Thursday. Fridays are open for taking classes, and the mom sounded relieved as she didn’t know how she would fit it all in otherwise. My question: “All what?” Don’t misunderstand me, as I do plan to enroll Cameron in soccer this spring or summer, swimming classes when I can get him into the ones at the pool I want when it works for our schedule, and once he’s older music and perhaps a martial art. But not all at once. Not so that he’s scheduled to do something every single night and all day both weekend days as some families seem to start doing at around four.

Kids don’t even seem to play before school any more. I remember walking to school with friends, then hanging out playing until the bell rang to call us in. On our morning walk to the bus Cameron and I watch parents line up in cars and minivans to drop their kids, primary up through high school, off at school. The uniformed kids then are chaperoned inside by adults waiting for them, and if we’re running just a few minutes later we see structured games and sports, lineups to attend morning services (they are Catholic schools), and kids sitting in classrooms. Of course, you say? These are schools, after all. Yes, but before 8 am, when school starts at 8:45? Even at the primary level you don’t see kids just playing there, generally.

I don’t want to sound like I have my nose in the air, that my view is better. Except I guess I do feel that way. I mean, when do kids just play? Is the ever-shrinking recess play time adequate? Are cities today so much worse than they were when I was a child? Granted, we didn’t live in a city, but from what I hear even the suburbs are like this. Is free play a luxury only kids under three can afford? Is that sufficient play to ground them for their entire lives? Do the skills the kids are learning at these classes really enrich their lives and make that much of a difference to them as adults that it compensates for lost play time? I’d love to hear from other parents and educators on this one! Janice, you’re the expert that comes to my mind here!

This coming Saturday there is a TV show, Lost Adventures of Childhood, that I very much want to watch. I wish that CTV would post whether or not they’ll be placing it on their online viewing site – but since I have no TiVo here, and 7pm is not ideal TV watching time in our home, I’ll be figuring out how to set the VCR’s timer. Let’s see what Scott Harper, the producer and director, has to say on this matter.


6 responses to “Free Range Childhood

  1. I’m a big believer in free play as well. It ry to leave the girls alone to be free to use there imagination and find their own way to entertain themselves. But, like most things, there is always a happy medium.

    I have Grace enrolled in 2 art classes and 2 dancing classes. All are 45 minutes long and are finished by 10:30 am. My thinking is that she loves going, and without them, we’d probably still be in our pajamas! They force us to be dressed and out the door 🙂

    I think the level of supervision is different now form when we were kids. We I was little, everyone’s mom was SAH. Everyone had a backyard and a playroom. It is simply NOT POSSIBLE for Grace to walk to her friends house by herself in this urban centre. So we arrange play-dates where the kids play and the moms drink coffee and chat, often at a park or community centre, because there isn’t much room for play in condos.

    I don’t believe it is more dangerous now than it was in the 70’s. I do think we are more aware of the dangers. I know that if something happened to my child because I let her walk to school/friends house by herself, people would be tsk tsking me for not supervising my child and I’d be considered an irresponsible parent.

  2. I definitely agree with you that free play is important. I do think that fun activities that expose them to different things are good too.
    Balance is key – i think there is time for both.

    I used to think that the trends you’re talking about were mostly a result of more moms working and kids spending their time at daycare. That’s why we just don’t see them outside playing at the park any more, right? But as a stay-at-home mom, i can’t tell you the pressure i get from everyone that he should be in preschool. Since he turned two, i’ve been getting disapproving comments from people that he should be attending. So even when moms are home, there seems to be the idea that they should be enrolled in some kind of formal education. Just seems to be a different mentality these days, whether moms are home or not.

  3. well, i have a lot of opinions about this, but the best thing about this is: the tables are turning

    with “experts” (omg, don’t you just love the experts?) now writing books on exactly what you said, and the trend is now toward learning-through-play.

    Helicopter parenting is next on the chopping block as the thing to be mocked.

    which i also don’t believe in, but what are you going to do. i believe the biggest flaw in our societal system is that we seem to always need someone to crucify and a supportive network of parents always gets sacrificed to this fickle god

    I love to let Lolo do “free play” but it’s because it makes my life easier, i get time to myself. Lolo’s never seemed to have a problem involving me or asking for help, and it gives me insight into what’s going on in her strange little mind.

    i’m often surprised to find out what’s she’s learned while at daycare/preschool that i didn’t know about. or hear snippets of our conversations repeated back to herself (no hitting!)

    Lolo doesn’t (at first glance) appear to have the imagination that Cameron does. no imaginary friends of any kind, and a HUGE ego (“i’m not LADY, mama, I LOLO”)

    but i mirror your concern about the idea of sending your child off to public school (or even private school) and not having it do the job it needs to do.

  4. Hey fellow single mom blogger! I found you off of 🙂 so happy to see another intelligent, free thinking woman out there. We aren’t all Octomoms, right?

    Glad to meet you! I will add you to my blogroll

  5. Hi !
    Great article!
    It is not just about free play but also reconnecting kids with the outdoors and all the fun things you can do outside!

    Visit us at and see what other moms and dads are doing to reconnect their kids to nature.

    Proud puddle jumping mom!

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