The Convincing Case for Sending Your Kids Outside to Play Alone

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Freedom in Childhood is Vanishing

Growing up, kids and adolescents in my neighborhood ran around outside all day until long after the streetlights came on. We’d climb trees, build forts with real tools, jump on trampolines, play football in the street, go swimming sans parents and ride public transportation all over the city, even at night. To be clear, my friends and I did some truly stupid things. From throwing rocks to climbing on roofs to jumping out of trees on a dare to never wearing sunscreen to dangling in sewers and cruising on our bikes without helmets. We didn’t always use our brains, yet I emerged from childhood unscathed by my outdoor time, and so did most of my friends. I never broke a bone or had stitches. I was never kidnapped off the street or run down by a car. We did learn how to navigate the world and our relationships with others. Our parents gave us some advice. They warned us about “stranger danger” and told us to look both ways before crossing a street, but mostly, they let us run around making decisions, becoming independent and having fun. My mom was far from perfect, but I have to admit, she did give me freedom, and for that I’m endlessly grateful — because in this respect I had a childhood full of normal healthy outdoor risks and adventures.

Kids today aren’t as lucky. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, points out that many parents today fear the outdoors, including such simple acts as letting a kid climb a tree or hike alone in the woods. I agree. In my neighborhood, it’s utterly quiet. There are no kids zooming around on bikes or playing ball. I don’t see kids holding outdoor tea parties or running through sprinklers. As an adult, I can count the times I’ve seen kids climbing trees on one hand. Kids sit inside playing video games or watching TV. Kids today don’t walk to school, even if they live nearby. I know maybe three kids who are allowed to ride public transportation. All the other kids I know are driven everywhere by their parents. I’ve met teens who aren’t even allowed to walk down the street to the park or corner store alone. When kids do get outside nowadays, it’s almost always with a parent by their side. At my son’s last slumber party, many kids he invited couldn’t come because their parents felt they were too young for a sleepover (at 12 or 13 years of age!?) and the ones who did come, came with a long list of dos and don’ts. I understand protecting kids, but keeping kids on house arrest is puzzling.

brave kids, free play, free range kids, freedom for kids, kid freedom, kids inside, kids outside, obese kids, over protected kids, stranger danger

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How Will Your Kids Remember Their Childhood?

So many kids trapped inside would be unbelievable if I was just seeing it with my own eyes, but research shows it’s really happening.

  • The same research above found that 96% of parents say their kids have experience playing video games, but just 61%-74% of kids have visited a national or state park or gone hiking.
  • Be Out There notes that the average American child spends just 4 to 7 minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day.
  • 8-18 year-old kids spend an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes using entertainment media in ONE day. That’s 58 hours a week.

My childhood, and maybe your childhood as well, is full of memories of outside adventures, fun with friends running around, the thrill of going to the city alone and much more. I worry that kids today won’t have these fun memories, instead remembering their childhood as a time when they were stuck inside, sitting endlessly in front of a screen. That’s one of the most depressing thing I can imagine. Later on, what will your child remember?

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10 Responses to “The Convincing Case for Sending Your Kids Outside to Play Alone”

  1. jerryjohnson says:

    LOL, stating all of those statistics actually heightened my anxiety about abduction and accidents. Oi, this article did NOT help. Only 50??? Are you joking???

  2. 216stitches says:

    It’s like toxic sunscreen for babies, or toxic fire retardant on kids clothes; are we really protecting them or ruining their lives? Now would be a good time to become a therapist, because there will be thousands of people needing it.

  3. 216stitches says:

    It’s like toxic sunscreen for babies or toxic fire retardant on kid’s pajamas, are we protecting them or ruining their lives? Now is a good time to become a therapist.

  4. rachelmcclary says:

    Only 6% of kids age 9-12 play outside alone. No wonder other people look at me strangely when I let my under 5′s play in the street. Great article

  5. karencoutts says:

    My kids do not watch TV, do not play video games, and regularly play outside. We go camping many times a year. They climb trees REGULARLY, as in nearly daily year round. HOWEVER, only recently have I allowed them (oldest is almost 11) to walk the 200m to school by themselves. You see, even if there are only 50 abductions a year who are not returned (um… being abducted and being returned, but the kids having been sexually abused… is that all right with you, because the article suggest that if they’re “returned” that that is somehow better?)… I do not want mine to be one of the 50. The problem is, you never know when you have a freak trolling your neighbourhood.

    In the city where I live, children HAVE been abducted and disappeared forever, there have been many attempted abductions, and also rapes (but those children are returned, right, so that’s okay)? One man here was a serial rapist of young children. He even raped children in front of their siblings, some teenagers, so obviously they weren’t well enough protected even when in groups. He’d been doing it for years. Decades. Many incidents weren’t widely reported, so we parents found out when they finally caught him.

    Will this be the day that the person, usually a neighbour in most cases, decides to abduct my kids as they’re walking to school? Walking to school is a time predictable activity, predictable in time and place, and it’s pretty easy to set up near a school and grab kids if they’re alone. I always worry when they are walking to school alone that this will be the day. I live in a neighbourhood where the homes are all worth 2 million dollars, so this is a “nice” neighbourhood. But how do I know that this won’t be the day, or the place…

  6. Jennifer Chait says:

    @rachelmcclary – I’m glad you let your kids play outside. That’s great.

    @karencoutts – if you let your kids walk to school, you must trust that they’re safe though right? Not about to be kidnapped, or why let them walk to school? Most parents won’t even do that. It’s smart to teach kids to run away if approached by someone who makes their gut jumpy or teach them to hang in groups, but I can’t see the logic in zero freedom for kids based on something that may happen. Kids are at risk every time you put them in a car, but millions are ok with this.

    People in general, throughout their lives are likely in more compromising situations then they will ever know – when they travel, move to a new place, climb a mountain, play sports, etc; but to not have those experiences, it just seems like a life not lived. I’m really glad you’re letting your kids walk to school and that they get outside often.

  7. JustWow says:

    There seems to be some confusion when this article is cited on other blogs.

    Just to clarify, are we talking about a 6 year old child, left alone and unsupervised, in a park, a block or two away from their home?

  8. Jennifer Chait says:

    @JustWow – this article is not about one specific child of a particular age. It’s about parents allowing their kids of various ages some freedom to go outside to learn, play and grow. If you have a link to an article you’re talking about it would help define what you’re asking maybe.

  9. CharisD says:

    Jennifer, I just wanted to compliment you on this well thought-out, well-researched article. Amen, Sister! I am passionate about spreading this information to other parents so that they can have more accurate and realistic facts about the safety of their children, as well as an understanding of how important it is to teach our kids to be street smart and self-sufficient. I actually stumbled upon your article while doing research for a presentation for the program I am beginning to facilitate age and developmentally-appropriate freedom for kids in my area. Keep up the good work!

  10. Summer27Rayne says:

    Like Jennifer Chait says this post makes it seem like just because the child is returned it is ok that they were abducted, which doesn’t account for whatever might have happened to them before they are returned.
    As a mother you are instinctively scared for your child’s life. I do agree that they shouldn’t be sitting in front of a screen all day like some poor souls out there, but just because a parent is outside with there child doesn’t mean they are being over protective. As far as expanding boundaries for a child the main thing isn’t age, the main thing is ‘Is the child ready to take this new responsibility’ and every parent decides differently whether there child is ready to go around the block by them selves at age 8 or not. You also have to consider the circumstances in your area, for example if there are reports of child abduction or anything or anyone suspicious, heck ya I would be terrified to let my child rome the neighborhood by them self. Ya it probably is good for kids to experience mistakes to learn from and pain of some sort, but you don’t have to sit aside and watch them make a mistake that will hurt them for the rest of their life, why do you think we have parents.

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