Australian Police Chide Parents Who Let their Children Walk Outside

Hi Readers! Down in Australia I’m sort of happy to say a tempest is brewing over whether it is up to parents or police to decide when a child is “old enough” to walk around outside. According to this story  on the home page of the Sydney Morning Herald:

Officers told a Hornsby mother it was ”inappropriate” for her 10-year-old daughter to catch a bus unaccompanied, and warned a Manly father whose seven-year-old son walked alone to a local shop that while they would not alert DOCS [Dept. of Community Services], they would file a report.

Really? File a report to say a child was suspiciously…fine? Tell another parent that her  child is doing something “inappropriate” by…being competent?

Are these officers doing anyone an ounce of good? Don’t they realize that if they have nothing to do but warn parents about their perfectly poised offspring,  there probably isn’t a whole lot of crime going on for anyone to worry about?

And of course the bigger issue is, as always: Who decides what is “safe enough” when it comes to our kids? Free-Range Kids would rather not leave it up to   power-drunk, horror-hallucinating, infantilizing  busybodies with badges. – L.

A Sweet, Simple Free-Range Success Story

Hi Folks! In the midst of all the usual nuttiness, let’s celebrate a nice little moment, courtesy of a  mom of four in Nebraska. You’ll note, she takes a lot of precautions because this was a first. Eventually, she won’t need them and neither will her kids because they’ll all be more confident and competent,  which is pretty much the Free-Range goal! — L.


Dear Free-Range Kids: Just wanted to send a little note about our own personal Free Range Success story. Our family recently moved from the Northern Virginia/DC suburbs to a small suburb of Omaha, Nebraska. It is much easier to be Free Range when all of your neighbors are doing it too! Kids walk and ride their bikes to school here by themselves, roam the neighborhoods, etc.
.
Anyway, my kids were always trying to find ways to spend their allowances, but I was sick of the clutter they were bringing home. So I suggested that they think about using their money to attend a movie. We have four children, and taking everyone out to a show is cost prohibitive. But if two of the kids wanted to spend their own money to go by themselves. . .
.
We decided on The Adventures of Tintin, as my older two (boy age 9 and girl age 11) have read the comics and it’s not a movie that my younger two would want to see. I picked a matinee hour, gave them notes to keep in their wallets in case someone questioned them or they needed to call me (similar to your “I am a Free-Range Kid” note), and we talked about the various scenarios that could go wrong and how they would handle them (movie never starts or is cancelled for techincal problems, I’m not waiting for them outside afterwards, etc.). I made them come out after buying their tickets so I could check that they had purchased the correct showing, and they went skipping back in to buy their snacks and watch their movie.
.
Needless to say, they had a wonderful time. They shared a popcorn and pop and enjoyed the show. They realized my son’s wallet was missing, and asked for the lost-and-found. When it wasn’t there, they returned to their seats and found it wedged between the seat and the armrest. They came running out to find me waiting for them and to tell me all about it. My daughter had expressed surprise (and maybe disappointment?) that no one had questioned them. I told her that if they behave like adults, they will be treated like adults. They thanked me for letting them go. They were obviously very proud of themselves and I am obviously very proud of them.
.
When I posted this adventure to Facebook, my brother commented that he and my younger sister were similar ages when they went to the movies by themselves. He said they sat in the front row and he spilled their pop all over the floor. Twenty years later, it’s still a fond memory for him.
.
I would never have done this were it not for the Free-Range encouragement. Thank you for  making our society a saner place to live. – Nebraska Mom

Maybe it's time to let your kids escape to the movies...by themselves?

Outrage of the Season: No Winter Recess, Safety Ground Cushioning “Too Hard”

Hi Readers! We are so concerned for our kids’ safety, the apparently the safety of our safety precautions isn’t safe enough, either. Read on.  – L

.

Dear Free-Range Kids: It’s been a beautiful week in upstate New York, with temperatures nearing 60 mid-week. But students in my school district cannot play on their school playgrounds.

.
In January, the Saratoga Springs School District announced that all school playgrounds would be closed until sometime in April, since the cushioning material under climbing structures is frozen and therefore deemed unsafe.
.
Ironically, the safety material we installed–and I’m sure it wasn’t cheap–is unusable for up to five months of the school year. According to our district safety specialist, there is no approved playground surfacing material that is safe to use during freezing weather. If a school has outdoor space without climbing structures, they can use that for outdoor time (for instance, a basketball blacktop), but my 9-year-old daughter’s school does not. So that means she has “classroom recess” day after day. She’s given up on trying to find some way to play, and she sits at her desk and finishes schoolwork. They have a brief (less than 5 minute) recess in the gym before lunch, and they have gym class twice a week. But otherwise, they have no outlet for their energy.
.
After Girl Scouts this week, the adult leaders were exhausted–they couldn’t figure out why the girls were bouncing off the walls, unable to sit still and do an activity. It seems pretty clear to me that the loss of recess is the culprit. I can’t imagine what it’s like in the classrooms day after day, and I feel very sorry for the classroom teachers. If they cannot invent–and supervise–an indoor activity (Zumba videos on the SmartBoard?), their students will be increasingly restless, irritable, and unable to concentrate.
.
After a difficult discussion at a PTA meeting, our principal has promised to try to come up with alternatives to playground play. But the district will not budge on re-opening the playgrounds while it is still winter. Keeping students off the playground may prevent one or two falls, and I’m sure it reduces liability. But it creates far more risks than it avoids.
.
It’s time to restore balance to our safety policies. Yours — A Saratoga Mom
.
Lenore here again: Readers, has anyone out there researched this? Is  standard playground safety cushioning truly  UNsafe in cold weather — like, less safe than blacktop? Or do the manufacturers warn that it is, so no one can sue them if a kid falls down? Anyone familiar with this issue and can give us some insight or solve this district’s problem? 

Since when do we let kids play outside in the winter?!?

A 4-Page Playdate Waiver? Is This the New Normal?

Hi Readers — This mom wrote to me wondering if what she just experienced is normal. I’m wondering, too! — L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: I have a situation perhaps your readers can help with.  Yesterday my daughter came home from playing at the “new” neighbor’s house with a 4-page liability waiver that they want us to sign!  Wow!  I guess that dangers lurk over there – in the form of a trampoline – and if she is going to set foot on their property she needs a release first.   I can’t help but feel paranoid – should I then be worried about having their kids over at our house, because the first thing in their mind is legal action?  Has anyone heard of such a thing? Is this the new normal for making friends?  — Stunned Mom

Why Johnny Can’t Run

Hi Folks! This is my piece that ran in last week’s Wall Street Journal. Have a good week (and some “vigorous activity”). – L.

The Importance of Child’s Play

by Lenore Skenazy

A new study of how preschoolers spend their days may make you want to run around screaming, which is apparently more than the tykes themselves get to do. After interviewing child-care providers from 34 very different Cincinnati-area centers—urban to suburban, Head Start to high income—researchers found that kids spend an average of only 2% to 3% of their day in “vigorous activities.”

Can you imagine that? Children spending 97% of their day not running around? It’s like a desk job, except with cookie time. Excuse me—apple time. When you consider that three-quarters of American kids aged 3 to 5 are in some kind of preschool program and a lot of them come home only to eat, sleep and go back again, this is beyond sad—it’s bad. Bad for their bodies, their brains, their blubber. Baddest of all are the reasons behind this institutionalized atrophy: The quest for ever more safety and education.

“Injury and school readiness concerns may inhibit children’s physical activity in child care,” writes pediatrician Kristen A. Copeland, lead author on the study, which will appear in next month’s Pediatrics but is already available on the journal’s website. Let’s take a look at both these concerns, the twin fears haunting modern-day childhood.

Fear of injury: The centers, the parents and the state regulators are all so worried about injuries that they end up steering kids away from play. They do this in part by only approving playground equipment that is so safe it is completely boring to the kids. As one child-care provider told the investigators, “We used to have this climber where they could climb really high and it was really challenging. Now we have this climber that looks cute, much cuter than the old one, but it’s not as high and . . . scary.”

“Scary” equals “fun” for kids. (It equals potential lawsuit to everyone else.) Faced with this pitiful excuse for a plaything, the kids started doing things like walking up the slide. But of course, that is verboten, too, because a kid could get injured! As several child-care providers told the authors, “the [safety] guidelines had become so strict that they might actually be limiting, rather than promoting, children’s physical activity.”

Uh, “might”?

Fear #2: Falling behind. The trembling triumvirate of child-care providers, parents and regulators also worries that kids must perform at a certain level when they reach school, so play time is sacrificed for academics. Some parents specifically request that their kids not participate in outdoor activities but “read a book instead”—an attitude that spans the economic spectrum.

The funny thing is, if you are really concerned about children’s health and school-readiness, there is a very simple way to increase both. It’s called playing.

Kids learn through play. When kids play, they’re not wasting their time. They’re learning everything from motor skills to social skills and numbers. Think of all the counting that comes with hopscotch, or with making two even teams. Those activities are a lot more fun than flash cards, but they teach the same thing: math. Kids playing outside also learn things like distance, motion, the changing of the seasons—things we take for granted because we got time outside. But many of today’s kids spend all their daylight hours in child care.

Then there are the social skills. The planning (“I’ll throw the ball to you, you throw it to Jayden”) and the compromise (Jayden always wants to go first), and the ability to pay attention. These are key lessons for anyone about to go onto another 12 years of education, not to mention another 50 years of meetings after that.

And on the physical side of things, kids outside literally learn how to move. Joe Frost, a professor emeritus at the University of Texas and author of 18 books on child’s play, has been watching for decades as dwindling time outside and increasingly insipid equipment got to the point where many 21st-century kids “are unsafe on any environment, because they have not developed the strength, the flexibility, the motor skills that come with being a well-rounded child.” They don’t even know how to fall safely, which makes them more likely to hurt themselves. So much for making kids safer by limiting their playground time.

As for the biggest health risk of all: 19% of kids are showing up at kindergarten already obese. They’ve started out on a life of couch potato-dom. Some don’t even know how to skip. “We’re seeing what we used to call ‘adult’ diabetes in children as young as 3, 4, 5,” says Dr. Copeland.

In striving to make our kids super safe and super smart we have turned them into bored blobs. Fortunately, the remedy is as simple as it is joyful: Just see the playground the way kids do. Not as an academic wasteland. Not as a lawsuit waiting to happen. Just the very best place to spend a whole lot of time.

Warning! Divorced Dad at Home During Sleepover!!!

Hi Folks! Here’s why I rag on the parenting magazines. Not only do they obsess about every little detail of parenting as if it’s a make-or-break  decision, but often they indulge in Worst-First thinking (dreaming up the worst possible scenario and proceeding as if it is likely to happen). Here’s a shining example, cribbed from a longer article in Parenting (via CNN), titled, “The New Playdate Playbook.” It’s a Dear Abby-like list of Q&A’s  for parents totally stressed out by the enormous difficulty of planning, running, overseeing, perfecting and interrupting their kids’ playdates. (And “sitch” is, of course, short for “situation.”)- L.

The Sitch: You’ve accepted a sleepover invite for your daughter, not realizing that only her pal’s divorced dad will be home. You’re not OK with it. What to do?

The Solution: “Call and say ‘I’m sorry, and this is about me and not you, but I just don’t feel comfortable with a man supervising an overnighter,’ ” says Paone. Offer to host the girls at your place instead, if you can, or ask to turn the sleepover into a “late-over,” where your daughter stays only till bedtime. In the future, always ask who’ll be on duty before you say yes to a sleepover.

Lenore here again: Because…a man is assumed to be a predator unless his wife is around? That’s the working assumption every time your child encounters a single dad? Is this advice or indoctrination? Is this sane or paranoid? Would it possibly make more sense to (as I always suggest) teach your child to recognize, resist and report abuse, rather than to assume the very worst is going to happen when they encounter a male of the species?  Just askin’! — L. 

A Child Visitor to America Asks: “Where Are All The Kids?”

Hi Readers — This note was originally a comment on the post below this one. Its poignancy hit me particularly hard because today’s New York Times has a piece by Jane Brody — “Communities Learn Good Life Can be a Killer” —  about the effect of sprawl on health, autonomy and, of course,  childhood. I’m not sure how to suddenly re-urbanize vast swaths of suburbia, but I’m glad that city planners are looking into it. — L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: Before moving to my current home in Germany 6 years ago, I lived in a small town (about 5,000 people) in a different part of Germany. It was very Free-Range. Kids of all ages played outside in the smaller streets without adult supervision. The older kids watched out for the younger ones when a car drove by. Kids were always out playing in the neighborhood, either in the streets or at a local playground.

When my son was about 4 or 5, my family (husband, son, me) took a trip to California to visit family. In all of the neighborhoods where we stayed, nobody was on the streets. My son finally commented, “This must must be a really lonely place. Nobody is here.” He was so used to seeing the German streets in his neighborhood alive with kids playing and adults walking, cycling, or running. The empty streets in nice neighborhoods in California really threw him off.

During another CA trip, when my son was 9, he commented that he wouldn’t want to live there because you have to drive everywhere. He likes being able to walk or ride his bike over here and doesn’t really know anything different.

Kudos to Lori for making her town less of a “lonely place.” She is a beacon of hope for the Free-Range movement.  — Sue Biegeleisen

Helloooo? Anyone NOT home?