An After-school Provider Laments the Crazy Rules

Hi Folks! Here’s yet another look at some insanely overprotective, unproductive rules governing anything having to do with kids. This rant/lament comes from Rick Rood, director of an on-site after-school child care program in the San Francisco Bay Area.  He has worked in the profession since 1990, and provides workshops and coaching for education professionals who work with school-age children.  He blogs at AfterschoolAnswers and is currently finishing his new book, “The Three Secret Pillars of Behavior Guidance,” even while he and his wife are raising kids aged 5, 16, and 17. This note came in response to a post about a YMCA that wouldn’t let a mom bring her 3-year-old in to use the bathroom because this was against the rules. – L

Dear Free-Range Kids:  I run an after-school program, and if that parent had come to our center, I would’ve had to tell them the same exact thing.  Our organization (we’re a string of 16 centers run by a rec and park organization) has a policy that outsiders are not allowed to use our restrooms. Why not?

One simple reason — liability.  The (very) sad fact is that the policy comes from our insurance company. I do my best to be a “Free-Range” director.  I don’t make these policies, and there are many rules and regulations with which I personally don’t agree. But it goes deeper than that.  Because of this “bubble-wrap” mentality, out-of-school-time staff have become more and more infected over the years with this insidious “worst-case scenario” type of thinking.

Some examples? Recently one of my teachers reported me to my boss for a Free-Range comment I had made.  One day, one of our children decided to sneak away from school and not come to the afterschool program.  This resourceful 8-year-old made it pretty much clear across our medium-sized town, heading to a friend’s house.  We followed our policies when he didn’t show up to our program: parents and police were called, and they tracked him down in pretty short order. After the dust had settled, I made a comment to one of our teachers (who I mistakenly figured held similar Free-Range ideas), saying that, while it was good that we found the boy, I was impressed with the boy’s resourcefulness and that maybe, as a culture, we shouldn’t call up visions of child molesters and abductors every time something doesn’t go as planned. The teacher went to my boss, and told her that he didn’t think I was very serious about protecting the children in our care.

Another policy: Kids can’t walk home on their own.  Again, liability.  How much could we be sued for if a kid breaks their leg or goes missing on the short walk home (we’re a neighborhood school),  even if the parent has given permission?  Frustrating to me because the odds that nothing bad will happen within a two-block walk are pretty astronomical, and then add to that the VERY tiny chance that their parent will pursue legal action (these are parents that we, as a rule, work together with as partners- and we have very good relationships with our parents).

Here’s a corker. Our local Little League uses the fields on our school grounds for practice and games.  Can we release the kids to just walk across the field (again on the SAME physical grounds) to practice?  Heck no… we require a “responsible adult” to come and sign them out and walk them the 100 yards to practice).  And, even better, by policy that “responsible adult” cannot be one of our staff members (even if the parents say it’s okay and we walk them every step of the way).

Finally, here’s a spot where I’ve rebelled (although quietly). At one of our “sister centers” (on the grounds of another local school)… they had a kindergartner who fell off the monkey bars while playing in the afterschool program and broke her arm.  Immediately, and with almost scary domino-like action, many of the other local centers (including the one in question) banned kindergarteners from the play structures (even though they’re labeled for use by kids 5-12 years of age).  No one ever made it an official policy, so my kindergarteners continue to enjoy play time on the play structure.

My main philosophy in afterschool care is that we exist to facilitate the emotional and social growth of children.  And if we’re going to succumb to the bubble-wrap philosophy of raising kids, then our mission is doomed from the start! At my center, kids will be allowed to play freely on the play structure, kids will be allowed to wrestle in the grass, and I will make free range choices in every area where they have not already been banned and by the regulating agencies, lawyers and insurance adjusters.  And unlike some of my fellow co-workers, I will not succumb to the “worst-first” type of thinking that stunts the social and emotional growth of the next generation. – Rick Rood

The Flashcard Backlash!

Hi Readers — Lovely article by Tara Parker-Pope in today’s New York Times about how we have been led astray by the flashcard mentality that says the more we DRILL our littlest students the SMARTER they become.

On the surface of it, the drilling idea makes sense: Why not efficiently shove info into our kids? Here’s the info, kids: Shove it!

But all the research (not to mention a million years of human development BEFORE flashcards) is suggesting that the way kids really learn is through PLAY. Even a game like Simon Says — or a variation that’s “Do the Opposite of What Simon Says” — can give a lot more developmental boost than another afternoon of  learning “F is for Foot.”

While the game may sound simple, it actually requires a high level of cognitive function for a preschooler, including focus and attention, working memory to remember rules, mental flexibility (to do the opposite) and self-control.

“We tend to equate learning with the content of learning, with what information children have, rather than the how of learning,” says Ellen Galinsky, a child-development researcher and author of “Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs.” “But focusing on the how of learning, on executive functions, gives you the skills to learn new information, which is why they tend to be so predictive of long-term success.”

You probably know that I dislike having to endorse a Free-Range approach because it is actually a “long-term success” incubator. But, hey, if you’re talking to parents who really believe LESS playtime means their kids will be MORE triumphant, it’s not bad to have a little ammo. – L.

Flashcards are fine…but not at the expense of play!

Play or Decay, Kids!

Hi Folks! Here’s a spankin’ new study that won’t surprise you:

Children who spend more than three-quarters of their time engaging in sedentary behaviour, such as watching TV and sitting at computers, have up to nine times poorer motor coordination than their more active peers, reveals a study published in the American Journal of Human Biology.

The study, involving Portuguese children, found that physical activity alone was not enough to overcome the negative effect of sedentary behaviour on basic motor coordination skills such as walking, throwing or catching, which are considered the building blocks of more complex movements.

“Childhood is a critical time for the development of motor coordination skills which are essential for health and well-being,” said lead author Dr Luis Lopes, from the University of Minho. “We know that sedentary lifestyles have a negative effect on these skills and are associated with decreased fitness, lower self-esteem, decreased academic achievement and increased obesity.”

The authors added that kids they studied — random kids, that is — spent about three fourths of their time being sedentary. Remember this when people look at you askance for letting your kids walk to school or spend time at the park without you. If you have to supervise them all the time they’re outside, they won’t be outside that much because — face it — adults have other things to do with their time. Let them OUT and you are being a GOOD parent, helping them develop the motor coordination they will need their entire lives. So THERE!  – L.

My Kids Are Not Allowed to Play Outside (So Now They Are In the Mobile Home with Me)

Hi Folks — This letter has me  down, but not nearly as down as the writer. When the authorities start to believe the world is worse than it is and hence that kids are less safe than they really are, naturally they see independence as dangerous. Free-Range Kids exists to spread the word that our kids are NOT in constant danger, and parents who believe in their kids are NOT endangering them. They are empowering them. Or at the very least, giving them a childhood. Any advice on how to change the zeitgeist FASTER is appreciated! – L 

Dear Free-Range Kids: I found your site today while searching for the law. Today the police visited my home after one of my neighbors called in about my children being outside alone…in our yard with a home on two sides and six foot fence on the other two sides. The officer said, “Don’t have me called back out.” So now, do I have to go outside with my children every time they go out? I have a chronic illness and sitting outside all day sucks for me. They love being outside. They come in for bathroom breaks, they come in to tattle, they come in to say “I Love You”… they are in and out every 5-10 minutes. I check on them anytime I pass the door, and I lay or sit next to an open window. If I call for them, they come to the door/window and answer as a “check in.” They will literally stay outside from wake up to 9 pm, when I force them to come in, with breaks for the above and for food. They were perfectly safe. I don’t know what to do. 😦 Do I punish my children and make them stay inside? Or torture myself, putting me in great amounts of pain to sit outside with them all day, every day?  I plan to call CPS tomorrow to see if they can shed any light on the situation.

Lenore here: I suggested the mom not call CPS, lest she alert them to behavior they don’t condone. Call me paranoid, I just keep getting letters from folks who’ve had run-ins with the authorities. So the mom wrote me another letter:

I believe a neighbor was standing on their porch and saw the boys outside. They have been playing outside together for more than a year now. They are not directly supervised as in me sitting outside with them, but I am not sleeping or GONE.  I can’t believe the officer told me he better not have to come back out! I’m incredibly nervous and haven’t allowed them outside to play at all since then. Today my back hurts so bad I can barely go to the bathroom, much less outside to sit with them. I am at a loss on what to do.

I have also had a different police officer tell me that my kids going to the bathroom alone is dangerous. I tried to explain Free-Range parenting and he said he still takes his 11-year-old daughter into the men’s room with him! It’s depressing here 😦

The mom and I wrote back and forth some more but the long and short of it is: How dare the auathorities declare kids cannot play outside IN THEIR OWN YARD! It’s like putting them under house arrest! Free-Rangers, all I can say is: please fight on. – L

Guest Post: Free-Range…in a Group Home

Hi Readers — Here’s a guest post from Darell Hammond, founder and CEO of KaBOOM!, a very cool, national nonprofit trying to ensure a playground within walking distance of every child. Hammond is also author of the New York Times bestselling book, KaBOOM!: How One Man Built a Movement to Save Play. So read this while you send the kids outside! — L

THE HIDDEN “PRIVILEGE” OF AN UNPRIVILEGED CHILDHOOD, by DARRELL HAMMOND

When I was 19 months old, my father went to unload a truck and never came back. My mother, who was left to care for eight children, didn’t raise us Free-Range on principle, but rather by default. She had to work multiple jobs, so we were left on our own for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Dinner was often butter and sugar sandwiches on white bread. My older siblings started skipping school, ostensibly to take care of us younger ones, but they sometimes ended up getting into trouble instead.

Eventually the bills piled up and my siblings’ frequent absences from school caught the attention of social workers. When I was four, we were all transferred to Mooseheart, a group home outside of Chicago. In many ways, life at Mooseheart was both Spartan and structured. I stored all my belongings in a single trunk; I shared a room with 23 other boys; I was summoned to classes, meals, and other activities by a whistle; and I needed written permission to move from one building to another during school hours and after dark.

But within this structure, I actually had an ample amount of freedom—more than many kids, including so-called “privileged” kids, enjoy today. For one thing, with about 1,200 acres of lush lawns, playgrounds, athletic fields, and basketball courts, Mooseheart was full of outdoor spaces for roaming and playing. And I always had other kids to play with. Rarely in my free time did I have an adult hovering over my shoulder—there simply weren’t enough adults to go around.

My childhood was unusual, yes, and certainly not desirable in every way, but it was my group home upbringing that initially opened my eyes to the importance of strong communities and of free play—even if I didn’t realize it at the time. It was Mooseheart that set me on the path to founding a community-building nonprofit dedicated to saving play—a journey I detail in my new memoir, KaBOOM!.

The Free-Range movement is often misinterpreted as a movement that gives parents license to be reckless, lax, and neglectful. Critics completely gloss over the vital role of community in the Free-Range philosophy. Say the words “child-directed free play” and they don’t envision a group of neighborhood children looking out for one another as they invent games, create new worlds, and explore their surroundings. No, instead they are haunted by images of stray kids running wild in heavily trafficked streets or careening helmetless downhill on their bikes (of course, as the pedophiles and child-snatchers lurking on every corner look on).

Beyond all the paranoia and hyperbole, the reality is that the world hasn’t become more dangerous; it’s that trust, community, and civic pride are eroding. Freedom for children without the backbone of community can be just as dangerous as too much structure—I know, because I lived it.

I would never advocate for children eating butter and sugar sandwiches for dinner, spending Christmas alone, or routinely missing school. But freedom within a strong, healthy, nourishing community—that’s what every child needs and deserves. – D.H.

What’s Wrong with This “Let’s Move!” Ad?

Hi Readers — What’s wrong with this commercial for the campaign, “Let’s Move” ?

Well, first of all, it assumes it is OUR JOB, as parents, to keep coming up with one-minute exercises that will some how magically take the place of an entire CHILDHOOD spent running around. Secondly, it doesn’t even remotely suggest that maybe kids can entertain themselves or be active of their own accord. Thirdly, all this “moving” lasts about a minute. So if you want your kids to move for even half a measly hour a day, you have to come up with 29 more clever little exercises to sneak into their schedule.

If we really want kids to get moving, we have to get them outside again. Playing. With each other, not us. Is that too radical an idea for “Let’s Move” to put forth? — L

Kids Freaked Out By Grass, Squirrels and Playing Outside

Hi Readers — A fellow named Brian sent in this note about kids and nature. It sort of dovetails with a study just released in England that found an alarming percentage of kids are spending so much time indoors, they can’t identify things in the natural world anymore, including daddy longlegs. I’m no huge fan of spiders, but daddy longlegs seem like they should be part of everyone’s childhood, one way or another. (Just not laying their eggs in Bubble Yum.)  — Lenore

No Child Left Inside

by Brian

Last year I had the opportunity to work at an Outdoor Education facility in Texas. It was an amazing job and I do miss it.  We took fifth graders for four days and taught them about conservation and ecology, but mostly we just had fun.  A few things struck me while working there:

First, very few of these students had ever been outside before. Really. Unmanicured lawns and overgrown trees were exciting to these kids. They’d encounter a squirrel and freak out.

Second, and scarier: The kids were afraid of EVERYTHING. Dark roads? Check. Not being able to use their flashlights on an illuminated pathway? Check. Sitting on the ground during daylight hours? Yup. The worst were the things they had been warned about by their parents: Wolves and bears and other large animals that NO LONGER even exist in this part of the country and haven’t for decades, if not a century or more. We spent the week teaching these kids not so much about the water cycle, as planned, but that nature (and the world in general) shouldn’t be feared.

One of our activities was to boat our group of kids out to an island and let them have free play. Yes, we had some rules. They had to (sorta) stay within sight of an adult and have a partner with them. You probably won’t be surprised by their initial reaction: they did nothing. The first ten minutes were spent staring at each other. Absent direct adult instructions these kids had no idea how to play.

Third, and worst: I’ll just give examples here. One student was sent with a suitcase full of little plastic bags. Each bag was labled “First Night Pajamas,” “Second Day Outfit,” “Extra Shirt, Second Day.” I’ve never seen a kid smile so big as when I told him to just throw his dirty clothes into his bag. This child had zero ability to think for himself.

Another of my students came from an extremely low-income area. (Actually, most of them did). He arrived with his classmates on Tuesday. He was a little homesick, but nothing bad. Day two went fine, homesickness was easily dealt with. He was integrating fine with the group and was enjoying himself by lunch. Day three, Mom arrives out of no where and takes her son home. Her reason?  Her SON couldn’t handle being away.  He would be home in less than 24 hours, but HE couldn’t cope. Now, our facility is over two hours away from their school. His mother hired a cab to take her to our facility and back. We priced out the trip from the company website: $400+, because mom couldn’t deal with her lack of control.

Worst of all, there were kids we never got to meet — friends the students would talk about whose parents refused to give permission. Kids whose names we’d call out, only to be told by their classmates that their parents had pulled them off the trip at the last minute.

Working at this facility made me a believer in your cause. Thank you.  –Brian