Help Needed! Your “Kids Outside” Stories for Dr. Drew TONIGHT!

Hi Readers — I’m going to be on Dr. Drew tonight discussing the idea of letting kids play outside on their own, a topic inspired by Saturday’s  “Take Our Children to the Park…and Leave Them There” Day.

If you have allowed your children to play outside, unsupervised, either on the holiday or on any other day, the Dr. Drew folks might want you to call in and talk about it on air. (Or they just might read aloud the story.) So they’d like you to do two things:

1 – Write your story here and indicate YEA or NAY if the producers can contact you. (I will forward them your email address if you say YEA.)

or

2 – Call or write to them directly.  1-855-DRDREW5 or 1-855-373-7395. Or write to them at: http://on.hln.tv/1SZ9PG

While we’re at it, if you have any great ways to open minds when parents worry, “But the risk is just not worth it!” and, “But predators will swarm the park if they know children are coming!” please pass ’em along. Always helpful! – L

They Left Their Kids at the Park and Then…

Hi Readers! Here’s a note I got from one of you right before “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day,” last Saturday, May 21:

Dear Free-Range Kids: We’re doing it as a communal group, with about 9 kids thus far from my various friends. We’re even letting them ride their bikes over instead of driving them. Our plan for the day is to go shoot paintball. (Why should the kids be the only ones to have fun with their counterparts about?)

I think parents need some non-parental time in their lives, which is becoming less and less these days as we become more paranoid about letting kids out of our sights. — Sean in upstate New York

Well Sean’s plan sounded good, so I asked him to let me know how it went. And he did!

Dear Free-Range Kids: The day went great. Since I’m fairly central to everyone, and close to the local park, my place got picked as home base. I woke up early, and knowing I was about to be taking on more than thirty people between kids and grown-ups, I started knocking out breakfast (I’m a cook, it’s what I do), which was made up of pancakes, eggs, bacon, sausage, and biscuits.My niece, who just turned five, helped with the eggs and pancakes, and thus needed to change clothes before people arrived.

Everyone converged on the house at about 7:30-8:00 am, and it was on. We went through a few gallons of sweet tea, a gallon of orange juice and several pitchers of Kool-Aid, and my niece kept regaling everyone about how she cooked the eggs and pancakes. After that, we packed up lunches for everyone, and put the eldest, 11, in charge — something she smiled almost evilly about. But we figured there were enough other kids to form a coup if it got too bad. She had a cell phone, the time and place for us to meet up, and was left with $20 emergency/ice cream truck money. Then we waved goodbye to kids as they all mounted their bikes and pedaled off.

The other twenty of us loaded up into cars and vans next, and drove on up to Scaticoke for a day of paintball, and because we had so many people, we got a group rate. We spent all day running back and forth through woods and hills shooting paint at each other, laughing, joking, and okay, a pretty good rash of swearing at times too, but everyone was having a blast. We did get a call while we were breaking for lunch because the 11-year-old didn’t know if she was allowed to use the pavilion for lunch eating. We assured her it was  fine. Then we ran around like idiots for another few hours after eating, and, thoroughly bedecked with paint, realized we were supposed to have left a half hour earlier.

When we arrived, there was Jenna with the rest of gang, tapping her foot like a parent watching her kid slip in after curfew. So we called for everyone to count off (a system we worked out so each kid has their own number, so we know immediately if someone is missing). The count went to nine, and then we hit a minor skid: it then went to ten and eleven. This ended up having an explanation.

The kids had arrived at the park with lunches as well as gear for some games such as Wiffle ball, kickball, ultimate frisbee, and soccer. Well, apparently, while they were playing monster ball (a mash up of kickball and wiffle ball), a couple neighborhood kids decided to join in, and Jenna had given them each a number immediately. The kids hung out all day, and this is where we found out something interesting: They’d all eaten their lunches together as well, even though the other two hadn’t brought any. Jenna and a few others had split part of theirs so everybody got something to eat, and the same went with the ice cream truck money. No one had to tell them, or force anyone to include them, and they hadn’t just been left out. The kids took care of each other without question, or prodding.

Well, we got phone numbers for the newcomers so they could set up some playtime again another time. From there, we rounded up our guys, and went off to  CiCi’s, an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet, for dinner. The only problem left was that pretty much all of the kids (and a few of the adults) fell asleep in the car on the way back. Otherwise, went off without a hitch. We’re probably going to set up another day like that somewhere in the future when we have time and money for it again. It was just too much fun to only do once. — Sean

The date on the photo of THIS park day is June 23, 2011 -- a hundred years ago!

SATURDAY! Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day!

Hi Readers! Here’s a piece I wrote for my syndicated column:

Coming up this Saturday is holiday you didn’t celebrate as a child, because you didn’t have to. You just got up, ate breakfast and sped off to the park. No big deal.

Except it is now. Around the country, the parks are empty. Or, if there are kids around, they’re tiny tots on the jungle gym with parents poised tensely below, arms open, ready for the worst. The older kids are at home on their computers, or off at travel soccer, or studying with a tutor. Or they’re simply told, “It’s too dangerous out there,” – “there” being any place beyond the doormat. That’s why I declared the Saturday before Memorial Day, “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day.”

Last year, when I started this holiday, it got the kind of treatment I have come to expect from the fear-is-dear media: It was ridiculed on about six or seven TV shows, with the reporters interviewing terrified parents in the park and coming back to tell the anchor, “Nobody thinks this is a safe idea.”

Of course not! How could they, when the “news” makes it sound like we are living in Armageddon? (Which, come to think of it, is also slated for Saturday.) Where do you think folks get the idea that the very same parks they played in as kids are now cesspools of danger and depravity? One network even interviewed a lawyer who hinted that any parent allowing a kid to go to the park could be charged with child endangerment, which is patently untrue, unless the child is extremely young and helpless. I suggest that kids be at least seven or eight years old – the age kids walk to school in the rest of the world — before being allowed to play for maybe half an hour on their own, at the local playground. Is that so nuts?

A lot of people think it is. But the idea that stranger danger is rampant is unfounded. Crime is DOWN since the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, when today’s parents were kids playing in the park. The societal ills actually trending up have to do with NOT playing outside: Childhood obesity, childhood depression, childhood diabetes. We forget that when we try to keep our kids “absolutely” safe, cooped up inside, there’s a tradeoff.

What happens when we give them a bit of the freedom we had?  Well, some bumps and bruises, of course, but some key developmental milestones, too.

When kids are – this is a weird word – “forced” to play on their own, they actually develop some rather amazing skills. The first is creativity: they have to create something to do, without pressing a button. Second comes communication: They have to explain the game to their friends. Then comes compromise – if the friends want to play something else – and diplomacy: making the teams equal. Giving the younger kid an easier pitch requires empathy, and granting that the ball was “out” requires grace. Those are all skills that kids will need later on in life, and even not so later on: The ability to wait one’s turn on the ball field develops the ability to wait one’s turn in class.

So “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day” is not an exercise in neglect. It’s the opposite: it’s nurturing independence, which just happens to be the end-goal of parenting.

If you want to participate, I’m suggesting that you bring your kids to your local park at about 10 in the morning, so that everyone in the neighborhood can meet each other. With any luck, suddenly the park will be alive, once again, with child development.

Er…you know, kids. Having fun.

Bring life back to the park!

Take Our Children to the Jungle…And Have Them Catch Tarantulas Day

Hi Readers!  As “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day” approaches on Saturday, May 21st, I find myself doing one of my favorite Free-Range things. That is, I remind myself that our hyper-fears for our children are out of whack with what many children face — and overcome — on a daily basis in the rest of the world.

After all, I’m only suggesting that we let our kids play for a little while at the local playground, unsupervised, starting at about the same age as these kids:

P.S. If you ARE planning to participate in Take Our Children to the Park…and Leave Them There Day, please leave a comment. The media want to know whether anyone would really do such a thing “in this day and age.”

Take Our Children to the Editorial Cartoon Day

Hey Folks — What a treat! After artist Richard Estell saw this anti-Free-Range cartoon in the New York Daily News:

Estell drew a cartoon of his own. (Note what it says on the newspaper in the garbage: Homelessness – Not Funny.) Thanks, Richard!

by Richard Estell

“Take Our Children to the Park…& Leave Them There Day” Are You In?

Hi Readers — May 22, a week from this Saturday, is the very first “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day.” The idea behind it is simple: Most of us want our children to play outside and have fun, but this is impossible because there aren’t any OTHER kids outside for our kids to play with. It’s a  problem folks often cite as the reason they won’t be participating in the holiday. But that’s precisely the reason TO join in!

Clearly we are in the middle of a vicious cycle — there are no kids outside so I won’t let MY kids outside, so there are no kids outside, so you don’t let YOUR kids outside, so I don’t let MY kids outside, etc. , etc., etc –which is why the holiday (or whatever it is) is even necessary. It is a day to break the cycle. A day to get kids outside to meet each other and re-learn the lost art of playing! As opposed to PlayStationing.

And once again, let me reiterate that this is not a day to leave our 2-year-olds in the park. It is meant for kids age 7 or 8 and up. And it needn’t be more than an hour or even a half hour. And you can just take a walk around the block, if that’s all you or your child are ready for.  And you can give them cell phones! I just want to get kids out of the house so they can frolick and maybe even plan to do this strange thing where they ask a friend to “come out and play”  again. And it’s a great time for parents to meet each other, too! The way to really make any community safe requires reviving just that — community! Connect with your neighbors and everyone watches out for everyone else.

To that end, I’m going to suggest 10 a.m. as a good time to make it to the park, if you can. Of course, any time is fine (well, maybe not 10 p.m.), but if we have an official “starting” time, there’s more of a chance that several kids will be at the park at the same time.

So — that’s the current plan.  Here in New York City there is some media interest in the day. Yay! So if there’s one particular playground in Central Park that you are heading for, let us know and maybe a bunch of us can head over there together. (I know there’s some big rock my son and his friend love to climb around 64th Street.)

That’s it. Let us be in touch! — Lenore

Wouldn't it be nice?

What The Authorities Can Do If We “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There”

Hi Readers — This essay is long, but so powerful it blew me away.  As we near May 22’s  “Take Our Children to the Park…and Leave Them There Day,” the author’s question is extremely relevant: What happens when WE believe our kids will be safe, but the authorities do not? Read on. And prepare for revolution.

WHO DECIDES IF WE’RE “NEGLIGENT” PARENTS? by Trip Grass

Years ago, when my mother and I were at the elephant seal breeding grounds in California, a guide explained to us why there were hundreds of seal pups still laying on the beach after their mothers had swum back into the ocean weeks before: “That’s the seals’ rather abrupt way of weaning their young.” Apparently, the pups make their way into the water when they become hungry enough. My mother nodded knowingly and said, “Oh, yes, that’s benevolent neglect. That’s how we raised our children.”

“Benevolent neglect” is a phrase she reserves for polite company. In reality, at the age of eleven in 1985 I was delivering newspapers by myself at five in the morning on a stretch of road that was thick with drug dealers and prostitutes. I shared the sidewalk with drunks who were still finding their way home three hours after the bars had closed. To my parents, there was no better place to raise a child.

Now I’m a father myself and my own five year old boy is desperate for any independence I might give him. So I was naturally intrigued when I read that the Free-Range Kids author, Lenore Skenazy, was declaring May 22nd Take Our Children to the Park…and Leave Them There Day. As an engineer, though, I’m sensitive to risk, so I first called Child Protective Services here in Tucson to see if this was even legal.

Looking back, I was probably a little blunt when I asked the woman exactly how far my son was legally allowed to wander out of my sight. Her silence was pretty condemning, but I continued on anyway. “Can he walk around the corner from our house by himself? Or, if we’re at the park, can he set off over the hill where I can’t see him?”

Eventually she answered. “Sir, if a 5-year-old is seen out of sight of a parent, that is sufficient cause to initiate an investigation.”

“So at what age can my son walk around the block by himself?”

“A 9-year-old is allowed to stay home without supervision,” she replied.

Despite her confident tone, there is in fact no clear law that states when a child can be on his own. The State Statute from which Child Protective Services derives its authority declares generally that parents are considered neglectful if their lack of supervision causes unreasonable risk of harm to the child’s welfare.1 But CPS on its website more specifically claims that neglect includes “leaving a child with no one to care for them.”2

It all seemed awfully vague to me. But then, again as an engineer, I was hoping for precise ages and time limits.

So I called another CPS agent to see if this was in fact as ambiguous as it seemed. She was more nuanced. She said if a stranger called CPS to report a child playing in the park alone, CPS might not know how to contact the child’s family and that would be that. On the other hand, if the same stranger called the police, the outcome would depend on the responding officer, but could be immediately more severe, for the officer could return the child home and pursue an investigation there, arresting the parent if the situation warranted it. In either situation, cases are determined on their particular merits by individuals operating under subjective guidance. She suggested I contact the local police department to determine their standards.

To that end I hunted down an officer, finding two on the neighborhood street. I posed to them the same question (with a less confrontational tone). Non-committal, they acknowledged that a great number of juveniles are latchkey kids and most officers wouldn’t look twice at a child alone who was behaving well. As these two men had middle-school-aged children, they both seemed to have a reasonable grasp of what that behavior should be.

Ultimately though, they were no more definitive than CPS in answering whether my son could go to the park alone. To quote them, “It depends…”

This ambiguity is extensive. I can’t even study it scientifically, because the very records that document what constitutes “neglect” — the court records and the CPS case reports — aren’t generally available to the public, as they involve juveniles. So in the end, it would seem, there is no legal certainty for us parents. The law will only be found in the courtroom, before a judge, on a case by case basis. Unfortunately, at that point, it’s too late.

Despite this legislative uncertainty, we can still see how significant a role CPS plays in our community. From their semi-annual report we find that in Arizona there were 1225 substantiated reports of neglect in 20093. With a statewide juvenile population of 1.4 million, this represents about one child out of 1100. But those cases were the result of over 19,000 investigations.4 That’s the family of one child in every 70 being investigated every year by CPS.

But wait, there’s more! Those 19,000 investigations had already been narrowed down from about 34,000 phonecalls5. Which brings the total to one out of 40 children a year having someone call CPS out of concern for that child’s upbringing.

Perhaps, since there is no clear law on leaving a child at the park, the numbers give support to what many of us parents feel out in public everyday: the cultural effect of CPS, the furrowed brows of neighbors and strangers who see a young boy biking down the block and think first to call a government department instead of slowing down their car.

I don’t want to make light of their mission. CPS protects children from very real abuse and neglect, from parents who beat their children or leave them alone for days. And I want to make it clear that if you leave your child alone and your child is hurt or breaks the law, you’ll likely be arrested. It’s that simple.

But I also want to make it clear that laws on neglect are subjectively enforced. And that’s why taking your kids to the park…and leaving them there is culturally  important, because it seeks to change our perspective, our world view, and the world view of every stranger who has CPS on their speed dial.

The policemen I questioned told me their personal concerns were for kidnapping and molestation. But laws on neglect aren’t intended to protect children from kidnappers and molesters. These laws are intended to protect children from their own family, where the real danger lies. So if the frontlines of enforcement aren’t clearly identifying the problem, if they intuitively believe it is about kidnapping, and if enforcement is a subjective decision, then it is critical to change that intuition, to clarify the purpose. When 96% of 34,000 calls a year to CPS are not substantiated — that is, when nearly all calls to CPS are wrong — we have a political and social problem, not a legal one. And the way to fight that is simple. It’s done by persuading your neighbors that children are okay alone. It’s done by making it normal for children to be seen acting independently. It’s done by taking your children to the park.

And leaving them there. — T.G.

SOURCES:

1. http://www.azleg.state.az.us/ars/8/00201.htm

2. https://www.azdes.gov/main.aspx?menu=154&id=2072

3. https://www.azdes.gov/CMS400Min/InternetFiles/Reports/pdf/child_welfare_apr_09_sept_09.pdf

4. These numbers are for cases of neglect only, for which allowing one’s child to walk around the block alone would qualify for an investigation. These numbers assume each case is a unique child.

5. There were a total of 57,192 calls in the 2009 reporting year, of which about 58% were for neglect.

ANNOUNCING MAY 22: “TAKE OUR CHILDREN TO THE PARK…AND LEAVE THEM THERE DAY”

Hi Readers : You read it here first! Free-Range Kids is officially declaring Saturday, May 22 — the weekend before Memorial Day– the very first, “Take Our Children to the Park… And Leave Them There Day.”

What?!

Just that. If our goal is to get kids back outside (it is), and playing together (it is), and for parents to relax (it is), and to start creating community again (it sure is!!!), then “Take Our Children to the Park… And Leave Them There Day” is a great first step.

Across the country — what the heck, across the world — parents will  converge upon local playgrounds and parks with their school-age kids. They will tell them to have fun, make friends and don’t leave with anyone. Then the parents will wave goodbye and the kids will amuse themselves for whatever amount of time they’ve decided with their folks. An hour. A morning. Or maybe even just half an hour, to get used to the whole thing, which, admittedly, sounds radical. But is it?

The crime rate in America is back to where it was in the early ’70s. Crime was going up then, and it peaked around 20 years later. By the mid ’90s it was coming down and continues to do so.  So the strange fact — very hard to digest — is that if YOU were playing outside in the ’70s or ’80s, your kids today are safer than you were! I know it doesn’t feel that way. In fact, here’s an interesting poll about how the majority of people feel crime is going up when actually its going down. But anyway, the point is:

Most of us used to play outside in the park, without our parents, without cell phones, without Purell or bottled water and we survived! Thrived! We cherish the memories! And if you believe the million studies that I’m always publishing here, kids are healthier, happier and better-adjusted if they get to spend some time each day in “free play,” without adults hovering.

I know there will be shrill voices insisting, “Predators are gonna love this holiday!” but keep a level head. Crime is down. Awareness is up. There is safety in numbers, which means getting kids outside again, together. This won’t happen until we actually start DOING IT.

So spread the word and be not afraid. Free-Range Kids never says there is no risk in the world, only that the risk is small and worth taking, as it always has been. The trade-off is kids who make up games, who solve problems, who discover nature and get moving (to coin a phrase). Kids who don’t need a screen to entertain them. Playing outside, on their own, is what kids all over the world do. We have forgotten how vital and wonderful it is.

Walk around your neighborhood. Do you see empty sidewalks? Empty yards? Empty playgrounds? It’s a waste — of childhood. Let’s bring it back, starting on May 22.

Feel free to add your ideas, caveats, endorsements and suggestions below. This could be the start of something big! (Or not. Guess we’ll see.)  — Lenore

Imagine.