Heard about “Free range parenting”, you know, groups of children, playing outside without adult supervision? Certainly the norm when I was a child and maybe for you too, but not in contemporary America. Having a schedule heavy with activities is the norm for children today with very little time for unstructured play, especially, unstructured play without adults hovering over the children. Is today’s “Structured” parenting approach best for children or was the more “Free range” version of childhood a better option? Stay tuned as we discuss issue of Portable Practical Pediatrics.
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Childhoods of the Past
Childhood used to mean being outside playing and running with the other kids that lived near you. In fact, having neighborhood children to play with was so important for parents in the past that they often made their home purchase decision based on the availability of neighborhood children. Having ready access to playmates in a safe free range neighborhood was vital. In generations past, once a child was old enough to cross the street by themselves, they were free… until dark. In my case, the rules were come home for meals or when it got dark. Yes, there were a few forbidden places off limits for wandering like very busy streets, train tracks, or bodies of water, but not many.
And what about the issue of structured activities. I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s, but as I think back, my first structured activities, outside of school and religious school, were little league baseball and cub scouts at about age 8 years of age. My first “lesson” of any sort was trumpet and tennis lessons starting at about age 12 years. The vast majority of my childhood was spent running around with packs of other kids. Here is a conservative estimate of my outdoor free range play in the neighborhood playing whatever when I was young, broken down by my age: 5-10 years of age-about 20 hours/week: ages 11-15 years of age- about 22hours/week. You can see that the vast majority of my childhood was spent outside, with other children, without adult around, just… playing.
A Shift in Childhood
Fast-forward to today’s children. What I see in my neighborhood in 2018 is that only the younger children play outside, usually in their own yards. I don’t see older elementary, middle school aged, or high school aged kids outside. My experience says that there is a dearth children of all ages outside, free ranging it. Where are they you ask? Why are things so different than during my childhood you ask? I think there are a few forces at work that can explain this dramatic change in childhood:
- Parental Fear of abduction-more on that in a minute.
- An abundance of structured activities-skill and resume building as I call it.
- After school care-, a necessity in today’s world of hyper working parents.
- And the availability of alternative entertainment, i.e. video games, on demand TV, and other types of screen time.
Let’s break these down one at a time, shall we? I think at the heart of the change in childhood play, is a prominent parental fear that their child will be abducted if an adult is not responsibly and constantly supervising all their play. Amber alerts and instant news transmission have made the risk of child abduction seem very high when in fact, a stranger abduction of a child is quite rare. , only occurring about 100 times per year in the US. It is actually an extremely uncommon event despite of being extremely newsworthy when it does occur. Let’s do the math. There were approximately 74 million children less than 18 years of age in the US in the last census (2010), which means that any one child has a 1 in 7,400,000 chance of a stranger abduction in any one year of their childhood, or a cumulative chance of a stranger abduction during their 18 years of childhood of 1 in 411,111- a very, very small chance.
Another modern trend that has changed childhood is the shift from unstructured play to what I call resume building. Parents today seem to think that one of their functions as a parent, is to instill as many skills in their children as they can, both academic and athletic by providing them with as many extracurricular activities as possible. It’s obvious that many children today are heavily scheduled, over scheduled, leaving little time for them to enjoy free range play and relax.
Another trend that has reduced free range play for today’s children stems from the fact that many children do not have a nonworking parent at home to care for them during daylight hours. That forces many children into after school care and structured activities, both with the obligatory adult supervision. They can’t be out running the neighborhood when they are at an after school program or learning how to do a flip turn in the pool, can they?
And finally, no discussion of modern childhood is complete without mentioning the ubiquitous screens that children are spending an ever-increasing amount of time with. Screen are a major force drawing children indoors and away from outdoors active play.
Which type of childhood is best?
I think you can tell from the way I described structured and free range childhoods, that I am a fan of a free range childhood. Here’s why. I think the children who have had the free range variety of childhood develop much better interpersonal skills than do those with mostly structure. I think all that time spent with other children, without adults supervising, gives children a better feel for the feelings of others and better problem solving skills. Think about it, a group of children, without adults around, have to do a number of things well in order to maintain play: choose the group of friends to play with, agree on a game, lay out the rules, decide how to resolve arguments, arbitrate disagreements without resorting to violence even when someone cheats or is wronged, use “adult like” judgement as to the safety of the game being played, care for one another when one child is hurt either physically or emotionally, protect playmates when threatened by other groups of children, and know when conflict gets so serious that play needs to be abandoned. When I think about it, that list of skills I just rattled off sounds like what an adult would provide if they were supervising children playing. Without an adult around, the children playing are providing the interpersonal skills that a supervising adult would, were this to be a supervised activity. That’s is why this kind of play allows children to develop the much needed adult interpersonal problem solving skills, what psychologists call internally-riven, self directed executive functioning skills, that are so vital for children to acquire. Free range play allows children to learn empathy, self control, sharing, and problem solving skills at a young age! In fact, they are forced to learn them, if, they are to have friends to play with.
On the other hand, I think it is probably true, that children who are able to have an abundance of structured activities during their childhood are able to master things like a wicked twist serve in tennis, play the Moonlight Sonata on the piano, or win many dance competitions- all laudable and valuable, but not as important as what children learn just playing with one another in the free range style. Research backs this up. Let me read you a conclusion from a recent scientific paper on the subject, “The more time that children spent in less-structured activities, the better their self-directed executive functioning. The opposite was true of structured activities, which predicted poorer self-directed executive functioning. ” My advise to parents today, make sure your children have an opportunity to participate in structured supervised activities but balance that with a heavy dose of free range play. I think you will be glad you did.
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