Go Play Outside: Alone?

My son is not yet two years old, but I can already see that 1. he is a severe extrovert and 2. he loves being out of the house. So, what does this mean for his adolescent years, when the most natural expenditure of his energy will be to go outside and play with his friends–without my supervision?

I mean, seriously.
Am I willing to let my 10 year old son out in Over-the-Rhine to play, or to walk alone to library for that matter?

The issue of unsupervised youth has come up recently in the news, among friends, and in the parenting class we’re involved with at our church. And now we’re asking ourselves these same questions again.

When our son is ten years old, who will he play with?
Where will they play?
Will I let them play alone?

There is a lot of talk in parenting circles about the dangers of the modern world. And it’s almost comical the steps some parents take to protect their children–everything from fairly benign re-designing of public playscapes to be “safer” for kids to the more ridiculous tracking their movements with GPS chips.

Thanks to some links from CityKin, I have been reading in on the conversations among radical parents across the nation who are defying the modern ideals of a “safe childhood” and are instead raising their children to be wise, independent, and self-reliant in the world. These particular folks call the movement “free-range kids,” and have some great things to say about how ridiculous we’ve become in our quest to protect our children from the “dangers” of the modern world.

I am quick to admit that my husband and I do often question the wisdom of raising children in the city, mostly because of two issues: this apparent need for more supervision in an urban environment and the lack of greenspace and natural areas. But, we decided that the benefits of an urban lifestyle were worth combating these problems rather than allowing them to send us to the suburbs (where we know parents deal with the very same issues, anyway).

For families like us who believe that urban living is inherently better than a sub-urban lifestyle (for multiple reasons which I am always willing to defend, but cannot go into here) and want to know how to keep your children safe without going bonkers about every possible danger, I have a few suggestions:

1. Be realistic about danger.

We all know that life is dangerous, and that there are people and ideas and places that can hurt us lurking around every corner. But, the only real way your children will learn to combat danger is to face it with wisdom and discernment. And if your children are never exposed to uncomfortable or seemingly dangerous situations when they are young and are never forced to navigate their world alone as they grow older, they will never gain the skills in problem-solving and adaptation that will make adult dangers much easier to navigate.

2. Let go. Slowly.

Children who are locked in child-proofed homes or fenced in manicured backyards are given no opportunities to practice the art of trial and error. It is normal and healthy for children–even very young children–to make mistakes. Without falls and bumps and bruises, children never learn to navigate dangers or to correct their mistakes.

Now, there are obvious limits to the dangers we should allow our children to confront at a young age. This is why I say, “Let go. Slowly.” But, let common sense be the guild as you allow your child’s environment to get a little more risky all the time. Watch them closely for their first few years and you’ll see how they naturally adapt to their surroundings and learn skills to confront new problems as they grow.

3. Let kids solve their own problems.

Some examples:
Once your child can climb up and down the stairs, let him. Even if it takes longer.
Once your child can open the door, ask him to open it for you.
Let your son get his own shoes. And put them on, if he can.
Let him figure out where he left his toy, instead of finding it for him.
Give directions and be patient as he tries to follow them. Don’t help if he doesn’t need help.
Let your child solve petty conflicts with friends on their own, without your mediation.

Allowing young children to clean up their own messes, entertain themselves, do their own work, and solve their own problems will pay off in dividends as they grow older. A child who is competent in his own little world will have an easier time navigating the world outside his front door. He will be more resourceful, more resilient, and more responsible. And since you have watched how competent he is at home, you will be more likely to trust this competence to help him outside of the home.

4. Have a lot of kids.

Now, I understand that most people don’t want a dozen children, but hear me out on this. Having multiple children–i.e. built-in playmates–is great for urban living because if your 7 year-old daughter has two older brothers to take her to the park, she doesn’t need you to do it.

And if having multiple children is not your cup of tea, you could simply make an effort to get to know other families in the immediate, walkable area. And if there are no other children nearby, or if you don’t trust the other families nearby to be with your kids, then you could always start an intentional community. (I’m totally, 100%, serious about this, by the way. No creepy cult-talk intended.)

Basically, the “safety in numbers” scenario is a great way to calm a parent’s worry and keep children safe.

5. Get outside.

By “get outside” I mean you should physically leave the house and get outside with your young children to explore your neighborhood. This is helpful for two reasons. First, the best way to decrease “stranger danger” is to have fewer strangers. If your child knows and is known by the local grocer, the woman at the bank, the postal worker, the librarian, and the guy who is always begging for change outside the library, then there will be five more sets of eyes watching him venture out into the neighborhood by himself some day. Stop worrying that everyone in your neighborhood might secretly be a pedophile and get to know them. Learn their names. Introduce your children. And learn what it means to actually be a community.

Secondly, this principle remains true for strange places, not just strange people. If you know your neighborhood, and spend time in and around your neighborhood with your children when they are young, they will know their way around as well as you do. They will know which intersections are busiest, which streets to avoid, which coffeeshops serve the best hot chocolate, and where to buy tissues when they get a bloody nose playing in the park. Teach them how to get to the police or fire station, the library, and the grocery store. Make your environment familiar to your children and they will be a million times more secure and discerning when on their own.

At our home, we are lucky to have a small backyard which will provide at least some opportunity for our young children to play alone outside in a confined environment. But, our small backyard will not be enough for a young boy who wants to ride his bike or organize an ad-hoc baseball game. So, I hope that by the time our son is old enough to venture out of the house by himself, we are ready to let him. And, even if I’m not ready, I want to make sure that he is.

What about you?
Where do you live?
Do you feel safe letting your children out alone to play?
Why or why not?

Food for thought:
Read this
story about a radical “holiday” for kids.
Could you do it?

And check this out. Adventure Playgrounds.
Wow. I plan to write more about this, eventually.

2 thoughts on “Go Play Outside: Alone?

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