Home on the Free-Range



Back in 2008, Lenore Skenazy from New York City had her then 9-year-old boy ride the subway by himself. The kid wanted to. He knew the city, could read a subway map and was armed with a MetroCard and quarters for the phone. After returning home from Bloomingdales, where his mother had left him some 40 minutes earlier, the boy was ectastic to have journeyed alone. And his mother wrote a column in The New York Sun about his adventure.

Problem was, other adults weren't ready to witness a kid that age, capable or not, traveling by himself. Faster than a New York minute, the columnist mother was appearing on the Today Show, NPR, MSNBC and Fox News, defending herself as she put it: “NOT to be “America's Worst Mom.” She went on to start an organization, write the blog mentioned above, publish a book, appear on TV, be a guest speaker -- in short, captain a small movement. So when my son almost burned down the neighborhood recently, I thought maybe Ms. Skenazy had passed along the torch to me, and William had become the main clucker of the free-range farm.

The desire to give kids a taste of freedom, and danger has been a popular topic of late.  - COURTESY OF THE US FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE

It was the beginning of our Spring Break. The kids were home and most of their friends had flown south with their families for a little respite in the Sunshine State. Mine were bored. Big-time bored. But I have tried in earnest to give my boys some space when they have breaks in their schedule. I don't try to make the most of every minute with activities or teaching moments.

Instead, I let them hang out and find things they want to do. I tend to think it is a lazy approach, at least for me, but it seems to take the pressure off creating and sometimes forcing an experience, and it provides my kids with the opportunity to be creative with their own time. So at the beginning of the week, George had a friend over, William was just hanging in his 13-year-old lair, and I busily pulled out pots and garden accessories from the garage. William joined his brother and the friend outside and I thought, See, I DON'T have to program every minute for my kids. They can figure out a use for their time and not fight. There is a god.

We have an bag of leftover fireworks from last July fourth. William has periodically asked to take them out and light them (always when I'm home) so when he asked if he could set off some bottle rockets on this beautiful day over spring break, I agreed. I set the firm condition that William didn't send those fireworks in the direction of his brother and friend.

In full compliance, he fired off some fireworks into the creek that backs up to our home. But then as I pulled a flower pot into the yard, I heard William yell in a breathy and frantic way, “Mom! There's a fire!” He ran down the creek's embankment, and I joined him. And yes, there it was -- a ring of fire with wind fanning it, inching toward our backyard's grass at the top of the embankment.

George and friend waded over to the opposite side of the creek and watched as William and I used a cooler and bucket to try to soak the fire out. I yelled to William to call the fire department, and as he did a neighbor's son walked over as cooly and calmly as we weren't and helped me hook up the tangled garden hose to the spigot. The fire continued to burn through the wintered-over leaves, sticks and brambles, and William and I continued to freak out. The sirens approached and the water from the hose turned the small blaze into a smoldering black circle on our creekside. Disaster averted ... this time. As for the bottle rockets?

Back in the closet.

Do you have a Free-Range kid? This isn't a child who eats his or her fair-share of free-range brown eggs from Whole Foods. Skenazy defines it on her Web site, as a kid raised in a household that uses a common sense approach to parenting in these overprotective times, an approach to rearing kids that encourages parents to provide their offspring with a chance to stretch and grow. These children are secure in the knowledge that it's okay and even encouraged to make some mistakes all on their own and often in private without the helicopter parent swooping in to pick up their little Johnny or Janie.

It is a movement that arose from great debate and the storm hasn't let up with a couple in Maryland recently under fire for letting their two children, aged 10 and 6, walk home alone from a nearby park.

Adventure playgrounds, like The Land featured in a documentary of the same name, offer kids a safe space for (mostly) unsupervised play. Yes, including fire.

Studies have shown that constant adult supervision in structured formats impacts creative, free-form play. The Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT) is a battery of tests that quantifies how well a child (or adult) can expand upon an idea. The Daily Beast reported that it has been shown to be highly correlated with success, more so than even IQ. With scores on the TTCT steadily dropping since the '80s, both children and adults are today significantly less creative than they were in the past any way you feel like measuring it.

Tethered to me, my kids have fewer chances to hang out with friends and engage in creative play. This type of creative play is crucial for developing constructive problem-solving, creativity and critical thinking, says Susan Linn, Ed.D., author of The Case for Make Believe (New Press). Stuart Brown, M.D., the founder of the National Institute of Play, has said that this unmonitored friend time, even if it's rowdy and chaotic, is a vital part of childhood. As a parent we set limits. There are boundaries. We provide a safe environment with some rules and reduced choices. But as parents, we have to accept the lumps and bumps as part of childhood –- and maybe even a singed embankment.

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