Room to Roam: Encouraging
September 23, 2012

By Kristen Laine

If you want a sure-fire indicator of the divide between generations, ask people how far from home they could walk at age 8 without an accompanying parent.

The British organization Natural England gave a striking example of that generational divide in a 2007 report by researcher William Bird. In 1926, George Thomas was 8 years old and walked everywhere, including 6 miles each way from home to a fishing hole. His son-in-law, Jack Halliday, 8 years old in 1950, walked to and from school and about a mile each way to play in the local woods. In 1979, Jack’s 8-year-old daughter, Vicky, also walked each day to school and in warm weather walked on her own as far as the swimming pool, about half a mile from home. Vicky’s son, Edward Grant, 8 years old in 2007, roamed no more than 300 yards from his front steps. He was driven to and from school, driven to safe places to ride his bicycle, and seldom took part in an activity without adult supervision. Edward would like to have played on the street by his house, his mother said in the report, but “he doesn’t go out because other children don’t.” Edward’s great-grandfather was then 88 years old and still, he said, “a keen walker.”

This severe contraction in children’s room to roam has occurred in the United States, as well. Reasons given for the shift are many and intertwined: low-density suburban development, the rise of car culture, fewer stay-at-home parents, increased homework, fears about children’s safety. Not long after the Natural England report was published, an American mother let her 9-year-old son take the New York City subway home from Bloomingdale’s department store, alone. In a column for the New York Sun about her son’s foray into subway independence, Lenore Skenazy wrote that he’d been begging her to “leave him somewhere” and let him find his own way home. So she gave him “a subway map, a MetroCard, a $20 bill, and several quarters, just in case he had to make a call.”

To someone from an older generation, that Skenazy’s 9-year-old son took a 45-minute subway ride by himself probably wouldn’t seem unusual or surprising. But when national TV and radio shows picked up the story, the response of many parents was that Skenazy was guilty of neglect or child abuse. One talk show identified her as “America’s worst mom.” Yet as Skenazy pointed out in her column and in other articles since then, New York City is safer now than 40 or 50 years ago, as are most U.S. cities. The media’s constant stream of bad-news stories, in her view, has skewed the perspective of America’s parents, schools, and communities. The risk, she argues, of protecting children from childhood — of putting knee pads on toddlers, of prohibiting free play at recess, of refusing to let children talk to strangers or walk to a friend’s house unaccompanied — is that they won’t learn crucial skills for navigating the world as adults.

Skenazy has joined a chorus of researchers, educators, and community members calling for more room for children to roam — and added “free-range children” to their phrasebook. Her blog and book of the same name debunk fears and what she calls “worst-first” thinking, or “taking the worst possible outcome and acting as if that’s likely to happen.” The blog and the book highlight the benefits of letting children roam, such as increasing children’s creative problem-solving abilities and independent thinking, and offer statistics to ease parental anxiety about children’s safety.

I recently spoke with Skenazy, who offered the following advice for creating “free-range” children and communities:
- Turn off the TV. As TV viewers, we’re riveted by bad news; in fact, as human beings, we’re wired to pay attention to bad news, so we can avoid it for ourselves. Constant media coverage of rare occurrences, however, makes us think that the world is scarier than it actually is. The best way to counteract this tendency, Skenazy says, is simply to ignore the temptation to overreact. And the best way to do that may be turn off the television when — or before —such stories come on.
- Counter “worst-first” thinking with real-world numbers. If your child’s school bans children from snow play or throwing balls or playing tag at recess — all actual cases — ask the school to put numbers to the risk involved and challenge them to weigh that risk against the developmental benefits of play.
- Let children play together without you around. “Kids play differently on their own,” Skenazy says. She points to a recent study that found that children at a playground played less when their parents were present. “Without you there,” she says, “they get bored. Boredom is good. It’s so painful that they’re forced to do something to relieve the boredom. Now they’re problem-solving. Let’s say they decide to throw a ball around. They have to figure out the rules, negotiate, compromise, exercise creativity.”
- Give children opportunities to practice self-regulation. Learning how to control emotions and play with a group of peers is an important skill, and in Skenazy’s view best learned away from interfering adults. “If I’m your mom,” she says, “I’m going to let you take a fourth swing at a ball, because the sun was in your eyes. But if you’re playing with a group of kids, they’re going to tell you you’re out, go to the end of the line. When you go to the end of the line, that’s self-regulation,” she says. “Nature made play so much fun that kids stick with it,” even as they’re learning to deal with inevitable disappointments and defeats.
- Create communities that support free-range children. “One of the antidotes to fear is community,” says Skenazy. “You can tell the health of a community by how many children are outside.”
o Join together to create safe environments for free-ranging children. “I’m not against safety,” Skenazy says. “I’m all for seat belts and food regulations and bike helmets,” she says, but notes that numbers back up those safety measures. “Kids need sidewalks and stop signs,” people who obey the speed limit, and people they know in the community, she says.
o Encourage children to talk to strangers. Children need to know the adults in their community, and know that they can rely on them. Trick-or-treating at Halloween, selling Girl Scout cookies, collecting money for good causes, or simply greeting neighbors on the way to and from school are all ways that children can become acquainted with the adults in their community.
o Build trust. If you’re at the bus stop or the playground with a group of other parents, Skenazy suggests offering to watch all the other kids. “Our kids don’t each need individual bodyguards,” she says. “You’re saying, ‘We can help each other, and our kids can rely on any one of us.’ You’re saying, ‘I trust you, and you can trust me.’”


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