Why have we deprived our children of opportunities to develop skills like autonomy, problem solving , or resiliency? We keep our children close because our perception of danger is high and we fear the worst.
Growing up in the 1970’s, my best friend lived next door and we’d head out on a matching pair of Schwinn Fairlady bikes--mine in lavender and hers in pink--any day the weather permitted, which was pretty much every day in Los Angeles. A wild wonderland lay two blocks away: dirt trails carved out by other kids who’d trail-blazed the steep vacant lots, and thin streams of bare dirt cut through the tall, dry weeds snaking up in a hundred erratic directions for us to explore. Pumping our legs until the bikes rocked side to side, we’d “catch air” over makeshift ramps as the wind cooled our sweaty brows, hair whipping behind us. It had been a good day if we came home with dirt on our clothes.
On afternoons and weekends, we spent hours under a birch tree building fairy gardens of sticks, pebbles, and moss--out of sight of our parents. We gathered allowance coins and walked several blocks by ourselves to the grocery store to buy our own bubble gum or chocolate. While our parents were at home, we raced around the block on Big Wheels until the street lights came on.
Although small adventures like these are some of the best memories of my childhood (like many in my generation), I am guilty of limiting my own children’s engagement in this kind of self-directed play. In dozens of studies, parents raised in the ’70s have reported the same: their children spend less than half the amount of time engaging in unsupervised, unstructured outdoor play than they did in their own childhoods.
Why have we deprived our children of these opportunities to develop skills like autonomy, problem solving, or resiliency? We keep our children close because our perception of danger is high and we fear the worst. Yet, crime rates are down since we were young and that’s not just for the children we keep under our watchful eyes; it’s true for adults, too. What will play look like for our grandchildren? Is this a trend or a swing of the pendulum? A 2014 article from Slate linked below has some captivating ideas and graphs on the subject, including an interactive slider of survey responses from the 1940s-1990s to statements such as, “When respondents were allowed to use the stove or cook alone.”
2014 Slate article: "The Shortening Leash"
While I am not advocating, the Let Grow Project offers some good food for thought and an opportunity to reflect on the ideals shared by those in the project. You can find more about it here: Let Grow Project's Mission
Lower School Science Teacher