02 October 2014

"Free Play" in today's society

I've been working on this for a week now, off and on, and I just need to hit "publish" because I've been staring at it too long and can't tell if anything makes sense anymore...

This article from Michael J. Lewis at First Things about the long-term negative effects of a lack of free, unstructured play has been circulating recently among moms I know. In general, I found myself agreeing with the author: there are important lessons that kids don't learn, or have to learn as adults, when they don't get enough free play, and over the last couple of generations our culture seems to largely have stopped regarding free play as a necessary part of childhood.

I'm so grateful that my parents had a big yard and felt strongly about sending us all outside every day to play in the yard and in the woods—we made friends with the neighbor kids, played all kinds of disorganized sports, built and razed civilizations in the snow and the mud, the woods and the sandbox and our imaginations. I'm pretty sure I was elected Grand High Zamboni Driver at one point, of a race of woodspeople that was unfortunately abducted to Zorgon by a one-eyed one-armed flying purple people eater before they could build an ice rink. It was tragic. 

When parents' solution to a child saying "I'm bored" is to hand the kid a list of chores, and electronic entertainment isn't an option, kids learn to entertain themselves. The books they read also influence how they learn to entertain themselves. I'm not talking about classic literature, necessarily; we certainly read a lot of that, but I think that the way our games evolved was more heavily influenced by imaginative adventurers like the characters of Brian Jacques' Redwall, Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons, and of course Lewis' Narnia books and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Living in Alaska, with easy access to no-other-people-for-hundreds-of-miles wilderness, epic adventures were not only appealing but possible.

We learned so many skills through coming up with our own entertainment, never realizing it until years later: leadership, cooperation and collaboration, respect, inventiveness, planning ahead, the ability to look at a chore or a pile of junk and turn it into something everyone wanted a part of.

The sort of free, unstructured play, by and large without adult involvement, that Lewis lauds and I grew up with seems like an experience many kids are not getting these days. A "play date" is today's substitution for the good ol' days' free play, but the fact that the parents and not the kids are the instigators and organizers (and that "organization" is really even involved) makes it a poor substitution indeed, Lewis argues. I'm not sure I'm convinced that his description of typical play dates isn't a caricature—there most likely are parents who run play dates by dictating what games are played and providing constant policing, but surely it's not the norm? I don't know. If I meet a friend at a park to let our kids play, we mostly just stand and talk, not getting involved in little 2-year-old bickering unless someone is legitimately in danger.

Lewis' piece ended unsatisfactorily, though, expounding on the problem of a lack of unsupervised play and young people's resultant inability to handle risk, but not attempting to offer a resolution other than the easily inferred "It was better the way it was back then, so modern parents should start giving their kids the freedom ours gave us." (To be fair, those are my words not his; he could have intended that a different conclusion be drawn and I missed it.) I think, though, that this solution misses a major reason that parents don't let their children roam the neighborhood anymore the way my parents' generation was able to as kids: it isn't safe. Parents in the 1950s and 60s didn't have the same level of (legitimate) concern that many parents today do about some evil person stealing their children. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the FBI's National Crime Information Center registered reports of 462,567 missing children in 2013. Even in neighborhoods where parents have confidence in their kids' safety, giving their children the level of freedom the author talks about is likely to get the police and Child Protective Serivices called and their children potentially taken away—as Lewis pointed out, a South Carolina mother was arrested this summer for allowing her daughter to play unsupervised.

Perhaps the problem is partly one of shifting population densities. Mayberry probably doesn't exist anywhere anymore, but small rural towns have wildly different interpersonal dynamics than big cities, and maybe parents still feel free to give their kids more autonomy in such towns. In rural areas like where we live in Alaska, at least in families who live a part- to full-subsistence lifestyle, the portrait Lewis paints of modern parenting is incomprehensible. Mom and Dad don't have time to helicopter parent when they are splitting wood for the fire, hunting and fishing and gathering wild berries and putting up garden vegetables for the winter. Think Little House on the Prairie, but with electricity and indoor plumbing. The kids help out, and they find their own entertainment if they don't want to get more chores because they are underfoot!

So what solution am I offering, if I complain about Lewis' lack of one? Other than moving to a rural area, which clearly isn't any more practical for most people than just snapping our fingers and returning to Mayberrian society. I don't know. The urban social environment today doesn't seem able to foster the kind of unsupervised play that teaches kids these life lessons. It's easy for me to look at our particular circumstances, our environment, and say "this is why we're never leaving Alaska!" But that's not actually helpful to parents in more urban places. 

Awareness of the need for unsupervised play, in whatever level your kids can achieve where you are, is probably the first step: resisting the urge to step in, make decisions and resolve conflicts for them unless adult involvement is truly necessary, and reevaluating what "truly necessary" means with different children and at different ages. How else will our kids learn to solve their own problems, to develop their abilities to lead and invent and negotiate? It can be hard! As parents, we want our kids to be happy. But what we really want is what's best for them, and that means giving them ample opportunity to make their own choices and mistakes, and to grow from them.


  1. Our play dates usually go something like this: "I want Leo to come over sometime!" "Ok, I'll call his mom and we'll set up a time." Then Leo comes over on the (yes, prescheduled) date, and the boys run around and play while his mom and I get to visit and have adult conversation. I don't think I've ever had anything structured for a playdate, other than when and where it's taking place.

  2. I agree totally with your take on it. Things are not the way they used to be, and that has its good sides and bad sides. You can't always let your kids play with the neighbor kids. Not everyone can feasibly live in the woods.

    Free play can happen in a home or small backyard - I think it is more a style of parenting that allows for freedom and limited intervention (not limited interaction) - as in allows little conflicts to be resolved by the kiddos themselves. A parent who plays with the kids but does not invent or limit their play. A parent to allows messes and failures and experimentation. A parent who protects and cultivates the imagination. This is the type of parent I hope to be, even if I am currently raising my boys in a rather shady neighborhood with a tiny house and tiny backyard.

  3. Have you read the Anthony Esolen book Ten ways to ruin your child's imagination? It is similar to this article. An interesting read, although I agree with his philosophy only in a limited sense - I don't like all the negativity and his insistence that the old days were the golden days and the modern world is definitely going to hell in a handbasket so hide your family in the woods. I will pass it along to you if you wanna read it.

    1. I've heard people reference it before, but have never read it. We're hoping to be in town next month; hopefully we can see you, and maybe I could borrow it then?

  4. "Think Little House on the Prairie, but with electricity and indoor plumbing..." Wow, that's actually a pretty good description of our childhood. We were lucky, as I am realizing more and more the longer I am away from Alaska. Still, there are ways to allow kids the space and freedom to develop their imaginations and characters outside that glorious state. Even if one lives in a city, if he has a car, he has access to woods and rivers, though probably at a distance. The need for space to breathe and think is not limited to kids either, though more important for their character development; adults need a place to clear their minds of the cloying confines of societal norms, and stretch their legs and lungs and imaginations. I think the reason for the imaginative poverty of kids these days is that adults have stopped dreaming themselves. We live in a post-modern society where God is irrelevant, religion a cultural preference, and angels and demons mere entertainment. There is no room for dreams in Getting Ahead and Making Money, so why should parents who bow to the god of Success care to let their children do anything as archaic as making mud pies?