December 02, 2009

Free-range parents give kids space to play

In a nation of anxious "helicopter parents" who hover and watch their kids every second of the day, engineering every moment to propel their children toward future success, another group of parents are rebelling by getting back to basics. Instead of "Baby Einstein" videos and Suzuki lessons, they're giving their kids blocks and time to let their imaginations take over. 

This movement for simplicity has been called slow parenting, simplicity parenting and free-range parenting...and by encouraging folks to raise kids the way they were raised just a generation or two ago, they promote free play and time for kids to be kids.

Some folks may remember that "free-range parenting" used to be the rule, not the exception. TIME magazine tells the story of troubling and often contradictory cultural trends that gave birth to today's "helicopter parents," now seen as the dominant, socially-acceptable norm.

"We were so obsessed with our kids' success that parenting turned into a form of product development," says the article's writer, Nancy Gibbs. "From peace and prosperity, there arose fear and anxiety; crime went down, yet parents stopped letting kids out of their sight; the percentage of kids walking or biking to school dropped from 41% in 1969 to 13% in 2001. Death by injury has dropped more than 50% since 1980, yet parents lobbied to take the jungle gyms out of playgrounds, and strollers suddenly needed the warning label 'Remove Child Before Folding.' Among 6-to-8-year-olds, free playtime dropped 25% from 1981 to '97, and homework more than doubled."

Ironically, all this obsession over children's success has had the opposite effect. Play is an "essential protein in a child's emotional diet," as the article puts it, and decreasing unstructured playtime to squeeze in scheduled activities designed to make a child more successful may do more harm than good.

"The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that the decrease in free playtime could carry health risks: 'For some children, this hurried lifestyle is a source of stress and anxiety and may even contribute to depression.' Not to mention the epidemic of childhood obesity in a generation of kids who never just go out and play." Other studies suggest that play is vital to shaping the brain and its pathways.

(For information on the benefits of play-based preschool education: The playtime's the thing - Washington Post)

The TIME article has a lot more great information, and I encourage you to read the whole thing: Helicopter Parents: The Backlash Against Overparenting (TIME).

Parents: Where do you find yourselves in the continuum between "helicopter parents" and "free-range parents"? What are the challenges associated with judging how much freedom to give your child? How do you balance freedom, safety, and determine reasonable risk?

Note: This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.

the buzz in play, parents, free range kids, play, kids