Free range kids - KaBOOM! News

In some parts, sending your kids outside to play has become a criminal activity. And we're not being melodramatic -- we mean that literally. Over the last few months, three different mothers have been arrested for allowing their children to navigate The Great Outdoors beyond the confines of their homes.

Most recently, a Tammy Cooper in La Porte, Texas was thrown in jail for "child endangerment" after a neighbor called police to report that her children were playing outside on scooters unsupervised. That the neighbor's accusation was actually incorrect -- Tammy was keeping an eye on them from a lawn chair on the sidewalk -- is even beside the point. Tammy and her six- and nine-year-old children live on a cul-de-sac, which should be a perfectly acceptable environment for a couple hours of loosely supervised outdoor play. Though the charges against Tammy were dropped, the ordeal has cost her family over $7,000 in legal fees.

In July, Betty Abena Anane in Manchester, Connecticut was charged with "risk of injury to a minor" after police say she allowed her seven- and 11-year old children to walk a few blocks to buy pizza unsupervised. As one commenter on Free Range Kids put it, "It’s a 10 minute walk on a stunningly ordinary residential street." Here, Google maps shows the route they took:

Outraged yet? Hold on, there's more. In June, April Lawson in Johnson City, Tennessee sent her five- and eight-year-old children to play at a playground a block and a half away from her house. When she sent someone to check on them an hour later, she learned they were not at the playground and immediately called 911. It turned out the kids had left the playground and gone to play at a nearby friend's house, arriving home right before the police arrived.

So after a harmless mix-up, everything was OK, right? Not quite. April spent the night in jail and was booked with felony child abuse and neglect charges.

The basic plot of all three stories is this: Mom trusts her kids to roam around for a few blocks outside. Mom trusts her neighbors to help keep a collective eye on them. Mom gets thrown in jail. Are these the lessons about 'right' and 'wrong' we want our law enforcement officials teaching our kids?

"Take Our Children to the Park... and Leave Them There Day" (Saturday, May 19) has a provocative name for a reason: to call attention to itself.

Had Free Range Kids founder Lenore Skenazy, who originally came up with the idea, named it, "Give Your Children A Chance To Gather Outside With Other Neighborhood Children and Engage in Unstructured, Unsupervised Play for an Hour or Two," I'm not sure that so many people would be taking notice.

Parental paranoia has risen dramatically over the last two decades. It's a trend driven by fear--fear of crime, fear of injury, and even fear of children growing up to be failures. Some parents, like Lenore, have decided that enough is enough.

The world has dangers, yes, but it is not the inherently evil, threatening place that we often make it out to be. As Lenore and others point out, rates of violent crime are lower today than they were in 1974, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and have been steadily declining since the 1990s. Parents fret about child abductors while carting their children around in cars, even though kids are nearly 12 times more likely to die in a car wreck than they are to get kidnapped by a stranger.

And yet, people accuse Lenore of being "out of her tree."

All that she is asking, really, is that parents use their common sense. She is not issuing a decree that ALL parents MUST take their children to the park this Saturday and leave them there... or else! This day is really all about empowering, not endangering, children. Lenore is hoping that by making a big deal over leaving kids to play together at a park, it will, over time, cease to be a big deal.

As Lenore puts it,

"Clearly we are in the middle of a vicious cycle--there are no kids outside so I won't let MY kids outside, so there are no kids outside, so you don't let YOUR kids outside, so I don't let MY kids outside, etc., etc., etc--which is why the holiday (or whatever it is) is even necessary. It is a day to break the cycle. A day to get kids outside to meet each other and re-learn the lost art of playing!"

Will you be taking your kids to the park... and leaving them there?

A longer version of this piece originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

Would you let your children build this? We stumbled across this amazing photo on the blog, Mama's Minutia. Says Jennifer Jo, the author and mother of the children pictured:

"There is a shift that takes place when your kids gain the skills to construct monumental forts that reach truly frightening heights. I’m not exactly sure what to do with their newfound ability to threaten their physical well-being."

For more photos and the wonderful story behind this homemade jungle gym, including its eventual demise, read the full post, "rise and fall."

Common sense has triumphed over senseless fear! Last week we lamented an elementary school's recent ban on its longtime "Fridays on the Green" tradition, which was prompted by complaints about safety and unruly behavior. As part of the tradition, 5th graders with parental permission were able to walk downtown by themselves on Friday afternoons to eat ice cream and play on the green.

We are happy to see that both parents and students at Davidson Elementary School shared our outrage and took active measures to overturn the ban. As reported in Davidson News:

Parents over the past two weeks have emailed the school, posted comments on this website and even launched an online petition drive questioning a decision by the school’s former principal to stop letting parents give their fifth-grade students permission to walk to the Village Green on Fridays.

Over 125 townspeople showed up to "Occupy the Green," with kids carrying signs that said, "Trust: It's a tradition" and "We can take care of ourselves."

The parents must now absolve the school of liability when granting their kids permission to walk to the Green, but as so aptly put by Lenore Skenazy of Free Range Kids, who helped us spread the word about the petition: "If a slightly obsessive, overkill waiver is what it takes to give kids back the best part of being fifth graders, so be it."

A parent told Davidson News, "It’s a victory for the people – and ice cream." And, we would add, a victory for unstructured outdoor play!

Most mothers were sitting on benches around the perimeter watching their kids on trampolines, except for this one mom who had pulled a chair up close and was shouting, “Whee!” each time her child jumped. I knew she was American.

Pamela Druckerman, author of the new book Bringing Up Bébé describes this scene on a Paris playground in a recent interview with Macleans. Amongst the many differences she notes between American and French parenting styles is the "belief in America that we must always stimulate our kids." In France, by contrast, "children are given freedom to play by themselves, and to cope with frustration and boredom."

Druckerman goes on to say:

... when American parents come to my house, they’re constantly engaged with their children resolving spats, or getting down on the floor and playing Lego. We never finish a conversation, certainly not a cup of coffee. When French families come over, the kids go off and play by themselves and we adults have coffee.

We've written before on this blog about the benefits of boredom and the importance of children engaging in free, unstructured play, without parental hovering. But is it a "bad" thing for parents to build Lego houses with their kids?

Of course not. Perhaps the more relevant question is, should you as a parent feel obligated to build Lego houses? Would you rather be socializing with friends or catching up on household chores? Could American parents make things a little easier on themselves if they loosened the reigns and allowed themselves more "me" time?

To the last question, Druckerman would respond with an emphatic yes. How would you respond?

My two elementary-aged daughters sit at our kitchen counter munching apples and Ritz crackers. My kids aren’t with their peers at ballet, basketball, piano, art, karate, gymnastics, or swimming. They do take lessons occasionally, but I limit their activities to once a week. For JJ, it’s ballet and for Ani, it’s Lego engineering.

“Can we go outside now, mom?” Ani asks, already grabbing her coat and running out the door.

Our suburban backyard faces other backyards, separated by bike path and a small creek. During the school year, we can be outside for hours and not see or hear another child the entire time. My kids check the trampoline of our next-door neighbor just in case, hoping for a friend to play with.

"Mom, why can’t I have a play date?" Ani asks.

It’s hard to explain over and over.

"No one can play. All your friends are busy in activities and sports. Maybe during the next break."

My kids are each other’s best playmates thankfully.

I watch their legs pump on the swings out and back, out and back; listen to the giggles and screams; feel the warm Colorado sun on my face. Am I a crazy person, the only one in the universe, who thinks it’s better to play than to take so many lessons?

Doubts creep into my mind. No one else is doing it, Melissa, the doubts whisper. Your kids should be in activities. They’re missing out.

Richard Louv’s book title, The Last Child in the Woods, resonates with me today. I feel that we’re the last family in the woods, and it’s lonely.

Where is everybody?

Won’t someone come out and play?

Am I doing the right thing?

This story originally appeared in the Altruim Institute’s Health Policy Forum and has been adapted for

Ever since the arrival of my daughter, my ears have been primed to pick up on the conversations and behaviors other parents are modeling for their children. Lately, it feels like more and more of these conversations are geared toward coaxing children away from taking risks. There are the well-known fears to which many a parent can speak to: gangs, drugs, perilous streets, and so forth. Yet, it seems as if we are moving in the direction of proclaiming things fearful that past generations simply considered a part of growing up. Riding a bike to school, swinging to soaring heights only to jump off, and even roaming the neighborhood with a group of friends have been traded for the “safety” of our children.

Earlier this month I came across a blog titled “An Itemized Tour of the Most Terrifying Playground in the World. EVERYBODY PANIC!!!”. The author takes readers through a point-by-point list of, as she states, “the stressful aspects of this park that brought out the neurotic parent in me.” While sympathetic I was mostly troubled by this post.

In addition to the playground elements that cause “stress” in parents, there is an underlying fear that our children will be hurt, abducted, or meet some other undesirable fate while on the playground. As an advocate for playgrounds and outdoor play in general, it is alarming to see the number of people who agree that playspaces should be made less risky. Nobody wants anybody’s child to get hurt, but if we are always there to catch our children before they fall, they will never learn to brace themselves for the impact. This is as true for the tumbles they will take on the playground, as it is for the ones that await them as adults.

The media has contributed significantly to the cultural shift in our perception of risk. As a colleague so aptly says, “It is difficult enough being a parent, you are literally responsible for someone else’s life. When you couple that responsibility with the fear created by the media, it is easy to see why more parents are becoming risk-averse.”

There has also been a shift toward increased structured enrichment activities for children. We are living in a society where we feel as if we are doing wrong by our children if we don’t fill every opportunity with a “life-enhancing experience.”

These activities often come with predefined rules and expected outcomes that further limit children’s ability to take risks. It is in our attempts to protect and raise children ready to tackle the 21st century that we have inadvertently taken away one of the best learning opportunities: space for children to challenge themselves, take risks, and acquire vital problem-solving skills. The need for constant protection of our children speaks to our society’s inability to simply let our children fail at anything, no matter how trivial.

It is inevitable that children will encounter obstacles in life. It is through risk taking that children develop the capacity to think creatively and develop solutions. Those obstacles and risks begin on the playground.

In November KaBOOM! launched its first guest blogging contest, asking parents to muse about their experiences with play. We received lots of entries, and while it was tough, managed to narrow it down. Over the next ten weeks we will be publishing the top ten, and we hope you enjoy reading them as much as we did! Congratulations to all of our winners. In 2nd place is Fezeka Saige from Roswell, Georgia…

I recently went back to South Africa with my six-year-old triplets. I was looking forward to spending time with my family and the relief of not being scheduled. The rural setting that I had cursed whenever my parents took me for Christmas break is littered with mud huts set on green rolling hills but without modern amenities. While the break from technology was appealing to me as an adult, I agonized and worried over how my American children would fare. How would they adjust without TV, computers and electricity?

Turns out I had nothing to worry about.

My kids played in the dirt with a tennis ball fashioned out of old newspapers and plastic bags. They used their creativity to turn sticks, stones and anything that they found into bats, balls, sling shots and any game they could think of. I watched as the group of friends that my shy kids amassed grew and grew until there were enough kids to play a heated game of soccer. I only saw the kids when they were hungry or when it was time for bed. As we boarded the plane and headed home for the beginning of the school year, I wondered how much play they would have in their school day.

While they are at school, recess is the only time for unstructured play. Since recess is now only 15 minutes a day, I thought surely it is a must. We wouldn’t intentionally ignore the well-documented benefits to learning, social development and health, that even a 15 minute recess can provide. Realizing the significance of play, I started making it a habit to ask everyday if my children had recess.

I was shocked at the answers.

It turns out that sometimes the class takes too long with a lesson or other activity so recess gets cut. Or it rained three days ago and the equipment might still be wet, so recess is eliminated. Or some kids were talking at lunch so as punishment the whole class stays indoors. Added to that, my six-year-old daughter was coming home with enough homework to last an hour. How could I expect a 6-year old who had not played outside all day to sit for an hour at home doing homework?

The decline in play is staggering. According to the National Center for Education kids have lost about 12 hours per week in free time since 1970 and there has been a 50% decline in unstructured outdoor play. But I didn’t need to see the statistics to know that my kids were not getting what they needed.

To make what I considered an essential difference, I decided to place myself in settings where I could let kids play. I coach two soccer teams, I co-lead a girl scout troop and teach Sunday school. In all these environments I see children unable to sit still and pay attention. My reaction: let’s get up and move around! Why is it abnormal for 6-year olds to want to be active? Why is the kid who needs to stand up every ten minutes seen as odd? The biggest compliment I have yet received was when a parent who was volunteering at our girls scout meeting said, “You really just let the kids be kids.” Who would want it any other way?

In November KaBOOM! launched its first guest blogging contest, asking parents to muse about their experiences with play. We received lots of entries, and while it was tough, managed to narrow it down. Over the next ten weeks we will be publishing the top ten, and we hope you enjoy reading them as much as we did! Congratulations to all of our winners. In 3rd place is Angie Six from Indianapolis, Indiana…

"No climbing!"

"You'll get dirty!"

"Get down before you hurt yourself!"

Years ago, these were the things a kid would hear when they were getting too rambunctious for indoor play. My mother put up with a lot inside the house, but when we started climbing the walls she had the good sense to send us outside.

The rules for outside play were simple: stay close enough that we could hear our mothers yell, don't do anything that might get you killed. Given that kind of freedom, we spent hours playing outside and doing things that involved climbing, all kinds of mess, and a few injuries.

Fast-forward to the play time of today and you'll find rules aplenty. I don't have the same surroundings to send my children off on their own, so when they need to burn off energy we visit local playgrounds. My rules are nearly as simple as my mother's: stay near, be nice, and don't do anything that might get you killed. It's everyone else's rules that are killing the fun for today's kids.

The ravine my kids gravitate to because it's swampy and fun? The other kids get scolded for joining in. "You'll get dirty," the parents say. "We came here to play on the playground, not in the dirt." The sticks my kids use to build shelters? "Put that down! You'll put an eye out!" It's the looks I get when I let my kids climb a tree or stand on top of the monkey bars that's sharp enough to put an eye out.

I never imagined I'd be that mom, the one who the others judge for being too lax. I'm strict about sweets, I'm cranky about what they can and can't watch on TV. Compared to my own childhood, my children are far more micro-managed in every aspect of their day.

That's why it's so important to me to leave them be outside. Yes, they get dirty. Yes, I see them climbing and think about insurance deductibles. That's my job. It's also my job to step back and let them play. Dirty clothes can be washed. Balance and good judgement can only be learned by testing boundaries and, yes, sometimes falling.

It's hard not to feel self-conscious and turn into a helicopter parent. I resist, though, in hopes that there will be another parent there, watching. Perhaps their gut tells them the same as mine - that children need this, that kids inherently know what's okay and what they're capable of. Maybe they have just a smidgen less confidence than I do after nine years of parenting. Watching me give my kids freedom to play without the weight of so many rules may be just the thing they need to see so they'll feel okay with a less involvement.

If you see us on the playground, join us. We'll be up in the trees or in the mud. We'll be having fun - the only rule that really matters on the playground.

January 03, 2012 Connie Krebs

Just let them play!

In November KaBOOM! launched its first guest blogging contest, asking parents to muse about their experiences with play. We received lots of entries, and while it was tough, managed to narrow it down. Over the next ten weeks we will be publishing the top ten, and we hope you enjoy reading them as much as we did! Congratulations to all of our winners. In 6th place is Connie Krebs from Lakewood, Ohio…


As a parent you want your children to be safe, but it seems to me that parents today are taking this mantra a bit too far. All across the country phrases like, "Stop running!" and "Don't climb that, you'll get hurt!" are being said in parks and places where children are meant to run, play, climb, dig, and fall.

I was sitting at the park watching my two oldest daughters climb and yell to their heart's content, playing games with other children and digging in the mud left from the last rain. Next to me was a mother who had a son about three years old. She was in the little boy's face, telling him what to do and what not to do. "Kyle, come slide down the slide! No, put down the wood chips, come over here and slide so I can take your picture. Kyle, come here!!! Put the stick down, you will get hurt…." It went on and on, becoming an annoying drone that poor little Kyle chose to ignore, to which his mother responded with even more demands. I so wanted to tell that mother to just let her child be, to let him pick up the stick or wood chips, that dirt washes off, and everything would be ok.

I remember as a child playing Red Rover with the neighborhood kids. I was tiny for my age so I was almost always called over – the kids liked seeing me flip over their well-linked hands I guess. Memories of playing hide-and go seek throughout the neighborhood, mastering the monkey bars, getting propelled off the see-saw... these are things that enhanced my childhood and taught me many life lessons. (One being, hiding in poison ivy is definitely not a great idea!) It worries me to see so many children deprived of the freedom to just play. When do they get to run and shout? How are they going to learn the lesson of perseverance if they aren't allowed to at least try?

I am not asking that parents ignore their child or not stop them from doing something that is really dangerous, like playing in a busy street. There is a distinct difference between neglect and keeping a distant but watching eye on your child while letting him or her have some freedom. I beg fellow parents to just take a step back and savor the experiences that natural play has to offer. You will be amazed at what your child can do, what they enjoy. They will gain so much more than if you try to direct their every move. Please, just let them play!