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Is A "Free Range" Childhood Possible in Urban Settings?

If you’re a child of the 70s and 80s, you likely rode your bike to school, played at nearby parks, and explored your neighborhood with friends—all without supervision. Many of us who grew up in that era were free to play outdoors nearly everyday and carve out our own space, so long as we were home when the street lights came on. We were the original “free range” kids. We just didn’t bear the label.

Image via @sarah_reisert


Sixty minutes of unstructured free play is essential to children's physical and mental health, according to The American Academy of Pediatrics. Giving children the freedom to roam allows them the opportunity to adapt to their surroundings, become more self-aware, and develop problem-solving skills. Children with such flexibility are more likely to learn self-reliance, confidence, and independence, and in turn can apply those skills to their academic studies and careers.

The amount of freedom we choose to give our children largely depends on where we live. Despite our best intentions, environmental factors inevitably come into play when considering “free range” childhood. How does raising children in smaller, suburban neighborhoods differ from rearing kids in a busy city setting?

Smaller towns can offer quiet streets with little traffic, a deep-rooted sense of community and security. A kid in Kentucky may be allowed to spend the afternoon out in the neighborhood, walking through fields, down dirt roads, biking through meadows. Parents raising their children in big cities may need to get creative in finding alternate ways of finding “free range” opportunities for their children.

Erin Palmer, a Washington, D.C. lawyer and mother of three says, “My philosophy is to encourage my kids to engage in unstructured and minimally supported independent play. The park that we visit does not have play structures, which are great but sometimes can confine children and impose a sense of what they should play with and how. The last time we went, my older son searched for fossils while my middle son threw sticks in the river to build a dam. These activities were completely self-initiated. I remember going to the park by myself a lot as a child…. I am a proponent of allowing my kids to spend time alone and I hope that as they get older I will continue to feel that way.”

Image via @aliceandois

While East Coast children may be less likely to bike through their neighborhood alone, they do have mass public transit is available to them, allowing for a greater range of exploration—with mom or dad’s permission, of course. Los Angeles boasts beaches and mountains, ideal places to play and explore, but due to urban sprawl, children likely need to rely on an adult for a ride, as the Metro system is not as extensive as transit networks elsewhere in the country. It’s complicated, deciding how much freedom to give your child, how and where they can use it. And those of us who do lean more toward “free range” childhood have yet another challenge to contend with: overly-concerned neighbors.

This trend of “good samaritan” strangers calling the police on parents seems to be escalating. It’s alarming how many mothers have been arrested for letting their children play outside unattended—in their own yard, nonetheless. When we think of our own childhood, it’s disappointing to learn that today’s parents now have the extra worry of adults who may be well-intentioned but whose actions can have consequences for the individuals and the community.

This concern has been catapulted to the top of hot button topics among parents, educators, and press due to the highly-publicized story of the Meitiv children. In December 2014, the children (ages 10 and 6) were walking home alone from a nearby park, and were spotted by a neighbor who alerted authorities. The children, who had been given permission to play along with instructions to be home at 6pm, were detained by the police for several hours before the parents were notified. This past April, another man saw the Meitiv children playing unsupervised in their neighborhood. Instead of asking to the children if they were okay, he, too, called the authorities, and the family was back in the spotlight. While safety and perceived dangers are likely what prompted neighbors to intervene, statistics show the frequency of crime has actually decreased over the past 20 years

Sarah Steward Holland of Bluegrass Redhead lived in bustling Washington D.C. before returning to her hometown of Paducah, Kentucky to start her family. Sarah occasionally lets her son head out on his own without supervision: “I know when I let Griffin (6) walk to Midtown Market that the people that work there know him and know me. I also feel a little freer because there is more community support. I don't feel like people are waiting for me to fail so they can call in CPS.”


Image via @stylesmaller

As parents, our job is to give our children the love and support they need to become bright, well-adjusted individuals. Each child is unique and matures at their own rate. What might be right for one child, may not be right for another. Children deserve freedom to grow, to explore their world, and form their own thoughts without being confined indoors. In the end, it’s up to the parents to determine how best to facilitate their own child’s growth, ensuring they have the space to become well-rounded, curious, thoughtful, and inventive people. Erin Palmer relates, "Freedom can be exercised in a number of ways, so I try to let [my children] play in the yard while I am inside cooking and up in their rooms without supervision." 

What are your thoughts on “free range” childhood? What challenges do you face in seeking out “free-range” opportunities for your child? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.


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