Boy Child is 8 now and we’ve decided it’s time to let him play outside unsupervised. Some of his friends are starting to play out, he really wanted to join them and often complained he was bored at home. I was certainly playing by his age and I’m keen for him to have some of […]
Free Range Parenting
Have you heard the term “Free Range Parenting”? It's becoming popular in the US, where Lenore Skenazy has led the movement, but free range parenting in the UK has been discussed much less. Wikipedia gives this free range parenting definition:
“… the concept of raising children in the spirit of encouraging them to function independently and with limited parental supervision, in accordance of their age of development and with a reasonable acceptance of realistic personal risks.”
Free Range Parenting in the UK
Free range parenting could also be described as a 1980s UK childhood. Neither my Mum nor I can remember exactly when I started “Playing out”. We think it was somewhere after the age Girl Child is now (6) but before the age of Boy Child (8). I’m an only child and I suspect I would have driven my (work at home) Mum to distraction if she hadn't been able to send me to play in the street with my friends. We lived in a London suburb, in a cul de sac, and often played literally in the road. All my friends played out, often with their much younger siblings in tow. A summer not spent out in the street would have been unthinkable. My children by contrast have never played out. Perhaps the reason free range parenting is discussed less in the UK is because it’s more common here rather than because we don’t do it?
Why Free Range Parenting is Good
I believe it's really important for children to have the freedom to work things out for themselves, otherwise how will they do it as adults? I believe a child has a right to some time away from adult supervision to get to know themselves. Children have to be given freedom at some point. For me, the teenage years, when hormones are causing chaos, isn’t a good time. I would much rather they have their first taste of freedom when mummy and daddy are still the most important people in their life, before the influence of their friends becomes too strong. By learning to manage smaller risks by themselves as children, I believe they’ll be better able to handle the bigger risks they’ll encounter as teenagers.
No parent has the time/energy/inclination to entertain a child if they are at home for all of the time they aren't at school. It's no wonder that they are being allowed to spend more and more time on screens. This in turn is contributing to the childhood obesity problem. I think free range children could be the answer.
Free Range Parenting is very different from permissive parenting though and a lot of people dint realise that. Free range parents still have very clear boundaries for their children where as permissive parenting is a more child led approach. Free range parenting is in direct opposition to helicopter parents where they supervise and help their children all of the time.
Examples of Free Range Parenting
At the park, free range parents of young children are the ones sitting on a bench, keeping an eye on their child from a distance. Free range parents of older children send them to the park by themselves once they feel ready.
Free range kids are often the first in their friendship group to walk to school alone, go to the corner shop by themselves and make their own way round to a friend’s house.
Free range children might also do less structured after school activities, attend less holiday camps and have less formal “play dates”.
All of this is likely to mean they are better at entertaining themselves. The extra trust given to them often means that free range kids are more confident and independent than their peers.
Getting Started as Free Range Parents in the UK
While we probably think of free range parenting as something we do with older children, there are lots of ways to get started when children are still small. Simply keeping your distance at soft play or supervising them in the garden through the window instead of going out with them can lay the foundations.
Unfortunately, I didn’t always realise that my parenting style was sometimes detrimental to my free range parenting efforts. When the kids were little I lacked the patience to let them do things for themselves and would dive in to help far to quickly, it’s one of my greatest parenting regrets.
Once Boy Child was older, we made a start on the free range parenting journey by giving him some small freedoms. We let him go and find his ball when he kicks it over the fence (again). We sent him to the post box to post a letter for us. We left him at home alone for 10 minutes when dropping his sister off at Beavers. We are also focussed on teaching him to cross the road safely, letting him make the decision about when it's safe.
The other thing to be mindful of if you’re aiming to have free range kids, is activities. My kids get so enthusiastic when they try something new that they would be at a different club every night if the week if I let them. Too many activities doesn’t leave a lot of time for kids to be free range.
Boredom and Free Range Parenting
When my children were young, I was terrified of them being bored. Not because I was never bored as a kid, but because it seemed likely that boredom would result in them asking me to play with them, and I hate playing. As they got older, I realised they weren’t really learning to entertain themselves. I decided I needed to teach them to be bored.
I thought a lot about my childhood and remembered that I spent hours pottering around in the back garden however, our garden didn’t have much of them to potter with. I soon solved this by filling it with “junk”, they loved it and spent hours playing out there.
Is Free Range Parenting Safe?
I don't believe that human nature has changed much in the last 30 years, if it ever has, so I don't believe its any more dangerous to free range parent now than it was when I was a child. We are all of course much more aware now of the bad things that sometimes happen to children courtesy if the media. For me though, what we seen the media, in particular social media, needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.
I’m concerned about road safety but that's something that can be taught. I don't want fear to rule my children’s lives. By teaching them clear rules about “stranger danger” I believe we can give our children freedom while keeping them safe.
Is Free Range Parenting Legal?
In the UK, legally, free range parenting law is a bit of a grey area. In the same way that there’s no set age to allow children to stay home alone, there's no set age when they can be out alone. The NSPCC does offer some guidance and stresses the importance of considering your child’s level of maturity, not just their age.
In the US, parents, including most famously Lenore Skenazy, (who has written a great free range parenting book) have had their children picked up by the police because they’ve been seen playing alone. This is starting to change now with Utah State introducing laws to protect free range parenting but it still varies a great deal from state to state.
Free Range Friends
The other thing I’m concerned about is the reaction of his friends parents. I asked my Facebook friends how much freedom their children got because I wanted to let Boy Child play out. The response was pretty positive. However there were plenty of people who didn't comment and I suspect some of them would be uncomfortable with a free range parenting style. I know that when he tells his friends he is playing out they will want to do it too. It will be difficult for parents who aren't ready to take that step yet. My hope is that they won't judge my choices and might feel more confident letting their children play out when the time is right.
There is a green space across the road, about two minutes walk from my house. Children who live nearby play there after school. Boy Child plays there now and has done since he was 8, and soon I would like his sister to play there too.
Letting him start to play out unsupervised was a big step but one we really believed he was ready for. He loves the independence it gives him and it’s also allowed him to make friends with people he wouldn’t have otherwise crossed paths with.
Other Steps Towards Independence
One of the other things we’re keen for our children to do is walk to school without us. We’re lucky that the school is a five minute walk away with only one road to cross. Girl Child is a bit young yet but Boy Child has walked home on his own some days since the start of year 5. He hasn’t walked to school alone yet purely because I have to walk his sister at the same time.
When someone says the phrase “Free Range Parenting” The image that comes to mind is probably one of kids in the woods, building dens, possibly with bowl haircuts and wearing clothes from the 1980s. I would argue that free range kids are actually a lot more than that. For me, it’s about giving children freedom […]