Have Twins, Will Travel

Free Play

Somerville, Mass – A few weeks ago, I came across this fascinating article from The Atlantic, The Overprotected Kid, about a new, old kind of playground in Wales, known as The Land. (Thanks also to The Atlantic for the cover photo.) Inspired by a junkyard, the Land is an acre of unkempt wildness, well stocked with wooden palettes, old tires, broken furniture, a frayed rope swing over a creek, and plenty of other discarded stuff that could–and does–keep kids entertained for hours. It’s known as an Adventure Playground, though the author acknowledges that “that term is maybe a little too reminiscent of a theme park to capture the vibe.”

This is not a theme park. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.

At least that’s what most contemporary¬†American parents would think. But the Land has had no injuries in two years of operation.

The idea behind the Land is that kids need opportunities to overcome fears, to take risks and to develop self-confidence–without the constant supervision of grown-ups.

The article made me consider my own childhood. I have memories of climbing trees in the neighbor’s overgrown lot, playing 1-2-3 tag until dusk (and, sometimes, “Bloody Murder” after dark), riding bikes to the local library, walking out to the end of the drainage pier that jutted into the bay where we liked to swim, and, yes, swimming off the end of the pier (though I’m pretty sure we were not supposed to do that last one).

I’m also pretty sure that kids today are not allowed to do any of this stuff. Parents hang out at our local park, supervising the play of their children, and then ushering them home for dance lessons or hockey practice or homework. Kids don’t seem to ride bicycles without their parents, even on the Minute Man Bikeway or other safe off-road trails. And you rarely see anyone swimming or playing in the lake where I grew up, except for dogs.This is the stuff my childhood was made of, but nowadays it would not be allowed to happen.

I came across this article at an opportune time, as I have been reading Mindful Parenting, by Kristin Race, and I recently attended a talk by Peter Gray, who wrote Free to Learn. (Both books have long subtitles that I can’t be bothered with.) Both Race and Gray make similar arguments–that kids today are suffering from a lack of free time to engage in unrestricted, undirected free play. Race claims that over-programming our children leads to increased stress and anxiety. Gray links the lack of free time to increases in childhood depression and other mental problems. He argues that too much adult direction¬†denies our children opportunities to learn from other children, to develop self-confidence, and to practice the vital skill of empathy.

Both authors cite the example of sports. Organized swim lessons and soccer practice may allow kids to learn the specific skills associated with the sport, which is good. But informal pick-up games teach kids skills like creative problem-solving, group planning, negotiation, and decision-making–critical life skills.

I found these arguments to be pretty compelling. Somehow we, as parents, must find a way to allow our children more unstructured–and even unsupervised–play time.

This is most important in day to day routines, but I suppose it should also be a consideration when we plan our travel:

  • Schedule down time into your itinerary. This could be a stop to play at the local playground, to chase pigeons on a city plaza, or to splash around in the hotel pool. Your kids need time to do this every day.¬†Beware of organized tours or even family camps that plan activities for every moment of every day.
  • Let your kids lead the way at museums and historical sites. Many museums offer scavenger hunts to let kids make their own discoveries. This is much more engaging than a tour guide who tells them what to look at. (If the museum does not provide a scavenger hunt, you can make your own, using a museum brochure or doing a little online research ahead of time.)
  • Build some adventure into your holiday. Both Gray and Race argue that kids need to take risks and experience danger (at least perceived danger) to learn how to assess risk and overcome fears. Age-appropriate, family adventures are a fun way to encourage kids to test their limits in a safe way.

Personally, I’m ready to start planning a trip to Wales so the twins can hang out at the Land.

On that note, here’s a trailer for a forthcoming documentary film on the subject, called Play Free. Check it out.

The Importance of Playing With Fire (Literally) from Play Free Movie on Vimeo.

4 thoughts on “Free Play

  1. Karen Auge

    Totally agree with you, but on the other hand what about how society has changed since our youth. Parents are BOMBARDED by horror stories on the internet and the news. We are provided so many worst case scenarios You can’t even feed your kids food anymore without worrying about if it is organic!

    So in defense of parents, we are just trying to give our kids the best opportunities we can. Although be aware that the ultimate goal is to teach your kids how to be self sufficient adults, and to know that the best lessons in life may be your (child’s) biggest failures/losses.

    1. Mara Vorhees Post author

      Society has definitely changed, and there is this perception that the world is more dangerous for children. But both authors I mention here cite studies showing that kids are actually safer now than ever before. The number one cause of death for children is auto accidents — but nobody is afraid to put their kids in a car. What you said is absolutely true: we are bombarded by horror stories (hype, if I may). Not only that, we are bombarded by judgments from “society” (aka other parents). So I guess that’s my point — and my challenge: if we are trying to give our kids the best opportunities that we can (and I do believe that we are trying!) maybe we need to filter out the horror stories and the judgments and just give our kids more space to figure it out for themselves.

  2. Karen Auge

    Amen to the judgments! its feels like a constant competition to prove how good of a parent you are (from how soon your kid is potty trained to reading to grades to sports!)

    I agree on the safety. I had a parent say it was unsafe for kids to walk alone in my town (near the schools)! Seriously?!? I laughed to myself.

    For me – the challenges is where I live – rural America where there aren’t neighbors to play with, nor the ability to get somewhere to play without a car ride, and of course working does not allow for as much opportunity for free play. (other challenges many families face).

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