Is there any way to lure kids back outside?

This post comes to us from Kenny Felder, a high school teacher and father of four in North Carolina who has been thinking about why our kids are always inside, instead of outside playing. To see the full essay, please go to http://www4.ncsu.edu/unity/lockers/users/f/felder/public/kenny/essays/safety2.html.

 By Kenny Felder

Here is a little science fiction story I made up today.  A group of children spend the entire summer of 2009 playing video games, watching TV, and doing…well, whatever it is that children seem to do for endless hours on Facebook. They never go outside, never interact with any other human being in person, and subsist on Doritos and Coke.

Their concerned parents take away the computers and televisions, thinking their children will find old-fashioned forms of entertainment. The children can’t think of anything to do at all: they stare at the walls and demand their video games back.

The parents decide to create a summer camp. They come up with wholesome activities involving art, sports, music, and nature. The kids aren’t interested. They want their computers.

Now comes the science fiction part. The parents use a time machine to go back and ask help from a bunch of parents and teachers from the 1950s: “Back in your time, kids had fun without 21st-century technology,” say today’s parents. “We want you to help us set up a summer camp so exciting that kids will want to do it.” After consulting and considering, the 1950s parents come back with a detailed plan.

  • Day 1: Woods Scavenger Hunt. The kids are taken into the middle of the woods and sent out on a scavenger hunt in pairs. They are looking for certain kinds of leaves, markings, and so on. The first pair to find everything on the list gets a prize. 
  • Day 2: Downtown Scavenger Hunt. Similar to Day 1, but this time, the things the kids are looking for have been left with shopkeepers, all within a 1-mile radius of the starting point. 
  • Day 3: Lake adventure, with canoeing and swimming. 
  • Day 4: Farming. The kids help out on a real farm, feeding animals and milking cows and riding horses.

…and so on.

The 2009 parents look over the list. “These are great! Exactly the kind of thing we’re looking for. The only problem is, we don’t have enough supervision. We can’t send a parent out with every pair of kids downtown. Our insurance wouldn’t cover interacting with real animals on a farm. How would it be if we had a scavenger hunt on the school playground, and then went to a barn and talked to a farmer about his animals?”

The 1950s parents look confused. “The kids will be bored to tears!”

“Yes, you understand perfectly!” explain the 2009 parents. “They are bored to tears with everything we’ve come up with! We need ideas that are fun and exciting, like your ideas, with just one little detail changed: they need to meet modern standards of liability and insurance. That means no kids in the woods, in town, on the water, or anywhere else where they are not closely supervised by adults at all times.”

The 1950s parents then deliver the punch line of the story. I’m torn here between two possible endings.

1. “Maybe we misunderstood from the beginning. Are we talking about 4-year-olds here?”

2. “Tell us again about these€”what did you call them?€”video games.”

Lenore’s note: Here’s my (lame-ish) punchline:

3. “We have heard of the movement, ‘Free Range Kids.’ Those kids sound like ours. But how are you going to convince others to join them?”

I think (Lenore speaking again) that is Kenny’s question, too. In this age of lawsuits and fear, and especially fear of lawsuits, Free Range Kids will be oddballs until society stops equating “independence” with “liability”  (and, often, “doom.”) How can we start that shift, not just in our own families, but outside them, too? Not that playing videogames is bad. Just that there’s a big, wide world out there for kids to explore and love, same as we did.

35 Responses to Is there any way to lure kids back outside?

  1. Candy Cook December 22, 2008 at 2:30 am #

    The best way I have found to interest my children in the wonders of nature and the fun and excitement of the outdoors is to be in awe of nature and enjoy the fun and excitement of the outdoors myself.

    My sons are 5 & 6, and the most fun we have together is when I remember what it was like to be a kid and stop tossing around parental authority. Let them be. Just let them be. Parents are too wrapped up in their children’s lives.. too controlling and too invested in being “knowledgeable.” That’s right.. parents, stop “knowing it all” and give into the miracles of the moment. Stop telling kids how to be kids, how to play, what to play, when to play, where to play and just let them play.

  2. oldmanneill December 22, 2008 at 2:43 am #

    As a society, we’re choking on our fear of liability.

    I have several free-rangish antecdotes on my blog:

    http://oldmanneill.com/2008/08/28/free-range-kids.aspx

    http://oldmanneill.com/2008/12/11/partying-old-school.aspx

  3. Jeanne December 22, 2008 at 4:29 am #

    This was great. My kid isn’t yet old enough to stand, but I really hope that when he does I can let him stand on his own. I was allowed to take the T into Boston from my small town in MA when I was twelve, and can’t imagine doing anything differently for my son in DC … except that I keep turning on that pesky news and overhearing other parents talking about shadowing their kids everywhere …

    I’m so happy you’re here to be a voice of reason, Lenore. And I appreciate the others you get to write on your site. Thanks so much!

  4. Marcy December 22, 2008 at 4:29 am #

    I agree with the above response. If I go outside, the kids follow. I can be outside gardening, the boys will slowing emerge from the house. And they don’t follow me in as rapidly. Once they are outside and busy with the world, they stay outside. Luring them away from the video games and tv means that I have to take myself away from them first.

  5. Stephanie - Green SAHM December 22, 2008 at 4:33 am #

    It amazes me how little some parents let their kids roam. I know parents who won’t let their kids play in the back yard alone. Mine do so all the time, and get pretty dirty too!

    I look forward to when they’re old enough to do as I did, going on bike rides or hiking without parents and so forth. They love hiking with us already.

    Outdoor playtime isn’t just healthy for kids, it’s good for the parents too, whether it’s the parents playing outside with them, or sending the kids out so moms and dads can get a bit of quiet in the house.

  6. Sam December 22, 2008 at 5:09 am #

    When I was a child, which was only in the mid-80s, I was completely free-range. I don’t remember ever being indoors. My skin was a permanent olive-brown (despite the fact that I am naturally a very pale colour). I had no parental supervision. I just ran around in the woods, I looked for fossils in riverbeds, I teased the local cows, etc. I would love for my child to have the freedom that I had growing up, but I panic just thinking about it! How did my parents do it? How did they let me out of their sight?

  7. margalit December 22, 2008 at 6:05 am #

    My kids are outside right now, on the first night of Chanukkah, sledding down our big giant hill. They’re outside all the time. They PLAY. Maybe it’s because I don’t supervise them and never really did. Maybe it’s because we live in a safe community on a large plot of land that they can’t really screw up. And maybe it’s because I believe that it’s just fine for them as teens to go climb up billboards and watch cars on the highway, or hike to the next town to see ducks on the Charles. Or take the subway into Boston to check out the buskers at Quincy Market.

    Freedom is good for kids.

  8. Stuart December 22, 2008 at 7:17 am #

    I think it is also a fair question to ask how much time parents spend inside. If you never leave the house, why should they? If you want them out of the house, go out of the house with them (at least at first).

  9. Summer Kinard December 22, 2008 at 7:59 am #

    When I was a kid, I was free-range, but I was also among a broad network of extended relatives and friends of the family. Maybe free-ranging kids is not going to pick up again till middle- and working-class people reestablish some of the vast extended family-like social networks lost to the changing job markets and job mobility of the past two decades. It helps cut anxiety when sending a child out to play to know one’s neighbors and have lived in a place for more than two years.

  10. Aaron Muderick December 22, 2008 at 1:05 pm #

    Nature. Nature. Nature.

    Because everything is new to children, they don’t need you to open their eyes. You need to open yours. Kids will play for hours with a pile of rocks if you allow it to happen. Don’t be dismissive when they find differences or similarities that seem trivial to you. I guarantee you that many scientists have spent entire careers exploring those differences. There is more than you think going on in the natural world.

    Kids will notice all sorts of differences between plants, flowers, bugs, etc. As a parent, you need to encourage that kind of seeing. Also, because kids are smaller, they are closer to the ground and will notice things that you do not. From your height, ants are much smaller. Colorful fungi growing inside a rotten log are invisible to you whereas they are just below eye level for children. Let them surprise you.

    Nothing gives my daughter greater pleasure than ‘winning’ the finding game. I think the victory is sweeter because, unlike most 5 year old games, I am not letting her win. She has some natural advantages over her old dad.

    Audubon Nature Guides are compact and a great resource. They have lots of pictures and are easy for kids to use. They are often found at used book stores or library sales. A book from the 70’s is as good as a book from today. The bugs haven’t changed.

    Soon after you open your eyes to nature you’ll realize its ‘turtles all the way down’, i.e. little bugs on big bugs and littler bugs on the little ones. A magnifying glass can be a lot of fun.

  11. Geoff December 22, 2008 at 7:22 pm #

    Here is a very apt picture I took yesterday on a walk near Cambridge UK http://www.flickr.com/photos/geoffjones/3125333283/

  12. jessica December 22, 2008 at 10:38 pm #

    My kids have no video games and aren’t allowed to watch TV. Instead, they read and play. They love going outside. It is a lot more fun than sitting inside and staring at the walls.

  13. Sandra December 22, 2008 at 11:06 pm #

    Today’s children are so severely stifled in their childhoods, independence, imagination, experiences, and educations. We are raising a group of socially inept, scaremongered and brainwashed beings and it’s so sad.

    Spreading your word again, hoping to reach those that helicopter their kids.

  14. NJMom December 22, 2008 at 11:27 pm #

    This is a clever essay! Richard Louv in his No Child Left Inside addresses this very topic. No quick answers of course…His book is terrific, though, because he feels very strongly that children need to have unsupervised time of their own, along with time to be outside/connect with nature.

    I feel that kids don’t need to be lured outside so much as told they will be outside. “We don’t devalue tv and video games, but our family does value running round outside…so out you go!” In the early 70’s my mother wanted all of us outside so she could have peace and quiet–she didn’t think too much about us connecting with nature or not. And while we were outside we had to solve all sorts of problems ourselves–which is the whole point.

  15. Lani December 23, 2008 at 1:48 am #

    We’re in the middle of a round of snowstorms where we live and my children (girls 6, 8) have spent most of the past 3 days outside playing. I knew they were in the neighborhood and if they got cold they’d either come home or go and warm up at their friend’s house (girl, 10). I admit I did call the other mom once just to check if they were down there when they’d been gone for 4 hours but they don’t know I called and I wanted to see if they had been outside the whole time or not. They were outside for most of it.

    We call our parenting style “parenting by benign neglect”. Our kids love it and so do we.

  16. Lani December 23, 2008 at 1:49 am #

    Sorry about that smiley face above – it’s supposed to indicate that my other daughter is 8.

  17. Uly December 23, 2008 at 3:29 am #

    More likely they’ll hear you and go “Why exactly are you trying to make life fun for your kids, again? Isn’t that *their* job? You’re the parent – send them out the door!”

  18. Jennifer December 23, 2008 at 5:52 am #

    Uly hit the nail on the head, Parents nowadays feel they have to manage their kids’ lives and micromanage their activities. As any kid will tell you, when adults put their noses too far into kids’ business, they suck the fun right out of everything.

    I rarely “play” with my son, except the rare game here and there. That’s his job, to alleviate his own boredom. I am not going to come up with activities every time we have a free afternoon. Parenting magazines are full of crafts and activities designed to desperately avoid a child’s boredom. And the parents have been reduced to playmates for their children, rather than parents, who (should) occupy an adult sphere separate from children.

    (For anyone who knows me personally, I am actually a big kid myself, and love to play games. BUT, I don’t want to create a son who just cannot entertain himself, has no imagination at all, and is rudderless without me..)

  19. madwaxer December 23, 2008 at 4:00 pm #

    if you live in the midwest like i do i’d be tempted to take the video games, computer and cell phones outside and execute them with a hunting rifle so the kids know there is no coming back for the devices in question.
    okay on a more serious note i’d take them away and donate it to some charity auction. kids don’t need phones! if you don’t know where your kids are or can’t trust them to tell the truth then you should be with them all the time!
    video games if you mush have them should be used as a reward for good behavior not as a human right. parents can take time away from reruns of tv shows to play with their kids. board games, swimming, pillow fights, tag, picnics are all good ways to get them interested in being outside again. though its hard if they don’t have any kids around who they can play with.
    instead of struggling to keep them safe online find out how to setup a web server at home with a white list of allowed sites the kids can go to with time limits.

  20. Lord Panda December 24, 2008 at 12:18 am #

    Believe it or not, I was guided to this site by Penn & Teller: Bullshit episode.
    To the point, I think you and the bullshit dudes are right about overprotected kids. I myself was overprotected, being born in 1980’s, and that has led me to an innate desire to experience everything there is, in good and bad. That has landed me into some trouble, too :D

    In conclusion more people should know about this problem, and be alarmed to consequences of overprotecting. But I truly doubt that’s ever going to happen.
    PS. You’re sexy

    Lord Panda

  21. Allyson December 24, 2008 at 3:02 am #

    Help support federal legislation to get kids outside! Include environmental education in the classroom by asking your legislators to support the No Child Left Inside Act. Find out more at http://www.nclicoalition.org. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

  22. Leigh E December 24, 2008 at 1:33 pm #

    Hi saw you on Dr Phil today. When I think back to my childhood in the 80’s, where we left early in the morning and came back at lunch then left again until dinner time, it was a great era of being a kid. There were no gameboys or ipods for distraction. The closet thing to a mobile phone, was the cordless family one in the livingroom. Now we have every game console you could think of, this thing called the internet and many gadgets to keep kids inside sitting on their bums and getting fat.
    I think parents use predators as a shield, so they can have an excuse why little Timmy is not allowed 3 feet from his mother. Yes there are abductors out there, take Shawn Hornbeck’s case for one, but when I was a child there were also abductors out there, they didn’t come along in the late 90’s that’s for sure. I think parents are taking a backward approach, if we let fear win then we should go and put bubble wrap around the kids right now. Yes it’s a dangerous time we live in, but no more dangerous then when I was a kid. There was an abduction of a child where I lived when I was a kid, but that didn’t stop my parents from yanking me back inside. The only way to create a well rounded child is to let them experience everything around them. Childhood is a short time and pretty soon you;ll have an older teen who hate’s and resents you, cause they missed out on going to summer camp with mates or they did not get to go to the water park or whatever it may be. Then it’s a chain, they’ll have kids of their own and they will let them have a lot of freedom that they never experienced, but then that child goes to the grandparents and again grandmother keeps her now grandson or daughter from playing outside, and then the resentment starts to grow in that child and it is a nasty cycle that never sees an end.
    I say let kids be kids, they need to obtain their life skills for adulthood, and by stopping that you are just heading for a car crash, a nasty nasty scene indeed ….

  23. Chris December 26, 2008 at 2:59 am #

    I had to laugh when I read this. My sister and I are in a homeschool coop and we are constantly suggesting outings and adventures. We get the same exact responses your 2009 parents gave! So we take our kids out and feel sorry that their kids are stuck inside yet another day.

    Maybe it’s the way you were raised. My siblings and I were kicked out of the house after breakfast and told what time to be back for lunch. I was fine so my kids will be too.

  24. Mae December 28, 2008 at 12:13 am #

    I agree completely with NJMom. My children are told to play outside, especially when I need a break. We don’t need to lure them out just send them out. Trust me – they’ll find something to do.

  25. slacy December 31, 2008 at 6:34 am #

    How about some Geo Caching? This is a really fun and kid-friendly thing to do outside. Basically, you get the Lat/Lon coordinates of a “cache” and use your handheld GPS to navigate there and then search around for the loot. Caches are usually small boxes (a 35mm film canister or smaller) but are sometimes larger tupperware boxes. Caches contain a “who visited here” list, and a bunch of trinkets that you can take, on a strictly “take one give one” basis. You can track your cache finds on geocaching.com. It’s great fun for all ages, and with a GPS in hand, you can be sure your kids won’t get lost out in the woods!

  26. Rob C December 31, 2008 at 9:26 am #

    Allyson – Yeah, that’s what we need – more legislation with a catchy name. That’ll solve everything!

  27. Misty Guy January 2, 2009 at 1:10 am #

    My kids spend a lot of time in the backyard. We have a trampoline *gasp*, swingset and two dogs. We keep sidewalk chalk, bubbles and waterguns on hand, but more often than not, these things are all abandoned in order to play pirates or astronauts in the fort part of the playhouse. My son is 7 and his sister is 4 and they play together frequently and very well. We chalk that up to playing together as a family–mom, dad and kids.

  28. yukihada January 2, 2009 at 2:36 am #

    I teach 7th grade in a fringe urban, poor economic area. I’m currently pregnant but don’t have any kids yet to practice free-range parenting.

    I read this article and was immediately reminded of a writing prompt I gave my 7th grade students. I asked them what they would do and what life would be like if they could no longer watch tv, play video games or get on the internet. The scary response from many of my students that day…”I would die.” “I can’t live without video games, tv or the internet.”

    Only a few students said they would go out, ride their bikes, play basketball and visit friends and even those few said so after bemoaning life without those amenities.

    I pointed out to them that the Internet wasn’t widely accessible until I was in high school and it boggled their brains.

    More parents need to send their kids outdoors. My own parents allowed us only 1 hour of tv/computer time each day and even that could be overrided with the command: “It’s time to go out and play.” I’m glad that my parents did this and trusted me. I have great memories of riding my bike around after school for an hour down back roads in my small town, walking to the library at a whim, being allowed to pick up groceries by myself during snowy days at the local grocery store.

  29. Johnny Virgil January 7, 2009 at 10:27 am #

    I have fond memories of being a free range kid in the late 60s and early 70s and have written many stories about my adventures. You probably don’t want to read them though — you’ll never let your kids outside again. :)

  30. AmyAnne January 15, 2009 at 3:27 pm #

    This summer I did something shocking…I took all the money I was contemplating using to send my kids to various camps around my area and used it to rent a small house on a 5 acre horse ranch in Arizona. We helped take care of the animals and did work on the ranch to help pay for it also. My kids ran free all summer. I baked, I hiked, they…I don’t know what they did because I WASN’T WATCHING them every damn minute. We stayed on that ranch all summer. Went into town maybe once a week. We didn’t even do any day trips to the Grand Canyon like we had planned. We just hung out. And we loved every minute of it.

    The summer before I sold my Ducati and took everyone to Brazil where we stayed with my friend’s family for 19 days. Rio. Shocker! How unsafe! How unclean! How unbelievably amazing. My kids and I will NEVER for get it.

    My adventures are met with such shock and awe that sometimes I think I’m not understanding something really big. That I’m missing some point I should have gotten earlier. I’m not though.

    My kids are free to roam in the back yard, in the front yard, across the street in the creek or down the street in the pond. We live in an LA Suburb with traffic and actual people and threats to my children’s existence. I spent my childhood all over CA and vividly remember playing with the homeless guys down at the docks in Humboldt County. I had a bunch of weird brushes with people who had malice intent, but I figured out how to handle it. My kids will never know how to handle anything if I keep them holed up in my house for fear they are exposed to anything.

    I give them knowledge, i give them freedom to use that knowledge. Mostly I give them freedom to roam. They need that.

  31. Hockey Flower February 2, 2009 at 6:33 am #

    Want to get yous kids outside? Get a trampoline without net for your back yard, a couple balls(soccer, rubber, whatever) and a sprinkler for them this summer.

    They will not fall off and die, just tell them that no one is allowed underneath while others are jumping. Watch over them from afar if you must, but I can guarantee you (from personal experience) that your kids will be outside for hours at a time.

    Peace out, all.

  32. Lindsay February 4, 2009 at 7:44 am #

    I really loved this essay. I just connected with a childhood friend of mine on Facebook the other day and we were talking about all the fun things we did growing up (it was the 80s and we were between 7 – 12). We found a hornets nest and threw stuff at it then ran away at the buzzing sound and returned later in the year to claim the nest and dissect it (it was so cool), we literally spent all day in the woods from sun up to sun down, we made a tree fort, we “rafted” down a stream in the woods, we rode our bikes up to town to get candy (along a highway even), we went sledding, got in snow fights, collected lightning bugs, I even sold cards/candy door to door by myself, etc. You get the idea..

    The sad thing is the mom in me was like “OMG! How will I ever give my kid this freedom w/o freaking” but I have to. I want her to have as amazing a childhood as I had and the reason it was great was the freedom to explore and learn things. These interactions formed who I am. I am a great problem solver and very creative and I don’t know that I would be as good at these things had it not been for my daily explorations of our neighborhood.

  33. Children's Bedroom Furniture March 3, 2009 at 3:08 am #

    The best way to keep kids outside is to elminate the use of video games and television in the house. Its ok to have a T.V. but you should limit the number of hours your kids can use it. My neighbors kids are always in front of the television or playing video games. If you can also interest kids in sports then they will also stay outside practicing those potential sports, such as basketball or baseball. By buying your kids skates, bikes or anything that must be used outside, that will also persuade them to go outside instead of staying inside.

  34. ariel January 21, 2012 at 4:14 am #

    oh my goodness, its creepy! i lived in a western ny suburb, and it didnt matter if it was Prime Time (mid morning and between 3-5pm after school hours), the weekend, or summer vacation. i barely ever saw any kids out, just playing. there was one back-to-back block with open backyards, you’d imagine almost everyone on it had kids cause practically every house had a playset. i cant remember seeing actual kids out on them.
    on the other hand, my parents are heliparents, and i wasnt allowed to skate anywhere beyond my driveway, because our street had no sidewalk except for about 10 ft of it going around the corner when our street met a main road. i was in high school. there was a street around the corner that went in a large circle and you could go in and out either side of it. we used to go walking there in the mornings. i had asked if we could start that back up again, mom says yes…i can skate, she’ll follow me in our suv. i said never mind, no thanks. forget embarrassing; it would look SO creepy.

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  1. Here is a little science fiction story… « Geriatric Mama’s Rants - December 22, 2008

    […] http://freerangekids.wordpress.com/2008/12/22/is-there-any-way-to-lure-kids-back-outside/ …”We need ideas that are fun and exciting, like your ideas, with just one little detail […]