Unsupervised Play is BETTER for Kids, Says New Study!

The idea of arresting parents who let their kids play outside unsupervised just took another hit.  Yoo-hoo, CPS! According to The Globe and Mail:

A new Canadian study suggests there could be added health benefits for kids who play outdoors on their own or with their friends.

Researchers analyzed data from a survey of more than 1,000 parents of Grade 5 and 6 students at 16 public schools across Toronto.

Kids had to wear an activity measurement unit for seven days and parents were asked to self-report how often they allowed their kids to go out on their own….Kids who were allowed some time out to explore on their own or with friends were more physically active than kids who were always supervised.

Of course, about a third of the parents studied never let their kids go outside unsupervised at all. And only 16% say they “often” let their kids — 5th and 6th graders — roam on their own. And yet, says the study’s lead author, Ryerson University’s Raktim Mitra:

All of the findings tell parents one thing, says Mitra: “Instead of constantly supervising your children, give your kids a chance to explore their neighbourhoods on their own. If you do that, your child can reap immense physical, social and mental health benefits down the road.

In other words, Free-Range your kids with abandon!

Uh…poor choice of words. Just Free-Range your kids knowing that you are doing something wise, old-fashioned and healthy. And it is NOT abandonment. – L.

Snow day! Go out and play!

Snow day! Go out and play!

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23 Responses to Unsupervised Play is BETTER for Kids, Says New Study!

  1. Jen G. January 26, 2015 at 4:31 pm #

    My son is 8. I have let him ride his bike to the local playground and play on his own when I didn’t feel like going. He loves it and is very proud of himself. I make sure he has a watch and knows what time to come home. One day, I dropped him off there and said I would pick him up in an hour. On this day I got a call from a police officer. Apparently, someone called the police. The complaint was that they had asked the boy if he was allowed to be there on his own and he said yes, but didn’t believe him. The officer spoke with him and was impressed with my son. Apparently, the officer asked my son if he would like a ride home and my son replied, “No sir. My Mom said to not go anywhere until she comes back for me.” Officer: “Not even with me?” My son: “Not even with you, unless it is an emergency and I need your help.”
    At this point, the officer asked for our home number, which my son knew, and called me to check in and tell me how impressed he was.

    If constantly supervised, my son just wants to sit and play video games or watch TV, unless I play something with him. When he is unsupervised, he’s more willing to explore and play with other kids.

  2. BL January 26, 2015 at 4:51 pm #

    The “better safe than sorry” crew always ignores the huge upsides of not being crushed under a whirlybird 24/7/365.

  3. Emily January 26, 2015 at 5:08 pm #

    I think it takes a lot of practice to be Free-Range with your kids, and I bet plenty of those parents who rarely let their kids outside alone think they’d like to give them more freedom, but they either don’t think about it or it never seems like the right time. I’ve been trying to consciously practice it at an age-appropriate level with my kids since they were born, because that’s the only way I’ll be smart about it and comfortable with it when they’re old enough to do big things. Even so, it’s easy to be thoughtless about it. This weekend, our family went to a big-box hardware store and we were walking around in areas that are not particularly dangerous (i.e. not the wood-cutting area). I’d already had to be firm with my almost-3-year-old daughter about not running off, but she’d been staying close enough since then. I kept holding her hand, mostly out of affection, but when she said, “Mommy, I’m trying to walk by myself,” I realized I needed to hold myself back and let her be on her own. We were still walking next to each other, but I could see the difference it made for her to be walking without holding on to anybody, just like she was her own person. It also freed her up to explore interesting things, which she’d then ask questions about and play with and I could tell her all about. It’s amazing to watch her blossom with something even as small as letting go of her hand. I also get paid back when we get home and grabs my hand, saying, “Mommy, you have got to see this!”

  4. kate January 26, 2015 at 5:49 pm #

    Letting your children learn independence is something that has to happen gradually. Your child will not magically learn to cope on his own at some magical age. As Emily demonstrated with her three year old, just allowing her to walk on her own while staying nearby promotes confidence in oneself. The next step is to give your child the task of going to another aisle to find a certain item. As your child becomes more capable of following directions you increase their boundries and responsiblities until they are ready to leave the house at eighteen.

  5. no rest for the weary January 26, 2015 at 6:23 pm #

    “Learn” to allow kids some age-appropriate freedoms?

    Bah. It came quite naturally to me. It was the “supervise and run interference constantly against imagined fantasies of death or grave injury” that I would have had to learn.

    And I just couldn’t.

  6. ChicagoDad January 26, 2015 at 8:24 pm #

    @Jen G. Great story! It sounds like you’ve raised a sensible, responsible and independent son. Kudos! 🙂

  7. KH January 26, 2015 at 9:04 pm #

    Lenore, you even made it to Borneo! The local paper (Brunei Bulletin) reprinted the Washington Post article above.

  8. JP Merzetti January 26, 2015 at 11:52 pm #

    Jen G….
    That’s a heartwarming story. A sensible lad meets a sensible officer. Good all around.

    Kids’ independence?
    A walkable community.
    Other kids to go be independent (of adults) with.
    Safe locations to head for: parks, playgrounds, kid-friendly spaces (not necessarily designed with kids in mind – just kid-safe.)
    Like what a Main Street used to be.
    Or even in cities that had a dozen or a hundred of these kind of streets.

    The problem is that if all or most of these criteria are missing, then what?
    Supervised play dates……..
    chauffeured drop-off and pickups…..
    too many temptations to micro-managed.

    The environment of a neighborhood or community where a kid lives…..matters a whole lot.

  9. Mark January 27, 2015 at 7:54 am #

    Compelling post, Jen!

    I might be tone-deaf, lost in semantics, but I’m saddened to read of Free-Ranging requiring practice. Emily, your account is most heartwarming. I hope you and your daughter are duly proud.

    You’re parenting all the time you are with your daughter and probably much additional time. Free Range aside, I hope you don’t feel like all your parenting must be perfect. I expect I would want to parent perfectly — had I been blessed with children. Admirable aspirations.

    An unfair, unrealistic burden, however. I have imagined Free Range parenting includes cutting parents much slack. So that parents aren’t beating themselves up for not parenting better.

    If you are responsible, love your kids — as you clearly do . . . . Well, I figure most else is proverbial gravy.

  10. kate January 27, 2015 at 8:48 am #

    JP, you are absolutely correct. Without the infrastructure, free range becomes an anomaly. Parents like Emily don’t see kids around on thier own so they have to make a concious effort to allow even small freedoms. A generation ago, no parent would have even considered going to the park with an eight year old.

    When I was ten, I was playing softball with boys and girls of all ages, unchaperoned at the local field. My friend was hit in the head. Since my house was closest, I took her home. My father gave her a frozen steak to hold on her head to lessen the swelling. In less than half an hour she left to walk home by herself. I don’t think my parents even called her house. She showed up at school with a huge black eye. Her only comment was that softballs are not really soft.

  11. gina January 27, 2015 at 10:23 am #

    I absolutely adore your son’s response. What an articulate little guy!

  12. Donna January 27, 2015 at 10:30 am #

    I agree with JP. The biggest problem that I have with being free range is with the complete lack of other children for my child to free range with. She has only helicoptered friends.

    Since none of my daughter’s friends can free range to the park a mile away, my daughter has never free ranged to the park a mile away. I think she is totally up to it, but either I have to go to supervise the friends or she has to go alone and she doesn’t want to go the park alone.

    Since none of the other parents allow their children to stay home alone ever, they think they have to babysit my child until I get home if she comes to their house when I’m not home. I asked a neighbor to pick her up at school one day, intending for M to head home when she was done playing, and her mother insisted that she had to stay until I got home. I ended up hiring a babysitter that we really don’t need (I really just need someone to pick her up at school and take her home but nobody is willing to do a 10 minute job) because I can’t ask a friend to pick her up without it also including an unwanted requirement for them to babysit.

    Since none of her friends arrange their own play, she has no ability to do so either. I understand that most of her friends live too far to just pop over unexpectedly to see if they are home, but I would love for her to be able to set up her own “playdates” (her to call to see if X is home and wants to play) like we did as kids, but none of her friends do that. None would have any idea how to even go about doing that nor would their parents approve. Since few that I know have land lines, kids too young for their own phones seriously lack phone skills today.

  13. Jenny Islander January 27, 2015 at 10:43 am #

    Re free range practice: I get anxious about my kids’ social lives because I am reliving Stuff from my own childhood. In order to keep from getting Stuff all over their fun, I try to arrange playdates for a time when I have to be in the kitchen. I know that if my kids actually need help, they’ll come get me. Other parents may find this useful.

  14. Jenna K. January 27, 2015 at 12:32 pm #

    “Kids who were allowed some time out to explore on their own or with friends were more physically active than kids who were always supervised.”

    Well, duh. How many times do my kids beg to let them play outside and how many times do I not want to go outside because of whatever I need/want to get done? But when I can let them go out on their own and then have some peace and quiet to get my stuff done, it’s a win-win!

  15. Chelle B. January 27, 2015 at 12:42 pm #

    I joined this newsletter because I understand what I went through years ago, when my children were young. The laws were not as severe then,but as a parent I still worried.1- I taught my children to never talk to strangers and not to go with anyone, anywhere.2- Don’t answer the door, if someone knocked. 3- When someone called they were to answer the phone and say, “My Parents are busy right now and will call you back later. Would you like to leave your number?” 4-No one is allowed to go in the bathroom with you. These basic things being drilled into everyday safety, went a long way. I can understand what most parents are going through. Most children are safer alone than with the current child care available.

  16. Vicky January 27, 2015 at 12:50 pm #

    Kinda obvious and wonderful!
    A parent/close family member is best suited to know enough about a child’s abilities and personality to determine when, where and how a ‘responsibility’ test is appropriate. It is the parent’s duty and privilege. Others can quite nicely guide your child in life but no one should ever be able to take the God given privilege away without the strictest over site and under the most extreme circumstance.

  17. Ariel January 27, 2015 at 1:23 pm #

    “Unsupervised Play is BETTER for Kids, Says New Study!”. And in other news, the sun is hot, water is wet, and the wheels on the bus go round and round.

  18. Dawn January 27, 2015 at 1:57 pm #

    I believe in unsupervised play so much! My kid is so much happier when she can play alone or with a friend unsupervised by me for even just an hour. So important.
    http://www.Grainfreechild.com

  19. Emily January 27, 2015 at 2:38 pm #

    I’m not the same Emily as before, but here’s my take. I’ve always been introverted, even as a child. When I was a kid, I was technically “allowed” out in the neighbourhood…….sometimes, depending on my parents’ mood, but the range wasn’t very big–until high school, it was just a few blocks, on a good day, and I remember being eleven or twelve, and not being allowed to go to the park (which our house backed into via a small wooded area), by myself. When I was allowed out, it often required details–where I was going (fine), who I was going with (usually my brother, IF he was up for it, since I wasn’t popular at school), and when I’d be back (also fine, but it made spontaneity impossible). So, I’d chafe under those requirements, and go to my room and read a book alone. These days, replace “book” with “TV” or “computer” or “iPad,” and most kids could probably quote my story exactly; maybe with a few variables, like “I have friends, but they’re not allowed out either,” or “None of my friends from school live in the neighbourhood, and none of the neighbour kids go to my school,” or “Everyone I know is in organized activities whenever they’re not in school.” But, to be honest, there were times when I wanted to go out, alone, to walk/bike/Rollerblade around, with no particular destination in mind, because I was sick of myself, my family members, and the four walls of the house, but I wasn’t allowed to do that, because it was “dangerous.” Between those rules, and my complete ineptitude at sports, I wasn’t a very active kid, and I ended up becoming obese. As you all know, I turned that around, started exercising regularly, and now I’m a yoga instructor, but not every story ends that way.

  20. Havva January 27, 2015 at 4:17 pm #

    This is decidedly news of the obvious. Though I’ll admit quantifying the impact has value. I think I was 5 years old when I learned that mom saying “I need to do dishes now” was the perfect time to ask “Can I go to the park?” mom always said “yes” when she was going to do dishes.

    Now I’m seeing it from the other side. There are many times my daughter wants to go out to play that I don’t have time.

    And Jen G. That is a reassuring story. My daughter asks me frequently about the age requirement in our area. She wants to run free. I hope her experience will be like your son’s when she hits the CPS allowed age.

  21. EB January 27, 2015 at 8:29 pm #

    And this is why it’s so important to try to find a neighborhood (city, suburb, or rural) where the other kids or at least some of them, are free range. Once a critical mass of kids are free range, then the remaining ones are likely to become free range too, when their parents see that nothing bad happens. My kids could always find someone to goof around with (yes, not every minute is spent doing constructive things).

  22. Lisa @ Four Under Six January 28, 2015 at 12:12 am #

    It seems COMPLETELY crazy to me that people need a formal study to tell them that wonderful, free, open play is better for children than structured, managed, directed play. This is literally insanity. I feel in my gut that my kids being independent and adventurous is a wonderful, healthy, and natural thing and I encourage this as much as I can. Nothing could be better when I see them playing on their own, especially outdoors. Why are people so afraid of this? Ugh.

  23. Belletower January 28, 2015 at 12:16 pm #

    I am so glad to find the company of other free-range parents. I have four under nine and I routinely leave my eight year old alone at home for 20 minutes or less at a time. We review common sense rules each time … 1) keep indoors, do quiet things like homework or tv, don’t answer the door, call me if anything unusual happens. My seven and eight year olds ski together taking the lifts and checking back in with me at pre discussed intervals. I encourage them to play on my three-acre yard without worrying about this and that and the other thing. We live in a safe part of the world and I want them to take advantage of that. I let my eight year old take bike rides alone on our street. I cannot mention most of this to friends because they are horrified. The emily with the son at the park is an example of what I hope to achieve that I raise intelligent children who are confident and make good decisions independently. Hooray for free range parents!