Free-Range Toddler Ideas Needed!

Readers ndhdensitt
— Share some ideas or I will take your toy and hit you over the head with it:

Dear Free-Range Kids: I am a Free-Range mom all the way. My problem is that everything has become so skewed in regards to childcare that I don’t even know what’s reasonable. My son is still pretty little (he turns 3 this weekend) but I am trying to implement Free-Range principles even now. He has a lot of unstructured playtime where he is expected to entertain himself, I’ve recently started letting him play alone in our privacy-fenced yard where I can keep an eye on him from the house, and he helps cut up vegetables for dinner using a dull-ish steak knife…but I’d love to see some suggestions for other Free-Rangey activities for younger children. He’s obviously too little to be wandering the neighborhood on his own, but what IS appropriate for the littler guys? I’d love to hear your take on free-ranging toddlers and preschoolers!

I want to Free-Range!

I want to Free-Range! But…how?

55 Responses to Free-Range Toddler Ideas Needed!

  1. Vicki Bradley May 23, 2014 at 9:20 am #

    It sounds like you’re on the right path. One suggestion is when you take him to the park, let him play on and explore the play equipment on his own, without hovering around him like I see many parents do these days. Even better, take him on a nature walk and let him explore his surroundings by picking up leaves, and twigs, and by pointing out any animals you might come across (mind you, this usually doesn’t happen when you’re out with kids, as they tend to be noisy and scare them off). Also, let him climb on tree stumps and logs while you’re out in nature. I’ve always let my kids play in puddles, sometimes right in the middle of a rain storm – just last evening my daughter put on her bathing suit and played on our trampoline when it was pouring down rain. The main thing is to allow your toddler to freely explore his environment and develop new skills as he does so.

  2. Andy May 23, 2014 at 9:34 am #

    I do not think you have to actively look for and stage Free-Rangey activities in order to be free range enough. The point is to relax from fear and worry in exchange for more natural flow of things and freedoms.

    If you worry whether you organized enough free range activities, then something went wrong :).

  3. marie May 23, 2014 at 9:50 am #

    Chores give kids a sense of accomplishment. Loading/unloading the dishwasher (hurray for Corelle dishes!), carrying towels from the bathroom to the washing machine, taking sheets off his bed on laundry day, putting toys away, sweeping up a spill. At first, this will not feel free range at all, because you will need to direct him and probably help get the chores done. Once he knows what to do, though, give him the morning (afternoon, all day) to get his work done. Kids at that age love to help and love being responsible for getting real work done.

    Just like helping you cut up potatoes, all of the other chores will teach him to be more self sufficient…the big Free Range goal, after all.

    I also love the suggestion that you let him clamber over whatever he finds outside. And let him get hurt! Let him see that a scraped knee and a bruised elbow can be survived.

  4. marie May 23, 2014 at 9:51 am #

    Forgot the big one: Train yourself to stop saying “Be careful!”

  5. JN May 23, 2014 at 9:54 am #

    Totally agreeing with Andy on this one. Free-Ranging is more of an attitude than it is an event. Play time alone inside and outside the house is the way to go. Avoid helicoptering the little booger when you’re at the park and let him do his thing (when it’s safe and appropriate). Think more like Crush from Finding Nemo and less like Marlin and you’ll be golden.

  6. SJH May 23, 2014 at 10:00 am #

    Yes, what Andy said! That was the first thing I thought of when I read this post: Free Rangers reject the notion that there is a “right way” to parent, and that someone else has to impart it to them. Advise/suggestions are all fine, but trust your own judgement– your little guy is going to be just fine. 🙂

  7. SKL May 23, 2014 at 10:11 am #

    I don’t have a lot of additional advice. I was going to say to give him simple “chores,” but someone beat me to that. Is he doing all of his self-care? If not, I’d have him do that. I would also give him some work to do for money, and then take him to a dollar store to decide what he wants to spend his hard-earned money on. 🙂 My kids were doing all of the above (though not perfectly) before they were 3.

    When you go outside of physical boundaries (such as your privacy fence), don’t hang onto your son all the time like some people do. Teach him simple boundaries and let him wander within those boundaries (and test the boundaries, with reasonable consequences). This makes him more aware of his environment, and gets him used to making choices beyond just “what do I want right now.”

    Another thing. I would stop calling him a “toddler.” I view 3-year-olds as “preschoolers.” I think “toddler” sends the brain a subtle message i.e. “this is a helpless baby who can’t think for himself.”

  8. TaraK May 23, 2014 at 10:13 am #

    A couple of practical ideas that worked for me.

    When you are outside in the front yard riding bikes in the driveway, put a sidewalk chalk line on the driveway to form boundaries. Yes, boundaries can be free range! We know that there are appropriate places for kids to go and not go without you. This summer, put one just a little before the sidewalk. Then next year, put them at the edges of the yard. Next, down a few houses etc. They can get used to playing in an unfenced area this way and know their limits. Teaching them to obey boundaries in a small way like this also lets the neighbors know that you ARE watching out for them and not just letting them run wildly unaware of what’s going on.

    The other thing I did was implement “red light, green light” when we were going for a walk, which then translated to other areas. Instead of insisting that they walk with you, give them a little running space ahead of you. You can either say “stop at the red car” or “see the big bush? Stop when you get there and wait for me to catch up”. Or you can simply let them run and say “red light” when you want them to stop. They have to wait until you say “green light” to get to go! This is a good way to train them to listen for guidance without having to be the crazy mom yelling “Susie!!! I said stop, do you hear me, stop!!!!”

    Giving kids appropriate boundaries and giving them simple cues to listen to actually DO go hand in hand with giving them free range!

  9. anonymous mom May 23, 2014 at 10:15 am #

    You seem to be doing just fine to me. I think, with toddlers and young children, it’s really more about the parent deciding on some reasonable boundaries, and then allowing the child to explore freely within those boundaries.

    I think a big thing for toddlers is to resist the urge to “over-enrich” them. You don’t need to be providing them with some sort of enriching, parent-directed stimulation every moment of the day, despite the pressure to do so. My 2-1/2 year old’s current favorite activity is just crawling around on the sidewalk (he can walk, he just chooses to crawl for this!) looking at bugs, and picking them up when he can. A number of bugs have been squished, but I figure it’s in the name of independent nature study, so it’s okay. 😉 I think he probably gets more out of toddling after bugs for an hour than he’d get from me trying to come up with all sorts of hands-on science enrichment activities.

  10. kate May 23, 2014 at 10:19 am #

    The one thing I would suggest is to get together with younger and older children. He will love being the big kid that can teach “the babies”. He will learn empathy and different points of view. After teaching him how to be careful around younger kids, try to let them work things out if possible. Additionally, he will like following the older kids around and trying to learn from them.

  11. lollipoplover May 23, 2014 at 10:22 am #

    “Think more like Crush from Finding Nemo and less like Marlin and you’ll be golden.”

    As for ideas, planting and caring for a vegetable and flower garden (watering, weeding, harvesting) was something my kids loved from an early age. I don’t know how it all grew (being trampled and over-watered) but all are huge veggie eaters now. The sense of accomplishment from growing something on their own made them realize they were capable even if they were very young.
    We also had dogs and cats for the kids to feed and care for and had the added bonus of a built-in alarm system for when the kids played outside alone. Favorite video is of my son *training* the dogs like a circus act with cheerios and having complete control over them at age 4.

  12. Jen May 23, 2014 at 10:27 am #

    I’m also trying to figure out how to instill Free-Range values in our 3-year-old. So far, we’re currently using the suggestion that’s already been mentioned to not hover at the playground and let him learn about falling down.

    We also try to give him some opportunity to make decisions and learn about consequences. A usual example is how he wants to spend the hours between dinner and bed, making it explicit that by choosing A he is choosing Not B and vice versa.

    And then, of course, there’s teaching him to be social and comfortable talking to all sorts of ‘strangers,’ and how to ask for help, but to NEVER GO ANYWHERE with them, and to help him know he can always tell us everything, and he never gets in trouble for telling us distressing things (only for blatantly disobeying).

  13. Chris May 23, 2014 at 10:45 am #

    First off, pitch that dull knife and get him a little ceramic knife. Super sharp, keep a great blade, but break more easily than metal. You can pick them up cheaply and they’re great for kids because they stay sharp, and are thus *easy* to use. He may not know it yet, but he’d much rather have a cut from a sharp flat-bladed knife than a dull serrated knife (if it’s serrated, like most steak knives).

    Our daughter is two and a half, and for me a lot of parenting basically boils down to instilling respect. She needs to respect things that can hurt her (like knives); she needs to respect our time (by entertaining herself); and so on.

    Respect is both a precondition for and a result of one of my favorite parenting activities: ignoring my daughter. I highly recommend it. Ignore your son *positively*, of course — if he’s begging for your attention in a reasonable environment, don’t be a jerk. But when I’m engaged in another activity — cooking, reading, talking with another adult — she is told, gently and firmly, to entertain herself. She respects the world around her enough that I can trust her to do so — even when, say, the grill is going and she wants to play outside alone — and I think that my expression of trust in her expression of respect is one of the more powerful free-range “activities” you can engage your child in.

  14. SOA May 23, 2014 at 10:48 am #

    I was all about child proofing the house really good so I could feel confident leaving my twins unsupervised for periods of time so they can be independent. So I would put them in the playroom that was totally safe and then go take a shower or cook dinner or get on the internet and make them entertain themselves for up to 30 minutes or so. If they needed me I could come in, but I expected them to learn to play together and alone without me sitting right there.

    I would not have felt comfortable leaving them unattended like that in a non child proof room because with kids that age accidents can easily happen. So my suggestion to all mommas is get one of those child pens or put up child gates or whatever you need to do to make a 100% child proofed safe area and then start leaving them alone in there for good periods of time so they can learn to be independent. I was doing it even when they were babies letting them crawl around in there and stuff.

  15. SOA May 23, 2014 at 10:51 am #

    Also everything Vicki said is perfect about being outside. We were regular puddle stompers and nature walkers about that age.

    And what others said about start teaching him boundaries like okay you can go anywhere on the playground but go no further than the sidewalk. Then step back and make sure he follows that till you can trust him to always follow it. Same for the yard.

  16. anonymous mom May 23, 2014 at 11:05 am #

    Just to add, I agree with those who said it’s mostly an attitude. Honestly, at this age especially, I think your own attitude and feelings are probably more important than the specific boundaries you set for your child.

    It can be extremely hard–especially depending on the parenting culture where you live–to resist feeling guilty for not constantly playing with your child, teaching your child, taking your child on trips, signing your child up for classes, etc. We live in a culture of Facebooks rants about the terrible parent who dares to play on their phone while their kid plays at the park, and it’s easy to feel like, if you aren’t giving your child your constant, undivided attention, you are a horrible parent and a terrible person.

    But that’s not true. Your child not only doesn’t need your constant, undivided attention, you are doing them a disservice if you give it. At the playground, kids should be PLAYING, not seeking constant validation and attention from parents. Sure, if somebody was sitting there playing Candy Crush Saga while their 2yo was screaming after having taken a big fall off the swing and needed help, that would not be cool. But, there is NOTHING wrong with a parent relaxing and entertaining themselves while their child explores a playground, even if that means refusing to constantly validate everything that child does.

    But it’s amazing how much often kids will ask for attention or help just out of habit. One thing I’ve implemented with my kids is that they can’t just yell, “Mom, come see!” or “Mom, help!” from another room and expect me to come running. If they really want me to see something, or they really want my help, they can get up, come find me, and either bring the thing they want me to see or help them with to me, or at least come ask me directly to go see/help, rather than screaming from across the house. And, you would not believe how many times, when I’ve reminded them of this, they’ve decided that they really didn’t need me badly enough to, you know, what 15 or 20 feet into the kitchen or dining room. (My oldest is the worst with this. We homeschool, and I can’t tell you how many times he’ll yell, “Mom, I need help!” only to decide, when I ask him to bring his work to me, that he doesn’t actually need help and can do it on his own. Kids, like adults, will take the path of least resistance, and if we’re willing to come running every time they ask, they’ll keep asking, whether they truly need us or not.) I realized they were asking for my attention and help out of habit, not because they really needed it or even wanted it that badly.

  17. SKL May 23, 2014 at 11:06 am #

    I wouldn’t introduce pens and gates at age 3. I took ours down before my kids were 2, and still left them to play when I showered etc. I think most 2-3yos are old enough to play alone in the house or fenced yard if they have been given the opportunity to learn rules/boundaries.

    If I had to leave my kids alone for longer than 15minutes, I shut them in their bedroom, which was the most childproof room in the house. I would leave them with fun toys that they didn’t usually have access to. They were fine up to an hour.

    Our yard is not fenced. I told the kids that they could not go past x boundary, and they learned to respect the boundary. This began when they were about 1.5. Certainly at age 3 they could play outside alone for stretches of time, with me peeking out the window periodically.

    Kids tend to be more sensible if they have to make decisions for themselves. I often say that the few injuries my kids have gotten always happened when I (or other adult) was right there. They seem to turn on their brains when adults go away. Good stuff!

  18. Sharon Davids May 23, 2014 at 11:09 am #

    You should bring your son to outdoor music concerts. My favorite used to be one in Maryland where the kids, before the concert would run a loop around the stage and then come back to the parents. My daughter would love (at about age 3) trying to keep up with the big kids and then find me. She was often muddy and had litle scars on her knees but she was so happy!!

    The park exists but they don’t have concerts anymore. I take her to Strathmore but most of the kids are tethered to their parents. One year they had a butterfly exhibit that was open. My daughter would wander up take a look at the butterflies and I would guard our stuff. At that point I was starting the revolution because more people would let their kids go without them and give a report when they returned.

  19. Christine Hancock May 23, 2014 at 11:11 am #

    Sharp knife. Give him a sharp knife are easier to control and leave a less ragged and painful cut when accidents happen.

    Yes, let him play in the yard and give him some things to climb. In fact, keep your distance at the playground too. You’ll have plenty of heart stopping moments, especially when he falls off ladders or has run-ins with other children; but his confidence will soar. Be close enough that you can see each other, yet far enough away he has time to pick himself up when he falls, and you have time to see whether he is injured or not.

    One of my cardinal rules of parenting is to let children pick themselves up when they’ve fallen (after they begin crawling). There are reasonable exceptions, but for the most part, I kneel down close by and wait for them to come to me. It was born of my first aid training to observe first and make sure my interference doesn’t exacerbate any injury. In time I learned that children usually don’t injure themselves when they fall, responding too quickly and dramatically to minor hurts teaches them that pain either gets them attention, or is a tragedy to be feared and avoided at all costs.

    I’ve seen my daughter fall four feet off a ladder and hit the ground hard at a playground when she was three. I got up to run over, bracing myself for screams and possibly some kind of injury. Instead, she got up, dusted herself off, smiled at me, and went right back up the ladder being more mindful of her footing the next time.

    Free range. Scary, risky, but worthwhile.

  20. Tamara May 23, 2014 at 11:29 am #

    “Free range. Scary, risky, but worthwhile.”

    An amazingly accurate, concise, description!

  21. Melissa May 23, 2014 at 11:45 am #

    Agreed with all of the others on the playground. Mine are 4.5 and 2, and I do stand at the perimeter and keep an eye on the 2yo (who is really tiny but very feisty, and most likely to get pushed off a ladder or something), but I’m far enough away that she feels like she is playing independantly. The 4.5 year old knows to stay on the playground and I make a visual check of him occasionally. He finds me if he needs something. The best part of this is watching them create their own games and relationships (however momentary) with other children. You can really see what their personalities will become.

    Also the naturey outdoor stuff. I’m lucky in where we live, we are surrounded by trails and nature preserves. But every chance you get, go out in the wild and let them explore, touch, climb on, and observe. They travel so much IN the world, and it will open your own eyes as well. Rather than just walking on a forest path, you see all the little plants and bugs and stumps and puddles with new eyes.

  22. Jenny Islander May 23, 2014 at 12:00 pm #

    I agree on the sharp knife. Use a small sharp kitchen knife (the straight edge is easier to control than a steak knife) or stick to things that can be cut with a butter knife if all your kitchen knives are large.

    IME, at this age, actual responsibilities (as opposed to “helping Mommy”) have to be limited to “please bring me that thing I just pointed at,” “tell me when you need to potty,” and “let’s sing the putting away song/the taking off our outside clothes song/the bedtime ritual song.” IME, kids aren’t ready for anything as complicated as “pick up around your bed” until about age six.

    One basic free range practice at this age is what I call the Ellipse of Mom/Dad. Go somewhere open and do something that doesn’t involve interaction with your toddler. Reading or texting at the park is classic; also consider yard work, the kiddie pool, a picnic, etc. If your child is not compelled to handle everything he sees, shopping might be good. Ignore your toddler except for a quick glance to locate him if he’s being too quiet. He will naturally restrict his activities to an ellipse with you at one focus and something interesting at the other. As he grows in confidence, the ellipse will widen.

    Now is the time to talk road safety. “When we get to the edge of the sidewalk, we stop, look this way, look that way, and wait for the cars to pass. And then we go.” Repeat at every crossing and eventually you’ll find him starting it before you do. If you have pushbutton crosswalks, he can push the button.

    As for amusing/organizing, sometimes a child at this age is out of ideas for entertaining himself or can’t thinking of anything that doesn’t give you the fantods! I suggest The Toddler’s Busy Book, which has very simple ideas, such as stripping the beds on laundry day, making a tent of the old sheets and some kitchen chairs, and letting your child play in it while you do some other load of laundry first.

  23. Renee May 23, 2014 at 12:06 pm #

    I wrote a blog post about this a while back:

    On the list you’ll find some regular activities (read a book together) as well as things that will thrill your toddler (pounding rocks with a hammer!).

    Best of luck with your little guy.

  24. Warren May 23, 2014 at 12:06 pm #

    You’re doing a great job.

    Some things that I think helped my kids were very simple little things.

    Would have them venture out to the mailbox to get the mail.
    Collecting and crushing soft drink cans to be turned in for money. They enjoyed stomping on the cans in the driveway to crush them. Feeding and grooming the dogs. All these things can be classed as chores, but are fun to them.

  25. EricS May 23, 2014 at 12:35 pm #

    They are busy bodies at 3. Very inquisitive (even if you can’t fully understand what they are saying yet), and curious. When mine was that age, I let him explore on his own. But was always there to assist or acknowledge when he had an inquisitive or surprised look when observing and interacting with things. Inside or outside.

    I want to point out though, that “hovering” doesn’t really mean you keeping an eye on them as they play or explore. I was there, or rather in the immediate vicinity of where mine was having his activities. So that when he turned to look at me to point something out, I was there to acknowledge, and call out what it was he was pointing at. Educating him (they are never too young to learn). But it wasn’t anything like, keeping a vigil outlook for trouble, or anticipating something bad might happen to him. THAT, imo, is “hovering/helicoptering”. I like to think of it as giving out a positive and calm energy. Children do feel your stress. And when parents helicopter, they stress.

    When outside, we let him run around the backyard, picking up sticks, leaves, help in the garden. Anything that he felt very curious about, or wanted to mimic what we were doing, we encouraged. But it was always mostly him. We were just there for support.

    This is actually a great age to start conditioning them to be independent. Now, that doesn’t mean you leave them to their own devices, and you ignore them the rest of the time. They still need your support. But not your hands on, doing everything for them, helicoptering ways. At this age, they are pretty smart and pick up on things very quickly. But they are also very impressionable. So best to keep things positive for them, and good energy from you. When you stress, they stress. And they learn to stress, never really knowing why. You should give him a fighting chance to learn confidence and self-esteem. Many people don’t believe kids this young understand that, or even implement it. But they do. Even if it’s just on a subconscious level. They only know what you teach them, and they mimic what you do, say, and feel. That becomes a base for how they grow up from there on in.

  26. EricS May 23, 2014 at 12:41 pm #

    In regards to those who let their kids help in the kitchen, if you don’t feel comfortable letting your kid hold an actual knife, even a butter knife, start them slow. Play dough is a great tool. Let them pretend they are cutting and cooking just like you, with plastic cutlery. Same thing if you garden. Give them little toy shovels, help them dig a hole for bulbs. Then give them a bulb to place in the hole. And help them cover it up. Tell them “good job”. They may not understand you yet, but the way you say it, positive, happy, and encouraging, they feel it. Puts a big smile on their face. This actually works with any activity they want to copy you doing.

  27. Melissa May 23, 2014 at 1:12 pm #

    I try to be a free range parent too. I try to treat my kiddo with as much autonomy as I possibly can. I don’t tell him “No” or direct his play unless it’s absolutely necessary. Hovering is mind-numbingly boring anyway. Kids think of crazy and awesome things to do all the time. It’s easy for your first instinct for something to be “No” rather than finding a way to say “Yes”. My son is 2.5, and is less interested in toys than in actually doing stuff. He wants and expects to be involved in the work of the household, and takes pride in his work. I’m not a perfect parent by any means, but I think that is one of things that we’re doing right. a

  28. amy costanza May 23, 2014 at 1:14 pm #

    Just as you allow your son to use a knife to help cut vegetables, allow him to use real-people tools and do big people activities as much as possible. If he likes to cook (or pretend cook) give him real implements. Does he like to “build”? Give him a real hammer and block of wood. Before you know hit he’ll be skilled at putting nails in wood and drilling holes. Not only will you save money on plastic toys, but he will have a lot more fun while developing skills and interests at a very young age that he will use for a lifetime.

  29. Papilio May 23, 2014 at 1:26 pm #

    “Share some ideas or I will take your toy and hit you over the head with it”

    Okay – in that case I’ll make sure I’m playing the piano when you arrive 😀

  30. Marybeth May 23, 2014 at 1:53 pm #

    It might be more about finding a friend for your son whose parents also appreciate some free range ideas. Sometimes being free range seems somewhat isolating if you can’t find one or two other friends for your son. Part of being free range is the idea that in a few years your son and a small group of children can play together on the playground without a lot of supervision. Being free range is not a lot of fun if you have do it all on your own.

    Of course as he gets older you can send them out on small errands depending on where you live. Our son was writing to the bakery a few blocks away by the time he was seven or eight to buy breakfast rolls for our family. I suppose we’re just lucky a policeman didn’t see him. But now at 11 he will occasionally ride his bike several miles to his soccer practice or other places as needed. We don’t have a subway here in San Diego but if we did he be on it.

    At three years of age, it’s more about building their skills and confidence so they know that they can’t do things independently. Can you give them a spot in your garden that is his to take care of when he’s outside? Maybe you plant some vegetabLes and flowers together but then he takes care of them.

    Let him start conversations with strangers if he’s social enough. Let him see you start conversations with strangers. If you are at a library, him look at books for a few minutes while you are looking for your own book. It’s one way to build the idea that you’re not there just to take care of him that you have a life to.

    Good luck and have fun.

  31. E May 23, 2014 at 1:59 pm #

    My suggestion is to just relax and enjoy your toddler. What works and makes sense to you (and your parenting mindset) seems to be coming naturally. Every kid is different and their strengths/weaknesses are different. You know better what works for your kids and your household, so I wouldn’t get caught up in making sure your child is doing things that are on lists or whatever.

    Just because someone says “my X year old played on the playground while I…” doesn’t mean that works for every playground (busy streets, older kid equipment, bodies of water) or every kid. It’s both okay to watch your kid play from a distance or play WITH them.


  32. deltaflute May 23, 2014 at 2:21 pm #

    Basically what they said…and Montessori principals. Montessori basically means having the child be independent and learn to do things on their own. That’s basically what this age is about anyway. Simply teaching them life skills at this point so that when a child is say six you can give them more latitude.

    I set my house up to be Montessori-like. My kids are 2 and 4. Their plates are in lower cabinets so they can get them themselves. Their toys and books are at eye level. Their beds are on the floor. They have a special switch so they can turn lights on for themselves. Clothes are in child-sized drawers. And so forth. You can use google and look to see what others have done so you can get a feel for teaching your child independent life skills although it sounds like you’re doing that already.

  33. CrazyCatLady May 23, 2014 at 2:30 pm #

    At this age I let my kids, when walking down our street, run to the next telephone pole and wait for me to catch up. It gave them the ability to decide their speed, to be away from me, but still close enough that I could see them.

    I also had an art drawer. I filled it with paper, crayons, washable markers, clay and tools, tooth picks, water colors and brushes, and a mat for doing their work on. They could go and do art pretty much when they wanted but they did have to clean up after wards.

  34. Jen Juhasz May 23, 2014 at 2:36 pm #

    My boys are 19 months and 5 years old. I believe the concept of free-range kids involves the home and yard as well as the world – and as parents, it’s our job to teach what’s safe what’s not, and then Trust the children to handle it without immediate, overbearing supervision.

    So, for example, we have a 2.5 acre spread in the country and a pretty large house. The boys playroom is upstairs in a loft. I can hear them, but my desk and my kitchen where I spend my working hours are totally out of sight of them. We have no gate on the stairs, we have no electrical outlet covers, there are wires and cables they conceivably could get to. There are bottles of cleaning supplies in the bathroom. I don’t lock doors. I trust my children to play. I intervene when voices escalate and I sneak up and peek if they’re suspiciously quiet. Otherwise, I let them ‘free range’ the house.

    When my younger son is sleeping for nap, I also trust that my older son, 5, is fully safe in the house by himself for up to 30 minutes while I’m in the yard tending the chickens – otherwise he gets pressed into service hauling buckets of water and tossing scratch.

    We have a few rules of safe conduct, and if they’re broken freedoms are removed. If they stick by them, more freedom comes their way. For example – bears are a huge issue on our property – we do have a mama bear and cubs in the area and they can easily access my property without our knowing it. So – rule of the yard – you can be anywhere you want to be, but if I look for you, you’d better be within my line of sight.

    Other ways to practice – you start teaching safe neighborhood rules together. We cross the roads together – not by picking up my children and hustling them across like a panicked chicken, but by standing together and letting my kids judge is it safe or not with corrections from me as to whether or not they’re right. We practice talking to strangers in a safe way. We talk about our experiences openly at home, we talk about what’s safe if I’m not immediately present. We read books that others might think are over their heads, but that touch on subject matters of freedom and what to do in certain situations (bears, strangers, cars, climbing a tree and getting stuck, rushing rivers, etc).

    Sorry – I guess this is a bit long – I could continue. The boys are upstairs right now having finished painting projects and are now onto constructing a car out of some bits of things. I trust them to pick up after each project, and if they don’t, well – we work it out. 😉 Basically, it boils down to trust. If you trust your kids to exercise the skills you have taught, and remain calm, they will rise to the occasion. 🙂

  35. Allysson May 23, 2014 at 2:48 pm #

    I agree with most every suggestion already made, but would add one that seems missing. Try walking, bike riding and taking public transit with your child on a regular basis so that it becomes second nature. By the time they are older children they will be confident about doing those things alone. Have them help pay on public transit – teach them to count out change which they get to put in, or give them their own pass/ticket. You may need to supply a little “purse” or wallet to hang across their body or a belly pack to keep that in.

    Another BIG one, and so easy. I’m astonished at how many parents carry their kids stuff around for them – right through elementary school years! PLEASE, give him his own little back pack for all his own supplies – sweater,snack, toy, wipes, whatever. AND MAKE HIM CARRY IT. I remember my kid putting it down at the zoo because I wouldn’t carry it. But I didn’t give in and he went back for it. Just don’t overload it.

    Teach him to open his own snacks, put it away again and put the trash in the trash can. I work at elementary schools and can’t believe how many kids can’t manage that themselves.

  36. Uly May 23, 2014 at 2:51 pm #

    Stop using a dull knife! Or even “dull-ish”. Dull knives are less safe than sharp ones.

    1. You are more likely to slip, and thus cut yourself.

    2. When you slip, because the blade is dull, you will make a wider cut (and, in my experience, a more jagged one).

    3. Because you have to apply more pressure to cut things with a dull knife, you will be pushing down harder when you slip and cut yourself, and may well make a deeper cut than you would’ve with a sharp knife.

    Take it from a very clumsy cook: The worst cuts come when using a dull knife.

  37. Uly May 23, 2014 at 2:53 pm #

    ” Have them help pay on public transit – teach them to count out change which they get to put in, or give them their own pass/ticket.”

    All kids enjoy this, but choose your time and place. During rush hour is not it – nobody wants to miss their connection and be half an hour late for work because of your teachable moment.

  38. Messy mama May 23, 2014 at 3:02 pm #

    This isn’t strictly free range but I’d love to see more of this as it’s getting exceedingly rare. Let your kid play in the dirt. Let him get muddy. Collect worms after a rainstorm (as many will fit in his hand) and don’t run for the hand sanitizer afterwards! Parents nowadays are as scared of dirt as the bogeyman. Most of us (the lucky ones) could get wet without changing immediately and we survived. I ate gravel as a kid and loved the texture. I’m okay today as an adult. I didn’t die of germs. Ok, I’m ranting now but it’s sad to see the joy of messiness sucked out of childhood.

  39. Lucy Kemnitzer May 23, 2014 at 3:33 pm #

    I’m going to say spomething here which will at first sopund like it’s the opposite of free-range parenting, but it isn’t. Children under three and to a lesser extent under five are freer to act if you don’t force them to it by putting too much distance between you and them. In my years as an infant/toddler caregiver and preschool teacher, I found that one sure-fire way to inspire indpendent play is to sit down and initate something like block building and then gradually detach: stay low to the ground, like sitting on the ground or a low bench, and take up some task of your own, gradually moving your attention farther away until you’re only participating by responding to remarks your child is making.

    I’m not saying “hover and dominate your child’s play,” I’m saying “show them you’re around and then fade into the background.”

    Another thing I recommend is inviting small children to help in household and other tasks. I took my little ones with me when I hung doorhangers for elections, for example. For the garden and woodworking, I gave them real tools that were small size rather than toy ones (those little folding spades that are sometimes called trenching tools are great, and there are tack hammers and miter saws which are exactly right for small hands. I think three is the perfect age to begin those). I also taught both my son and daughter to sew at about three, and showed them how to turn their drawings into patterns to cut cloth from.

    As you can see, these are parent-involvement activities, but they turn into child-initated ones.

  40. bmommyx2 May 23, 2014 at 4:13 pm #

    I as have a son who will be three this weekend. I would say that what you are doing is great. My son has a tendency to be a runner & he’s more rambunctious than most three year old boys. I have to use more caution with him than I did with my older son. We go to a mommy & me class & since the yard is gated i watch from a distance & join in when he calls me. If we go to a playground & there is not a busy street or parking lot nearby I give him more space to play. My son doesn’t always pay attention so if he is on equipment that concerns me I move closer & then back again when is on something else. My son often doesn’t want to ride in a cart when shopping so if the store is not crazy busy I let him walk & wander as long as I can see him. If I think he is going to run into other shoppers he goes back in the cart. I just gauge each situation & depending on his current mood & what I think he is capable of I let loose a bit.

  41. Kenny Felder May 23, 2014 at 4:43 pm #

    I agree with the person who said that, paradoxically, more parent-time at this age will help. The big emotional attitude you want to inculcate at this age is not “independence” but “security”: the sure knowledge that the world is a good and safe and loving place. Lots of physical contact with Mommy. Lots of reading time. Lots of attention. This prepares them to detach with confidence when they are ready.

    I would add one more thing: MINIMIZE SCREEN TIME. They should be running around and playing, getting dirty, using their hands, not living in a virtual world of the television or the computer.

  42. SusanOR May 23, 2014 at 5:43 pm #

    As someone else noted, 3 year olds are often incredibly friendly. Walk your neighborhood, and allow your child to be the person who initiates conversations with “strangers” (I put that in quotes because they are probably neighbors you just haven’t met yet!) My daughter, at that age, would ask about people’s dogs, we’d stop to chat, we’d ask if they live around here, and presto, new friends in the neighborhood!

  43. Jess p May 23, 2014 at 6:51 pm #

    Toddler idea

    Let them walk away from you. We would go to the park and I’d let my toddler run around on the big grassy field. Sometimes he was a football field away, still in eye sight by really far. I always got lots of evil eyes when I did this oh well.

  44. SOA May 23, 2014 at 8:25 pm #

    Yes to what Messy Mama said about letting your kid get dirty. I roll my eyes so hard at moms that freak out about their kids getting dirty. I always keep a spare change of clothes in our car and I don’t worry about them getting wet or dirty. I went to the zoo with a good friend but she drove me crazy because every time we passed one of those cool down sprayers she yelled at the kids not to go near it because they might get wet on a hot hot day! I was over there going through it with my kids to cool off! Clothes can dry good Lord.

    I buy play clothes at Walmart for $5 and under per shirt or shorts or sweat pants. Invest in this so you don’t have to freak out if they get stained or dirty or wet. Then we have some nicer clothing for parties and church and outings. Trust me teachers hate parents that send kids to school in fancy clothes and then throw a fit when they get dirty. They want them sent in play clothing!

  45. Rhea May 23, 2014 at 8:55 pm #

    My oldest is almost 3 as well and a policy we stick to is once he can do it on his own, we don’t do it for him. He can flush the toilet so he has to do it every time. I think this really helps foster independence and self-sufficiency. We also work on instilling responsibility by doin things like, if I see him digging in the pots and pans cupboard I say “you can play in their mate but you’ve got to put it all back when you’re done.”

  46. Jenny Islander May 23, 2014 at 9:21 pm #

    Lucy’s right, and I think that’s why kids at this age gravitate to the Ellipse of Mom. They want to be big rough tough independent kids, but they also want to run to their nurturer(s) when the world is too big.

    The natural course of childhood, I think, is an ever-widening orbit.

  47. Warren May 23, 2014 at 10:42 pm #

    Uly is spot on about the knives. As with any tool meant for cutting, accidents and injuries are more probable with a dull tool. The sharper the better. Less energy is needed to do the job, which allows for more control of the knife.

    A pet peeve of mine when someone uses my kitchen knives for the wrong purpose. And yes my knives, as I do all the cooking.

  48. Greg May 24, 2014 at 12:23 am #

    There have been a lot of good suggestions already. When I think “free range” I think about the child’s ability to think and make decisions. We’re there to make sure that they can’t opt to make horrible decisions, like going and playing in traffic, but we sure can set things up in the house to encourage this.

    Examples: put unbreakable child dishes in a low cabinet so they can get them out/put them away for meals and snacks and not rely on you.

    Enable them to make their own decisions regarding getting dressed each morning. Too much choice may be overwhelming, but encouraging them to check the weather and make good decisions about what to wear is important. No need for you to take that choice away from your kid.

    Rather than dictating everything to your child, present options and have them choose. I’m amazed at the number of kids who just can’t make decisions, mostly because parents seldom ask them to do so.

  49. Tina May 24, 2014 at 2:03 pm #

    Have a look at this independent little guy at his Montessori school. He can do a LOT of things on his own:

  50. alicia May 25, 2014 at 6:46 pm #

    Balance bike. Play at parks with natural area/hiking and not just a playground. Make friends with your neighbors and send the kid over to borrow an egg or deliver cookies, alone or you can watch from your porch the first few times 🙂 At the store, send him ahead to find things for you. Let him help cook at the stove; mine loves to make eggs and yes, he needs a little help, but he won’t be able to do it without trying a lot of times. And follow his lead; he will find the edge of reasonable behavior/danger, or he will if he’s anything like my kids.

  51. caveat May 27, 2014 at 12:36 am #

    Tons of good suggestions so far.

    Our kids (2 and 4) find riding bikes very empowering as all of a sudden they can travel serious distances around the neighbourhood under their own power rather than being carried/pushed by parents. The fact that Mom or Dad have to run to keep up is an added bonus. We started early on the safety training and both kids take stopping at corners very seriously.

    I’d add a plus one to Allysson’s comment about giving them a backpack to carry their own stuff.

  52. Decemberbaby May 27, 2014 at 1:41 pm #

    At that age I’m usually teaching them how to function in everyday situations. For example, grocery shopping. I usually do the shop alone because it’s faster that way, but once in a while I’ll walk my kids down the block to the fruit & vegetable store. They choose the fruits and veggies (I teach them how to find the freshest ones) and carry them in a shopping basket, and they know how to unload the purchases onto the counter, wait for the total price, pay, and receive change. They can’t count the change yet, but they know how to handle the transaction politely.

    I think a huge part of a free range parent’s responsibilities is to make sure that, when you send your children out into the world, they can behave appropriately in any situation. The only way to teach them that is to guide them through those situations, starting now.

  53. Melissa May 28, 2014 at 2:24 pm #

    WELL SAID. Yes, at three, you can give your child money to pay for an item and teach them how to make the request, pay, take your item, wait for your change, and say thank you. This follows in line with household chores. Mine do laundry (remove from washer and put in dryer (4yo pushes the buttons, 2yo is brute labour, LOL), then remove and “help” fold), load and unload the dishwasher – including knives and glasses, although I don’t put my expensive stuff in there, make their own beds, and pick up toys.

  54. Hellen May 30, 2014 at 1:27 pm #

    I kept thinking about your question and the one thing that kept popping up was to just let him do stuff for himself instead of helping him because it might be faster or come out better. That goes for cleaning up his toys or pouring a drink in his cup or tying his shoes. I think this will build up his confidence and independence and free yourself up instead of doing a lot of little things for him.

  55. Kelly June 2, 2014 at 4:38 pm #

    I think RIE and Montessori principals are basically Free Range for babies and toddlers. Self-directed play and eating balanced with predictable routine.