Guest Post: Free-Range…in a Group Home

Hi fatsadesty
Readers — Here’s a guest post from Darell Hammond, founder and CEO of KaBOOM!, a very cool, national nonprofit trying to ensure a playground within walking distance of every child. Hammond is also author of the New York Times bestselling book,
KaBOOM!: How One Man Built a Movement to Save Play. So read this while you send the kids outside! — L


When I was 19 months old, my father went to unload a truck and never came back. My mother, who was left to care for eight children, didn’t raise us Free-Range on principle, but rather by default. She had to work multiple jobs, so we were left on our own for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Dinner was often butter and sugar sandwiches on white bread. My older siblings started skipping school, ostensibly to take care of us younger ones, but they sometimes ended up getting into trouble instead.

Eventually the bills piled up and my siblings’ frequent absences from school caught the attention of social workers. When I was four, we were all transferred to Mooseheart, a group home outside of Chicago. In many ways, life at Mooseheart was both Spartan and structured. I stored all my belongings in a single trunk; I shared a room with 23 other boys; I was summoned to classes, meals, and other activities by a whistle; and I needed written permission to move from one building to another during school hours and after dark.

But within this structure, I actually had an ample amount of freedom—more than many kids, including so-called “privileged” kids, enjoy today. For one thing, with about 1,200 acres of lush lawns, playgrounds, athletic fields, and basketball courts, Mooseheart was full of outdoor spaces for roaming and playing. And I always had other kids to play with. Rarely in my free time did I have an adult hovering over my shoulder—there simply weren’t enough adults to go around.

My childhood was unusual, yes, and certainly not desirable in every way, but it was my group home upbringing that initially opened my eyes to the importance of strong communities and of free play—even if I didn’t realize it at the time. It was Mooseheart that set me on the path to founding a community-building nonprofit dedicated to saving play—a journey I detail in my new memoir, KaBOOM!.

The Free-Range movement is often misinterpreted as a movement that gives parents license to be reckless, lax, and neglectful. Critics completely gloss over the vital role of community in the Free-Range philosophy. Say the words “child-directed free play” and they don’t envision a group of neighborhood children looking out for one another as they invent games, create new worlds, and explore their surroundings. No, instead they are haunted by images of stray kids running wild in heavily trafficked streets or careening helmetless downhill on their bikes (of course, as the pedophiles and child-snatchers lurking on every corner look on).

Beyond all the paranoia and hyperbole, the reality is that the world hasn’t become more dangerous; it’s that trust, community, and civic pride are eroding. Freedom for children without the backbone of community can be just as dangerous as too much structure—I know, because I lived it.

I would never advocate for children eating butter and sugar sandwiches for dinner, spending Christmas alone, or routinely missing school. But freedom within a strong, healthy, nourishing community—that’s what every child needs and deserves. – D.H.

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35 Responses to Guest Post: Free-Range…in a Group Home

  1. Anthony Recenello July 29, 2011 at 11:51 am #


    “Freedom for children without the backbone of community can be just as dangerous as too much structure.”

    Wow, we are on the same wavelength, my man.

  2. Holly Chase July 29, 2011 at 12:07 pm #

    I also think that all of the evils that exist now, existed when we were younger…it’s just that now, every incident is publicized with such fervor that so many have become overcome with the fears of what might happen…they should have more fear that the “normal life experiences” have become a thing of the past. Imaging the child that never explores their neighborhood on their two wheeled magic bicycle…

  3. Julie Irving July 29, 2011 at 12:08 pm #

    I used to work for my Dad’s Pharmacy delivering prescriptions to Mooseheart in the late 80’s.

  4. Marie July 29, 2011 at 12:19 pm #

    So true! We spent the past couple days at the beach, and while I certainly watched my kids, they spent a lot of time playing with each other or whichever kids they met that day. So fun for them, and they learned that the could cope better in the ocean than they thought they could.

    I give them some of that at home, but so few other kids play outside on their own that it’s just not the same.

  5. gap.runner July 29, 2011 at 6:15 pm #

    I’m on the waiting list at the library for KaBOOM! and am looking forward to reading it.

  6. martin July 29, 2011 at 7:58 pm #

    The school district I work for encourages a teaching style called Kagan (similar to cooperative learning). Basically, the teacher sets up groups and activities /assignments and the students work together to accomplish tasks. It’s a student centered, student driven style. The teacher is considered a facilitator not an overbearing-in-your-face give-out-the- answers instructor. It takes a lot of practice and preparations to make it work. A lot of research goes into the preparations for grouping, reading and math skill levels, previous classes and knowledge, student interests and learning styles. You also need to know what learning would look like in the activities. Getting to know your students and building a relationship is also extremely important. Its nice to walk around the room and hear the students asking critical thinking questions and not have the teacher pose them. I enjoy this style of teaching. It sort of free range in an education system that is clustered with rules and laws.

  7. Let Your Child Fail July 29, 2011 at 9:18 pm #

    Thanks for sharing such a personal story. It is sad the way the media (probably helicopter parents themselves) has chosen to berate free range parenting. The love sensationalizing the free range movement, which we, practicing free rangers, know to perfectly safe. In fact, your story proves it to be natural and safe, even beneficial.

    Thanks, Darrell.

  8. Jynet July 29, 2011 at 11:08 pm #

    I agree with the statement “, the reality is that the world hasn’t become more dangerous; it’s that trust, community, and civic pride are eroding”

    We had an “Amber Alert” that covered the entire province last night for a missing “6-8 year old boy”, who had left a playground with a ‘suspicious’ man. It turned out that after calling out dozens of police and civilian searchers that the boy was at home with his family. The ‘suspicious’ man was a family member, who had actually been in the park the whole afternoon but since the staff that were organizing activies thought it was weird that a man had been in the park all afternoon and then left with a child they called police.

    If there had been a bit more community then the staff (who were mostly, if not all, teenagers from the community) would have known this man and child belonged together. But they didn’t, so he fell victim to “child-minding while male” which seems to be almost as dangerous as “driving while black”!

  9. Lori July 29, 2011 at 11:12 pm #

    I’ve been thinking about exactly the same thing. We have a children’s home in town with several houses of 8-10 kids each all in a central complex. My children have friends who live there and it’s their favorite place to go. Lots of kids around, a central green space where everyone plays together and lots of freedom. They frequently tell me they want to live there, which brings on a more serious discussion of the circumstances behind the fun. But, I’m glad they love being there.

  10. Stephanie July 29, 2011 at 11:32 pm #

    @Jynet – What strikes me most about that Amber Alert is that the site you linked to notes that it has been cancelled, but not WHY it was cancelled. I wonder how many of these really were a case of a child being with a family member the whole time? Perhaps if the website/news reports/etc. actually *reported* the fact that the child was never in any danger to begin with, people wouldn’t be so paranoid.

  11. Stephanie July 29, 2011 at 11:50 pm #

    Oh, and in response to the actual post: Despite the unfortunate circumstances that lead to him living at Mooseheart, Hammond pretty much nailed what I hope will be my approach to parenting: Offering freedom within structure. It’s all about balance, neither extreme is likely to turn a child into an adult who is capable of functioning on his or her own one day.

  12. Jynet July 30, 2011 at 12:08 am #

    @ Stephanie

    Sorry, there have been reports in the news that it was a family member. But I tried to link to a non-opinionated source, since all the print news reports are terrible. The radio has been much better about explaining that the male family member was actually in the park while the child was playing in the ‘supervised’ program, and that is part of what “freaked out” the staff (that a man was in the park)

    But here is a link talking, a bit at least, about the fact that he was with a family member:

    What strikes me is this:
    “The intensive, four-hour search utilized EPS patrol units, Air 1 [the police helicopter], canine units and many civilian searchers.”

    But the comments on FB and other sites are all about how it is “better safe than sorry”… I hope those same people plan on voting for the tax increase that all these helicopters and canine units will cost!

  13. tracey July 30, 2011 at 12:27 am #

    I grew up just around Mooseheart. I was always fascinated by their access to cows and fields and big open spaces. Sad situations brought them there, but the organization is quite lovely and loving, from everyone I have talked to.

  14. kherbert July 30, 2011 at 2:15 am #

    @Jynet, Sounds like the people that reported the “missing” child need to be arrested for making a false report and wasting police time. The child was not kicking and screaming when they left. All they had to do during the activity is ask the guy if he was with a child. I bet he wasn’t hovering over the kid. I ask unidentified adults why they are in my school and if they need help all the time. Our building set up has made us the target of both daytime and after hours thefts. Our district is investing in techology and much of it is handheld like Ipads.

  15. Nil Zed July 30, 2011 at 2:23 am #

    It’s a shame: fear of bad group home care created the foster care system we have today. But from people I’ve known who grew up in good group homes/orphanages the stability sand reliability of life in them was good enough to grow well in. While the foster care system is meant to lead to personalized, family-like care, it so rarely does. Instead it’s a system where kids learn that any day their world could be turned upside down with a new placement and no promise of even taking a footlockers worth of their own property, insultingly stuffed in a
    garbage sack.

  16. Jynet July 30, 2011 at 2:41 am #

    kherbert, on July 30, 2011 at 02:15 said:
    @Jynet, Sounds like the people that reported the “missing” child need to be arrested for making a false report and wasting police time.


    The staff at the park were mostly young adults… and i keep saying there is something very “Salem-esque” about the whole thing. Even now they are getting told that they did the “right” thing. There was lots of group-think going on, and one tried (purportedly) to follow the boy and man… and anyway, I agree, they should/could have done things differently.

  17. Lafe July 30, 2011 at 3:19 am #

    I wouldn’t agree that those who reported the incident should be arrested, but if that were my community I would be very keen to find out who will be telling these young people that they did the wrong thing? We have to find a way to counter the false message that they did the right thing! They should be asked to apologize to the man and his family. The news should carry this just as prominently as it carried the Amber Alert: “Young Park Workers Apologize to Family for Misunderstanding Which Led to False Amber Alert Notification”.

    If I falsely accused someone of being a bank robber or stealing from their employer, wouldn’t I get into some kind of trouble that would make me think twice about ever doing that again? Surely people would not be patting me on the back and saying, “Better safe than sorry. Good job ruining that person’s reputation. It might have been real.”

  18. Dana July 30, 2011 at 10:30 am #

    This is such an important post — I always wondered why I didn’t support free range principles in theory but couldn’t always support them in practice — because the element of community wasn’t there. Darrell’s words are like a light bulb going off for me. The problem in our society is social isolation, not rising crime. What it comes down to is, we have to work harder to build community, trust, and cooperation, so our kids can have the freedoms we took for granted. It takes a village!

  19. danan July 30, 2011 at 11:06 am #

    I believe my favorite babysitter, and just about favorite adult ever, grew up at Mooseheart after being orphaned. She was a great
    friend of children.

  20. Jynet July 30, 2011 at 11:31 am #

    I agree Dana, that is why being free-range is so difficult. It is important for us to start to build back that safety net.

    When I was growing up the teens in the neighbourhood would have known that the man picking me up was my dad/uncle/family friend, because they would …have been over last weekend to babysit. The mom in the park would have known that the girl her daughter was playing with lived in ‘that house, there’ because she had been over for a BBQ a couple of weeks ago, etc. Etc.

    The price of feeling ‘safe’ may be the lack of anonymity that we’ve come to treasure.

  21. kaleete July 30, 2011 at 10:31 pm #

    Dana, you hit the nail on the head! I live in a very close-knit neighborhood, and our kids all free-range on our street together. Many of my friends envy what we have in our neighborhood. One friend in particular has gone out of her way to connect with her neighbors, to no avail. They are simply too busy shuttling their kids to structured activities to have open play time in the neighborhood.

    You can see this if you look at what newer houses look like vs older houses. Older houses have front porches. Newer houses have front slab stoops, and an enormous back deck. A couple of year ago we put a huge veranda on the front of our house, and people told us we were crazy. It’s my favorite space. I can sit out there with a book while the kids play outside. Neighbors wander over and I offer them a seat and a little something to drink.

    In my opinion, nothing says “I don’t want to know my neighbors” like an itty-bitty slab in front of the front door of your house. Not the fault of the homeowners, as our project was very pricey, but something architects really should consider when building homes.

  22. Tracy July 31, 2011 at 2:09 am #

    beautifully balanced article. Encompasses all the areas of parenting while letting go.

  23. Tracy July 31, 2011 at 2:12 am #

    just read dana’s post to find out why it’s given such kudos. The social isolation is just as you say. It’s causing problems because we don’t care for one another tho’ I don’t agree with the phrase, ‘it takes a village ….” raising our kids is OUR responsibility but looking out for them and each other, that’s community… 🙂

  24. Uly July 31, 2011 at 2:30 am #

    Off-topic, but I have got to vent. Here I am somewhere else (wow, that parses *terribly*, but I love the historical present!) and somebody asks about leaving their three-year-old alone in the apartment just long enough to make a quick trip to the sidewalk so the geriatric dog can pee.

    Naturally, we get a reply “I’d be scared of kidnappers”.

    I point out – pretty nicely, actually – that this is the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. Even if stranger abductions weren’t generally very rare, even if they didn’t mostly happen to pre-teens and teens, for somebody to kidnap your child in that example would mean that…

    1. They know you well enough to know, for sure, that you are home with your child (your kid isn’t at daycare or grandma’s or, y’know, nonexistent) and that nobody else is home with you (dad isn’t home, there’s no big sister, nobody is visiting).
    2. They are keeping an eye on the door to know when you’ve scooted out for two or three minutes to let your dog pee… something which presumably doesn’t happen on a steady schedule.
    3. They have a surefire way to steal your kid from your apartment, which you’re standing directly outside of, without you noticing or passing them in the hall. Also, your kid won’t kick up a fuss or anything, and won’t require any coaxing to come with them.

    Is this possible? Sure – but by that point we can safely assume that this is less a crime of opportunity than something planned for over a period of time. And with that level of planning, if they’re really determined, for some reason, to take YOUR little brat (and let’s face it, three year olds ARE brats to everybody who doesn’t have to love them), they’ll find a way no matter what you do.

    But according to other commenters, I’m the bad and mean one for telling her that fear is a pointless waste of time.

    (This isn’t to say that there aren’t potentially good reasons to not want to leave your kid unattended for three minutes, four minutes, five minutes. Your three year old may be a real hellion, or the house may be a death trap, or you may know for a fact that you live in an extraordinarily dangerous neighborhood. But random stranger abductions? In normal neighborhoods? Yeah, right.)

  25. Juliet Robertson July 31, 2011 at 8:33 pm #

    I’m in the middle of reading this book and I’m really enjoying it! Darell writes in a frank, straightforward style and it makes fascinating reading. Well worth buying!

  26. AdultCentre August 1, 2011 at 12:58 am #

    I really love this post. thank you so much

  27. Kim Kircher August 1, 2011 at 1:50 am #

    Well said. Community is the key. Thanks.

  28. EricS August 2, 2011 at 7:01 am #

    Well said Darrell. If more people had that view, communities…the world, would be so much better for our kids. But alas, more and more it’s an adult world, and what makes THEM feel better. Using children as scapegoats for their own insecurities. In turn, making their children just like them. Perpetuating the issue.

  29. EricS August 2, 2011 at 7:07 am #

    @ Dana: So true. To expand, communities need to stop trusting in what they read, watch or listen to in the media. And start trusting themselves and each other (the community) more. Those news reporters aren’t going to go out of their way to help your neighborhood out. It’s the neighborhood as a whole that will keep each other safe, empowered, and happy.

  30. LisaR August 3, 2011 at 2:48 am #

    I live close to Mooseheart outside Chicago, and recently got a look at the campus because they had a drive-thru Christmas lights display. I always wondered what it was like for the kids who live there; thanks for the insight. And thanks for your work to help build playgrounds for kids that need it.

  31. Powers August 6, 2011 at 2:29 am #

    I don’t understand how there can be a playground within walking distance for every kid in the country. Some kids don’t live within walking distance of any other kid — do they get their own private playground?

  32. Uly August 6, 2011 at 7:59 am #

    I don’t understand how there can be a playground within walking distance for every kid in the country. Some kids don’t live within walking distance of any other kid — do they get their own private playground?

    That’s a good point… for a minority of the population.

    It might be better to say that there should be a (good sized, challenging) playground within walking distance of every kid in areas with a population density of so-and-so much, and within a set distance in areas with a lower population density. Perhaps mandating that elementary schools all have playgrounds in rural areas would help.

    However, as the US is a highly urbanized nation (some 85% of the country lives in cities or suburbs), you could probably reach 85% of the kids, at least.


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