How to Start Free-Ranging! (With Help from “Ask Amy”)

Hi Readers — I give you today’s “Ask Amy” column titled, “Kids, sbifsfaryk
Like Chicken, Should Be Free-Range.”
THANK YOU, AMY! Read her sage advice and then take the Free-Range Kids Challenge of the Weekend:

Dear Amy:My wife and I think it might be a good idea to let our 10-year-old son explore the city in which we live. What do you think of this? Is it even legal? If it is, how far can he stray? — Daring Dad

Dear Dad:It depends on where you live. When you ask how far your son can stray, the answer is, he can stray very, very far.

Many 10-year-olds and their classmates take public transportation to and from school. They confidently ride the subway; walk home from the bus stop; run out to the corner store to get a loaf of bread.

But should you let your 10-year-old “explore the city”?

No, certainly, if he has no experience navigating short distances on his own.

This is best handled in stages. First you send him on a little errand down the block. Tell him you’ll meet him in an hour at a predetermined place.

Run various scenarios with him as you walk with him through town. Let him take you on an exploratory trip during which he makes all of the choices and handles all of the transactions without your help.

When my daughter was young and we lived in Washington, D.C., we got to know many of the shopkeepers on our block. By the time she was 10, she could go on her own down the block. This is a great way to build confidence and problem-solving skills. By age 12, she was riding public transportation on her own.

Raising an adventurous, confident and savvy child can be nerve-wracking at times, but parents should foster independence. I wish more parents would let their children off the leash earlier in life.

I enjoy the writing on the website, where parents communicate about this sort of issue.

Bravo! And now it’s time to take her/my advice and show ourselves what our kids can do. Here’s an easy and exhilarating way to start:

THINK BACK ON SOMETHING THAT YOU LOVED DOING AS A KID…that, so far, you have not allowed your kids to do at that same age.

Whether it’s ride a bike, toast a marshmallow, go down the street or go downtown, remember how important that activity was to you. Then give your kids some basic tips and training, and LET THEM DO IT!

As for the laws, most states do not have actual ages for when a child is or isn’t allowed to do this or that, except for waiting in a car. It generally depends on whether the child is left in a dangerous situation  — for instance, home alone with no food, no phone, and drugs littering the place.

So don’t do that. And do teach them how to be as safe as you were. Which is to say: as safe as necessary, not as safe as possible, because if you aim for that,  they’ll never leave the house.  And summer is the time to let them go! – L.

P.S. Report back on how it goes!

Think back on all the fun YOU had...and give it to your kids.

Think back on all the fun YOU had…and give it to your kids.

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36 Responses to How to Start Free-Ranging! (With Help from “Ask Amy”)

  1. Warren May 24, 2013 at 9:27 am #

    Does Amy know the advice columnist that you featured a little while ago? She could forward on her reply to the 14 yr old in need of a babysitter.

    The word is getting out Lenore.

  2. thinkbannedthoughts May 24, 2013 at 9:40 am #

    YAY for sanity and common sense!
    This is our kid’s big summer – we’re letting them walk to the movie store together without us and pick out their own family movies and come back. (They even get to spend any leftover cash on junk food, which for me is the real mental hurdle…)
    My husband and I are walking behind them the first time and giving them a note in case the clerk doesn’t want to rent to them. We’ll be outside in case they need us to convince the clerk that this is approved, but we know the folk down there so we don’t expect a problem.
    After the first time, we’re hoping to send them completely on their own!
    I LOVED the freedom (and responsibility) of those long summer days, excited to share it with my kiddos!

  3. G May 24, 2013 at 9:52 am #

    I read Ask Amy’s memoir book and it was pretty good. I think it’s worth pointing out she grew up in a tiny rural town and was related to half of the population. I think she took that childhood experience of freedom and exploration and modified it when raising her daughter in a large metropolitan area. In this letter she basically described scaffolding her child’s experiences so she was able to confidently handle a free range childhood. Very smart.

  4. CrazyCatLady May 24, 2013 at 10:09 am #

    I grew up near Amy, we probably went to the same schools although she was a few years older than I.

    As a kid, my siblings and I would roam all over the farmland and woods of the country side. We would wade in creeks with snow still on the banks. We found old trash dumps and dug for bottles. We went iceskating on ponds not on our property. And we never saw a “No Tresspassing” sign – only a few no hunting. A couple of the land owners knew us, most did not.

    I have not let my kids do this. The main reason is where we have lived. When we lived in CA, the chances were they could find a boobytrapped pot farm and get shot at. (Even, or especially if on public forest land.) And, also they were a lot younger than we were when I was doing it. Where we currently live there are “NO TRESPASSING” signs all over – one about 10 feet tall in an area that we previously had walked (and packed out trash.) We now confine our free walking to park land (there are some sand dunes that are really cool) but that means that the kids have to be driven there, and honestly, I am not going to miss a chance to be in nature. It does make me sad though that my kids don’t have this liberty that I had.

  5. Natalie May 24, 2013 at 10:24 am #

    I remember running home from a friend’s house, falling, bloodying my knees, and being fascinated by the amount of ants because I had fallen on a cluster of ant hills in the middle of a sidewalk. Since I was alone I had to get up , clean myself off and continue on without help. I had to be 4 yrs old or less because it was our old house.

    Today, my mother is horrified when I let my 6 yr old roam around without me, and fervently denies that I walked around like that without her at that age. My mother changed her parenting style as my siblings and I got older.

  6. Havva May 24, 2013 at 10:29 am #

    I’m so glad to see such a reply from Ask Amy. So many people seem to associate free range with anything goes. Amy did a great job of explaining that this isn’t a binary switch. You don’t just go from never alone, to solo exploration of your whole city. This explanation of the incremental approach is what a lot of parents need. Parenting talk (outside of this site) is so often binary it provides parents little useful information on facilitating the gradual growth inherent to childhood. And really it is those transitional periods that I find most interesting and challenging.

    This is the sort of getting the word out, about the meaning of free-range parenting and parenting through transitions, is deeply needed. I read through all the comments when this posted, and gladly note that not one person said Amy was crazy. One person effectively said teach the kid stranger danger. And of course your recommendation of teaching kids not to go off with anyone, is much better. But plenty of kids free ranged in the late 80’s early 90’s with the stranger danger mantra, and still learned to talk to the clerk at the store. Anyhow glad to see that the concept of teaching a kid and providing gradual independence went over smoothly with Amy’s readers.

  7. Paul May 24, 2013 at 10:42 am #

    My son is not quite two yet so no free ranging for him but when he is older I have a few areas in mind. We purchased a home a mile away from a state park. When he is a bit older I plan to take him on hikes there and later let him explore the place with a friend his own age. I did that sort of thing when I was 11 and had a lot of fun exploring wilderness areas. We are not really in a heavily urban area so this is more of the exploration that I am planning for him.

  8. WendyW May 24, 2013 at 10:44 am #

    My youngest being going-on-14 this summer, there’s not a lot of free-rangy type stuff left to conquer in our small town. The bigger challenge is getting him to unplug his face from a screen and go DO something.

    I tried to think of what “big” things I did at that age, but they were all things that were a side effect of my parents divorce, NOT a situation I would choose to put my kid in. By 14 I had traveled cross-country by plane, unaccompanied, more times than I can count. At 14 I was shipped off to boarding school. The summer I turned 15, my 17yo sis and I traveled to the other side of the world unaccompanied, and I came home alone.

    So, in our case, I think I prefer my son to be a little LESS independent than I was at the same age.

  9. Julie May 24, 2013 at 11:16 am #

    My 10 year old son has the day off from school today. He takes the Washington, DC city bus to school, but he’s never taken public transportation to a different location by himself. Today, I’m happy to report, he took the bus to a Smithsonian museum and met my brother and his family who are visiting from out of town. Success!

  10. Jenny Islander May 24, 2013 at 12:59 pm #

    “scaffolding a child’s experiences”–what an excellent metaphor!

    This is the huge difference between free-range parenting and neglect. Free-range parenting means teaching the kids independence step by step. Not kicking them out the door.

  11. Emily May 24, 2013 at 1:46 pm #

    >>My son is not quite two yet so no free ranging for him.<<

    Actually, Paul, two isn't too early to START free-ranging, in small ways. For example, you could allow your son to start choosing his clothes in the morning, and his cereal at the grocery store (as in, red shirt or blue shirt, Rice Krispies or Cheerios, and so on). You could take him to the park, and just sit on the bench while he plays on the toddler-sized equipment alone, and only intervene if you see him doing something dangerous, or if he asks you to. The rest of the time, you could read a book, or play on your iPhone or whatever. Also, two is a good age to begin at least basic, parent-and-child swimming lessons (if you haven't already), so that when he's old enough to take "independent" swimming lessons, he's already comfortable in the water. At the age of two, "free range" may look different than it would for a school-aged kid, but the point is the same–you want to teach the child that he's an agent in his own life, instead of just being shuttled through the world by adults.

  12. JJ May 24, 2013 at 1:47 pm #

    I like this particular answer, but in general I find Ask Amy to be the opposite of free-range. For instance, there was a letter from a mature sounding 16-year old whose parents let her stay at home overnight by herself once and Amy chided the parents for “a serious error in judgment”. There are numerous examples of her infantalizing teenagers and young adults. In fact, reading the Ask Amy column was one of the things that made me start thinking seriously about how the world has gotten too overprotective with kids.

  13. Havva May 24, 2013 at 3:18 pm #


    I also have a 2 year old and like to think of the things we are doing as “pre-ranging.” I have way too much to say on the topic. But there is lots of teaching her what she needs to know, and trying to stay back as much as I can. The 2 year old desire to do everything themselves is a great helper in pre-ranging. I use my fear of her doing things herself as a guide for what I need to teach her.

    The day I realized she was responsive to the “STOP” command even when focused on something she wanted, was the day she got a lot more freedom. Another big thing was teaching her to stay on the sidewalk and out of the street. Her benefit for being good about staying out of the street, and respecting “stop” and “come back” is when we go on walks (several times per week) she can run ahead of us as far as the next street corner. She can also play in the drive way, while I relax near by and chat with my husband or the neighbors. Also I think of teaching her to wait, and accept not having things work out the way she wants them to, as key bit of emotional intelligence building.

    We are getting into more subtle things like bees and toadstools. I want to get her to a nature center, perhaps this weekend, to learn about snakes they have both harmless and venomous varieties.

  14. Jacklaudia May 24, 2013 at 4:16 pm #

    My 11 yo completed her babysitting course earlier this month. Tomorrow she has her first paid job! She will be sitting for three kids for 2-3 hours. They live right across the street, but I don’t plan on having any input or involvement in her work unless she asks. I am hoping that she will handle everything on her own, but I think there is a good chance I will be called on if the 1 year old’s diaper needs changing.

  15. Donald May 24, 2013 at 8:28 pm #

    I took my kids to the movies to see a show that they really wanted to see. The catch was, we had to take public transportation and my oldest son had to navigate. Before we left, I showed my son the public transportation info website. He had to write a list of what bus number we had to take, the times, and the stops.

    As we went on our trip, my oldest son was in charge. I offered very little input. If we missed the bus or made the wrong transfer then I would let it happen and we would’ve had to wait for the later movie showing. We had a great time!

  16. Joe May 24, 2013 at 8:37 pm #

    I have 2 boys (ages 3&7). We also live about a mile from the state park. We go there often. They refer to it as nature’s playground (and it truly is). It’s better than any mechanical playground out there. Both my boys are free-rangers. They explore, climb, fall, and learn. They both have increased their balancing abilities from walking on the downed trees. My 3 year old is bold, trying to do everything the older brother does, but nows his boundaries. Every time we go to the state park it is a joy to watch them as they both push their personal limitations a little bit further. Paul, have a great time at the state park.

  17. Jenna K. May 24, 2013 at 9:15 pm #

    I sent my 2-year-old outside to play today in the care of his 8-year-old brother while I stayed in the house with the sick 2-month-old. They had a grand time building a “clubhouse” out of rocks and sticks.

  18. CrazyCatLady May 24, 2013 at 9:16 pm #

    JJ, maybe someone turned her on to Free Range Kids and she has now changed her views. I guess the test will be if she answers in similar ways in the future.

  19. Donald May 25, 2013 at 12:21 am #

    I’m thrilled to hear that Ask Amy is changing her tune!

  20. Katie May 25, 2013 at 6:43 am #

    One of the best rules of thumb for giving children gradual independence+responsibility is “who’s the youngest that can do it?” Granted it’s more applicable to chores than play, but if you keep that in mind, you’ll find the gradual steps for both. (I learned that phrase either when my daughter, now going on 7, was a few months old or before she was born, don’t remember which…so I’ve been putting into practice for some time!)

  21. JM May 25, 2013 at 10:10 am #

    In the evenings I babysit 4 kids a 3.5 year old 4 year old twins and a 7 year old when we were driving to my house I wanted to stop for a coke but i didnt want to get all kids out of the car, so i asked the 7year old if she knew how to go inside the store and buy a drink she was completely freaked out by the idea the 3 yr old said I know how. I told the 3 yr old to take her sister in the store and show her how to buy a drink, I never have questioned this 3 yr old’s ability she should have been the big sister, i gave her a 5 the 3 year old went in bought the drink and came back with change while her sister stood behind her in line and i was standing by the door next to the car watching. That little girl makes me laugh.

  22. LPF May 25, 2013 at 12:19 pm #

    This week at the farmer’s market I was talking to someone and my five year-old was impatient to go buy bread at a nearby stand. I give him the money and told him to go buy it. And you know what? He did. He made the purchase all by himself and brought the bread right back to me! (In my defense this is a small market that we’ve been going to for years, we’ve brought bread from that particular vendor many times and I could see him the entire time.)

    Right now he’s out with my husband getting a new bike helmet to go with the two-wheel bike he just learned to ride – no training wheels.

  23. Edward May 25, 2013 at 12:22 pm #

    Most important part of original post:

    “When my daughter was young and we lived in Washington, D.C., WE got to know many of the shopkeepers on our block.”

    This is a key! A key to unlocking kid shackles and allowing them to go and grow. Next time you’re in a store you may send a child to alone, make sure to introduce the kid to the employees they will encounter, and the shift managers if possible. Everyone will be at ease especially the child since mom/dad know and the store knows.
    Thinking back on the past 10 years just now, I can’t ever remember seeing a kid go through a checkout with an item – alone…anywhere! How sad.

  24. Maggie May 25, 2013 at 2:42 pm #

    @Paul- Every child is different, but in 2004 when my oldest daughter was 2, she could go into the corner store and buy a can of Coke for me a a stick of candy for herself while I waited outside with the sleeping baby. Free range for a 2 year old might be bringing in the newspaper for you, or bringing in the mail if he can reach the mailbox. It might be learning how to make a peanut butter sandwich. It might be playing in a fenced backyard with you only checking periodically or watching through a window, instead of standing outside over him the whole time. It might be playing independently at the park while you watch from the sidelines.

  25. hineata May 25, 2013 at 5:45 pm #

    @LPF – no defence needed. You are obviously raising a sensible, independent child, and why shouldn’t a five year old buy bread by himself. My six year old used to go to the shops downstairs from us when we lived in Malaysia, because It was faster to send him than to organise the two toddlers, and one of the girls was such a mischief that I didn’t trust him to look after her. Also he spoke the lingo better anyway! The shopkeepers got used to seeing him, and he got used to who sold what. A great confidence builder for a kid who was and is fairly nervous by nature.

    I walked to morning kindergarten (age 4) alone, at my own insistence evidently, and this wasn’t unusual. My mother did cross me to the opposite side of the highway, and then it was quiet streets from there.Couldn’t allow the kids to do it when they were that age, but they walked to school alone from 5.5

  26. pentamom May 25, 2013 at 8:23 pm #

    Not that it’s anything new, but it’s disheartening when Amy gets negative comments from people who think that mentioning some terrible thing that has happened to some child constitutes a refutation of her advice.

    I’d almost say that people “would never” react that way if you told an adult it was fine to do this or that ordinary activity with the proper preparation and caution, but then I remember that there are people with all kinds of strange fears that limit them from doing ordinary things. I know plenty of non-mentally ill, otherwise perfectly normal people, who refuse to drive on certain busy but not death-defying roads, go into certain reasonably safe but non-idyllic neighborhoods, have pets because of “spreading disease,” worry about being alone in their homes at night in perfectly safe areas, and all kinds of things where people allow some relatively low risk hamper them from normal behavior, or produce a state of terror when they have to do those things. So I guess it’s not as simple as “you would never say that about….”

  27. Jenny Islander May 25, 2013 at 8:50 pm #


    Yes. 2 years old is a great time to start teaching free-range behavior. Their natural movement is already a series of ellipses with Mom or Dad at one focus.


    With this in mind, think of things you can do within the usual toddler ellipse. For example, you check out the lakeshore for broken glass etc., then retreat to about your toddler’s usual “this is far enough away from Dad” range and sit down with something for you to do. Look up and check on the location of your explorer once in a while. When he’s done squishing around in the mud, he’ll come back.

    I’ve told this story here before, I think. My local McD’s used to have a play place next to the eating area behind a heavy sheet of Plexiglas that blocked most of the noise. At first I sat in the Play Place with my first toddler. Then I sat at a table just on the other side of the Plexiglas. But one day, my little girl, who was a Big Girl of More Than Two I Do It Myself And No You Help, marched out of the Play Place, pushed me firmly around the corner to a table out of line of sight of the Play Place, and marched back in.

    At present, the same girl, age 9, has chosen to go down to the community festival alone–with her water gun. There’s a water gun war going on and she wants to join. She understands that I have to go get her daddy from work in a few minutes, the house will be locked, and she will have to warm up in the woodshed if she comes back before we get home.

  28. Uly May 25, 2013 at 9:18 pm #

    Check this post and comments out:

  29. Meg May 26, 2013 at 1:03 am #

    What I really like about Amy’s response is that she makes it clear that it depends on the child.

    I didn’t read the column where she talked about the 16 year old spending the night alone, but there are definitely many who shouldn’t (I might have been one….)

    I sometimes think there is not enough of a situational attitude on this site. It’s important to remember that every child is different.

  30. TaraK May 26, 2013 at 1:48 pm #

    Here’s just one tale of FRK in Rochester, MN. My third born has a unique combination of Eeyore and squirrel in his personality. He turned 8 this spring.

    A grocery store opened up about 1/2 a mile from our house. There is one main-ish two lane street to cross and the majority of the path is along another fairly busy four lane street. I’ve sent the older two to the store to pick up various things for me. I’ve sent the second born with the third born to the store just for fun (they came home with pockets full of candy!) I was running errands with two of my children and my third born wanted to walk home from the store. I did not let him because I was not sure that he knew the way home safely.

    Later that week we were back at the store as a family. I told my hubby to go on in with the others and that third born and I were going to walk home. I walked a little ways behind him and let him know that HE was going to show me that he knew how to get home from the store. He trotted right along home, pausing a moment at busy driveways, pressing the crosswalk button to cross the busy 2 lane street, using the sidewalk, scootching to the side of the sidewalk to let other people pass etc etc etc.

    This little demonstration showed me that he is indeed safely responsible for himself to make the trek to the store alone!

    I always talk about FRK with two caveats. 1. Know your neighborhood. There are certainly neighborhoods in the world where you would NOT let your 8 year old walk the streets alone. 2. Know your kid. I wasn’t sure that my kid could navigate the world around him. As usual, I underestimated him. This summer I anticipate the kids will be wearing out the sidewalk between our house and the neighborhood store!

  31. S May 27, 2013 at 9:47 am #

    Something I did that I haven’t let my kids do at the same age….well, I had fun exploring the storm drain tunnels and playing how far can you go in(they got smaller and smaller as you got deeper and deeper), but I’m still not ready to let them do that. Our parents didn’t imagine we were up to that, I think. Besides, most of those tunnels have grates on them these days and you can’t get in. I did some fun things I don’t really want my kids to do. I want my kids to have more freedom than most kids today, but maybe not quite as much as I did. I certainly monitor eir reading and viewing more than my folks did,largely because I remember early exposure to some disturbing things. We’ve gone so far in the helicopter direction, but Charlie Brown (adults a mere indecipherable voice in the background) 70’s childhoods were not always idyllic either. There is bound to be a happy medium.

  32. Rodney C. Davis May 27, 2013 at 8:48 pm #

    This is really important work. Yes..just as important as a nutritious diet indeed. A good friend of mine points out that parenting is difficult because to do it well, parents have to strike that perfect balance between preparing our kids for life, on the one hand, while protecting them from danger, on the other. These two things are mutually exclusive. The one that involves taking risks, fails to protect in the SHORT term. The other that involves sheltering them from danger, fails to protect them from life’s danger on the LONG term.

    One needs a system to work with that’s easy to understand, yet gets the job done. We want our children to range free, but like someone pointed out, the “village” played a bigger, but less visible role in providing protection back in the day. Part of the free-range movement therefore has to do with bringing back values about “community.”

    And I’ve a few ideas.

  33. Let_Her_Eat_Dirt May 27, 2013 at 10:50 pm #

    Congratulations, Lenore! I hope more and more people come to see that common sense can still reign in our children’s lives.

    Let Her Eat Dirt
    A dad’s take on raising tough, adventurous girls

  34. Natalie May 28, 2013 at 8:28 pm #

    @anyone that wants to answer!

    I much prefer these positive posts where we can learn from other people’s experiences and get ideas for our own kids.
    I’ve got two girls aged 6 yrs and 2 1/2 yrs. In allowing my eldest to move around freely or be outside in our yard without supervision, or do other activities on her own, she’s learning self-reliance. She’s also good at keeping an eye on my youngest, and it’s very sweet. So how to instill that sense of self-reliance in my youngest? How do you prevent the youngest from getting babied? I love that they play together, but I’m wonder if the helicoptering will be from my eldest instead of me.

    Has anyone run into this? And if so, how did you solve it? Is it a non-issue?

  35. Jenny Islander May 29, 2013 at 11:37 am #

    Believe you me, your six-year-old will let you know toot sweet when she is done being the minder. If she’s being a little mommy at six, she’ll wail that it’s massively unfair at seven, and if she’s helpful at eight, she’ll argue until she drives you nuts at nine.

    Most preschoolers naturally attempt to claim their independence when they are ready (before they are ready sometimes). Don’t be surprised if at some point your older child comes in to announce that your younger child has run off. Don’t worry, she wont’ go far.

    If you want to do some self-reliance training for your little one, I suggest a park or beach where you can send your older one off for a while. The younger one is probably still at the stage where exploration means a wide orbit around Mom. Identify something your little one can mess around with on her own, park yourself just a little closer than the usual distance at which she begins to look back toward you or head back to check in, and don’t look at her. Concentrate on a book or something. Glance up regularly to make sure that she isn’t getting in over her head. She’ll head back when she’s ready.

  36. Natalie May 29, 2013 at 3:24 pm #

    Good suggestion, thanks.
    Also good to know that this will partly resolve itself. 🙂