More About Playborhood and Risk, From Tim Gill


The New anrhtzzene
York Times article on Playborhood
, the open-to-all playground that Silicon Valley entrepreneur Mike Lanza organized on his front and back lawns, continues to elicit a ton of comments and commentary. Here’s what Lanza wrote on his own Facebook page. And here’s a post by Tim Gill, the British visionary who blogs at Rethinking Childhood and has spent 20 years fighting for the right of kids to have some free, unsupervised time.

Gill points out that there is no such thing as zero risk. Yes, we can minimize risk, and we actually have — we currently live in the safest times in human history. But ZERO risk is a goal that he says (in more lovely British phrasing) drives us crazy:

It is linked with the parental norm that being a good parent means being a controlling parent, which is dominant in many high income countries. The truth is that both the mindset and the norm are highly problematic, and need challenging. The zero risk childhood is simply a fantasy.

What’s more:

[I]t ignores the fact that giving children a degree of freedom – which may involve some challenging or frightening situations – actually helps them learn how to keep themselves healthy and safe. Lanza’s perspective – which I wholly support – is that as they grow up, children gradually need to be allowed time and space when they try responsibility on for size and learn what it is like to be an independent person. This means that the adults have to figure out ways to step back and allow situations to unfold, even if there is a possibility their child might get hurt or upset.

Of course, stepping back is not easy. When, how far and for how long to step back depends on circumstances and specifics. What is more, different parents have different views on risk. As I have written before, it is rarely helpful for anyone to try to second-guess these sometimes difficult judgement calls, which are rarely cut-and-dried. But what can be questioned are the values and (yes) worldviews that shape them.

That questioning is what Free-Range Kids does, or tries to do: Question a society that, for instance, arrests parents who let their kids wait in the car for five minutes, or forbids third graders from walking out to the carpool line, or shames parents who don’t wait with their children at the bus stop where other kids and parents are waiting for the very same bus. That particular example comes to mind because last week I met a dad who stands with his 7-year-old at the bus stop four houses from their home every morning, even though he feels it’s completely unnecessary. But everyone else does it, so…

So the issue isn’t how much risk is precisely the right amount, and the issue is certainly not trying to create risk to test our kids. It’s simply that pursuing a zero-risk childhood often brings its own risks, like driving kids to school rather than letting them walk. (See this piece, “Walking to School is Less Dangerous than NOT Walking.”)

Gill is so right when he says it usually does no good to”second guess” other parents’ safety judgment calls. But it makes a ton of sense to assert our right to use our own judgment, rather than accepting  the idea that no risk at all is allowed, ever — not even the minuscule risk of letting a 7-year-old wait at the bus stop with her friends, without dad. – L


Slow! Kids playing (and parents nearby, of course).

Slow! Kids playing! (And parents nearby, of course.)





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19 Responses to More About Playborhood and Risk, From Tim Gill

  1. Richard October 24, 2016 at 12:27 pm #

    It often comes down to the fact that – IMO – our job as parents is to raise well-rounded functional adults. Many of these rules do keep kids safer, and if our job was simply to raise offspring that lived to be 18 then keeping them in a bubble would be fine, but its so much more than that.

    I’d even (controversially) argue that raising 99,999 well-rounded kids is far better for society (and sanity – ours and theirs) than raising 100,000 sheltered snowflakes.

  2. Richard October 24, 2016 at 12:28 pm #

    (Just to clarify since I see as I post that it might be unclear – the difference between the numbers was chosen to represent a terribly unfortunate accident, because accidents do indeed happen).

  3. theresa October 24, 2016 at 12:49 pm #

    You be surprised how times things that aren’t worth making a huge fuss get one. We seem determine to turn everything into a big deal even if it really isn’t. It might be the fear mindset that causes it or something else like the I’m in charge so you must obey like a robot mindset.

  4. Meg October 24, 2016 at 12:58 pm #

    @ Richard

    “…our job as parents is to raise well-rounded functional adults.”

    YES. People forget this. We are supposed to be raising adults who can function in society, not children who have no idea how to problem solve or deal with risk.

  5. Tim Gill October 24, 2016 at 1:37 pm #

    *Blushes* thanks Lenore, I’ve not been called a visionary before! I agree with Richard – that phrase “well-rounded” is spot on.

  6. Workshop October 24, 2016 at 1:48 pm #

    A cynic might think that the entire purpose is not to have children learn how to keep themselves healthy and safe. What gain is there in that? If we design a system to create powerlessness, then we can get those people to do whatever we want them to.

    Eat lots of grains . . . which mean you’re consuming lots of carbohydrates, and diabetes develops.
    Demand a safe space . . . so that you put people in charge who give you your safe space.
    Do not challenge the status quo . . . because the status quo is “safe and healthy.”

    What possible reason could exist for wanting to raise a generation of people dependent on handouts and safe spaces?

  7. James Pollock October 24, 2016 at 1:51 pm #

    We have an idealized vision of childhood… that happy time before adult responsibilities kick in. Because of that, we tend to try to prolong or extend the childhoods of people who have not yet been “spoiled” or “tainted” with adulthood.

    Of course, only those with means can completely shield their kids from responsibility, because it’s a labor-intensive project, so having the ability to do so is a status symbol. Then, it becomes an object of desire by the status-seeking. Since that’s most of us, it goes mainstream.

    The height of the phenomenon I’m referring to is the “whipping boy”. The Prince cannot be struck by a commoner, of course, and the king does no manual labor. Therefore, we have a commoner appointed to the task of “whipping boy”, who takes all the physical punishments the prince has earned.

  8. lollipoplover October 24, 2016 at 1:57 pm #

    “It is linked with the parental norm that being a good parent means being a controlling parent, which is dominant in many high income countries. The truth is that both the mindset and the norm are highly problematic, and need challenging. The zero risk childhood is simply a fantasy.”

    Whenever I try to overdo parenting and become more controlling, it always backfires or leads to disappointment. My idea of planning the perfect birthday party usually vastly differs from what my kid wants to do, so why not just let them pick (even if it involves an afternoon of paintball wars.) Growing up means taking on personal accountability for your actions, even when they’re bad. Snowplow parenting and avoiding all risks/triggers/dangerous scenarios teaches absolutely nothing. Parenting is a transfer of knowledge…you’re going to have to learn to use that knife sooner or later. Same with crossing the street or navigating your neighborhood. Self confidence, self-reliance, self-sufficiency- the keyword being self, not mom or dad.

    Controlling parenting behaviors often lead to very anxious messed-up kids. Requiring your child to text you and electronically monitoring them really is stalking and abusive. No, I am not a bad parent for not having any desire to cyberstalk my children on social media and not respect their privacy (thus far given me no reason not to respect them and have behaved responsibly). So many parents, to appease their own neuroses, over-monitor and emotionally stunt their kids with constant check-ins and little freedom to make their own choices and decisions. How sad when a teenager panics because their phone is dead and their parent will freak if they don’t know where they are at all times.

    Or the parent who threatened physical violence against the opposing team’s coach, who spoke to his daughter “without his permission”. Permission?? Your daughter just punched 3 players in the face (ever heard of the no hands rule in soccer? Pretty big one…) but don’t talk to his daughter! I would be mortified if my child intentionally hurt another and showed such bad conduct!) So many bad parenting behaviors that we really need to break this cycle and need to control others, often learned from our parents and repeated
    generation to generation.

    We need to shift the focus back on the needs of children and not ours as parents. It’s like we’ve forgotten they have any rights or say in decisions. Parenting is so much easier when we listen to our kids. Let them play (and address the lack of places available for kids to just hangout together…rapidly dwindling all around us.) Not just for their physical health and wellbeing but mental as well.

  9. Leah October 24, 2016 at 2:49 pm #

    Today I commented on my FB page that my 10 year old would be carving her own pumpkin without any help or supervision as per her request. I had a few who ask about the safety of it. This is a kid who lit sparklers by herself on the 4th. She’s got this. Let kids have more freedom and responsibility so they can rise to the occasion.

  10. sexhysteria October 25, 2016 at 2:17 am #

    A greater problem is not degree of risk, but rather reasonable priorities. Why are government policies so hysterical on nudity and “bad touch” while ignoring the statistics on the most deadly dangers kids face in everyday life?

  11. James Pollock October 25, 2016 at 3:16 am #

    “Why are government policies…”

    Because, believe it or not, government is responsive to the public. If they (the public) want something bad enough, government will try to adapt to give it to them. It’s not anything at all like real-time, but that is what is happening, no matter how slow. (Of course, not all of the public wants the same thing(s), and so the loudest or the most numerous get listened to more often, which is a bummer for people who want something different. Also, of course, people change their minds about what they want.

    A good deal of dissatisfaction with government policy comes from being in the minority. Another big chunk comes from being impatient.

  12. Michelle October 25, 2016 at 7:18 am #

    I’m a free range parent. I let my 4 year old play on the playground where I can see him from the window. I leave my kids in the car while quickly running to get things. Last week my little boy walked a few feet away from me and the baby to buy a slushie. Recently I left him in one isle looking at pencils and went on isle ahead to get something. I let him help with dishes even with KNIVES, which he gets to use to eat and real ones too not just plastic kiddie ones. My boy has never worn a helmet while other kids wear them on tricycles. But I am uncomfortable with how there seems to be so much empatsis on “walk to school, walk to school, walk to school”. My children will not be walking to school. Not because of kidnapping obviously, because I wouldn’t do what I do then. And also not because of the traffic, although I do have my reservations with them around high traffic areas. We have to remember that in the past, when it was the norm to walk to school, kids would carry their books in their arms or in small satchels. Now kids have backpacks that look bigger than them in grade school. There is no way I would want my small child to carry that home. There was a definite decline in kids walking to school pre complete paranoia, when I was a child in the 1990’s. Kids who were allowed to roam the neighborhood freely and sent to get milk on Saturday where picked up from school. The dangers of heavy backpacks are not imagined or one in a million. The bus absolutely, but my children will not walk miles with that weight strapped to them. Now I plan to homeschool anyway but if my kids did go to school, they would not walk. Other than that, a neighbor of ours a few years ago had her son walk to school because she did not want to pay for the bus and her husband took the car to work.The son was about eight. She told me how he arrived at school with wet socks because it had been raining. Yes, my kids will be able to go outside and jump in puddles and have fun..and then come home and take their wet clothes off, not sit in them for seven hours. I don’t think that type of thing was right, but she wasn’t free range so much as she was cheap and lazy. They were not poor, they were over spenders and the occasional bus fair for the boy when it was raining or too cold should have been a given, but no. I don’t think walking to school can be compared with walking to the park or playing in the backyard.

  13. Donna October 25, 2016 at 8:39 am #

    “Now kids have backpacks that look bigger than them in grade school. There is no way I would want my small child to carry that home.”

    I can’t speak for all schools – just the ones my child attended – but those backpacks are largely empty. My child, who is currently in 5th grade, has never brought home a text book. Not even when we were going out of town for a week and she was taking homework with her. I’ve never even seen text books in the classroom when I’ve been there for conferences. The only book she carries back and forth is whatever book she is reading for reading (she also carries around a bunch of her own personal reading books, but that is totally her choice). She is assigned a computer for school that she can take home, but almost never does since we have computers at home.

  14. Myriam Francoeur October 25, 2016 at 10:08 am #

    @Michelle. It seems to me that you are making a mountain out of an anthill… regarding big packpacks, there are options other than a car… How about a backpack with wheels? or taking to your child that they absolutely need to bring all the books, all the time? How about picking them up occasionally when they have need to bring a lot, but letting them walk the rest of the time?

    And regarding that other child who came to school wet? Are rainboots and umbrellas impossible? Are natural consequences of spending the day wet so bad (if rainboots and umbrellas are provided but ignored by the child)? Even if his parents are so negligent to forgo them, why should you use the car instead of providing the rain boots?

  15. John B. October 25, 2016 at 12:07 pm #


    “Are natural consequences of spending the day wet so bad…..?”


    Can’t remember if I told this story here or not but way back when I was in Kindergarten, 1961 to be exact, on a wet slushy day up in Wisconsin, the teacher told us kids to be careful about splashing in the puddles and snow during recess. She did not want us kids sitting in her classroom wearing cold, soaking wet clothes. Well of course being the kid I was, I didn’t listen. I proceeded to have a wonderful time outside sloshing in the wet snow!

    So the teacher took me to the back room, stripped off my pants so she could give them to the janitor to throw in the dryer. In the meantime, while my pants were getting dry and as a way of disciplining me, she made me wear a big green DRESS (I’m a guy). That’s right folks, a 5-year-old BOY forced to wear a dress! When I walked out of that back room wearing that dress, I was met with a cackling of laughter from the rest of the 5-year-olds in that class.

    Now I highly doubt that a teacher today would get away with doing something like that without getting fired and sued, but I will admit that I did learn from it! I was determined to NEVER get a drop of water on my pants during recess all thru grade school….LOL.

  16. Papilio October 25, 2016 at 1:44 pm #

    @Michelle: So cycling is not an option for you? My other suggestion is a backpack with wheels like Myriam suggested. In any case, I’m sure there is a solution that doesn’t involve an engine.

  17. Myriam Francoeur October 25, 2016 at 3:55 pm #

    @ John B. That’s an awesome story! Then mental image… thank you!

  18. Michelle October 25, 2016 at 4:29 pm #

    I never said the word car, I said bus. Since when is taking public transport rather than cycling or walking equated with “car”? In fact, I wouldn’t even be able to drive my children unless we get a second car, since my husband takes ours to work. So if they did go to school, yes they would have to get there some other way.

    In 5th grade/your district those backpacks might be empty but in my experience, they aren’t always in Kindergarten. I have lifted some of those backpacks and if they seem too heavy for a young child. Now admittedly my kids are not yet in grade school but my own parents had a battle with the teachers about WHY we couldn’t take him just what was needed for homework in grade school. This got easier as we were given lockers in middle school and actually could, so I would have no issue with a child who has a locker walking home. Rolling backpacks are banned in our school district, unfortunately.

    The school also has no bike racks and there seem to be helmet requirements for bikers if they do bike to and from school and quite frankly I can’t see my son suddenly warming up to helmets in a year or two. Now I have to admit, I’m personally not terribly comfortable with cycling because here you are not allowed to bike on the sidewalk and I’m not free range enough to want a 5 or 6 year old on the road with cars, on his bike, period. Also, I don’t cycle , so I wouldn’t know how to teach them all that. It’s not something I enjoy at all so we’ll see if they take to it on their own. The older one does have a bike. Maybe it’s because cycling wasn’t much part of my free range experience and I also grew up rural, which meant that although I saw a lot of woods, water and the like, I did not navigate traffic young.

    So no, cycling is NOT an option for me. Why not the public bus? I will get them bus passes regardless so no extra expense, they would get there independently but I wouldn’t have to worry about bad weather and heavy backpacks. There is an engine involved but the bus would go that way regardless of my kids being on it. Sure, I could instead walk to them and carry their backpacks, which involves no engine but THAT is helicoper parenting.

    As for that family, there was more than that going on with those people. Knowing this woman as I did, I don’t believe she provided this child with rain boots or a coat. She would not allow the child to shower after soccer because they were only permitted so many showers a week. The older son’s bed had blood from the younger one getting a nosebleed on it for six weeks at least (no, she wasn’t sick or otherwise unable to fix this). We live in an apartment complex with a playground in the middle and her son damn near kicked in the windows of some neighbors playing soccer. The neighbors, bless them, never did call the police but approached her and she shrugged and said it’s a playground so they can play. She was not free range, she was lazy. I never said she should have driven him, I said that she should have let him take the bus on that day. He took the school bus when we was in Kindergarten until it was decided that we are too close to the school to get bus service. He wanted to take the regular bus, which he loved but his mother said no.

  19. Myriam Francoeur October 26, 2016 at 12:36 pm #

    @ Michelle

    I don’t think anybody was implying that kids that live far from school should be forced to walk. I think most school districts set a 1-mile limit. You live closer that than, you get to school on your own. Farther than that, they offer transportation. I think that you may have misunderstood the “walk to school” motto. Most of us are taking about kids living close, sometimes very close to school, being dropped of in cars, or driven to their bus stop, when if would otherwise be safe and reasonable to walk.Your original post also seemed to imply that your child would not be eligible for school transportation, but that you wouldn’t let them walk, so I assume, wrongly it seems, that you would drive them. Sorry about the confusion.