Parents Let Kids Free-Range at Campgrounds. What Can That Teach Us?

Hi htykhnbybd
Folks — The other day I was visiting friends in Rye, NY, where darned if kids weren’t playing outside,unsupervised, even making up their own games. Our host challenged me to find out: Why? Why are some neighborhoods still Free-Range,  while others aren’t? I decided to ask that question of the folks in the RV’ing world, a Free-Range culture if ever there was one, and here’s part of my the piece I wrote up for the Huffington Post:

Why Do Helicopter Parents Loosen Up at Campgrounds?

Most of us remember playing outside till the streetlights came on, but our kids can’t because of any of the following fears: crime, creeps, traffic, tennis lessons, homework… or all of the above.

Except at RV campgrounds. (And probably regular campgrounds, too. But I haven’t been to those.) At RV parks, kids run around like it’s still the Sputnik era — all ages, unsupervised. But if they were back home, even in safe suburban neighborhoods, chances are they’d be inside, or at least at soccer.

So, what happened to the helicoptering? As a gal who spends most of her time trying to convince parents to loosen their terrified grip, I’ve been asking around, and I think it boils down to:

1. Cramped Quarters
“A family of four in 429 square feet is different than a family in 2000 square feet,” says Eric Gaden. He’s a traveling nurse — yes, a nurse who travels to temporary gigs in his RV, with his wife and sons 5 and 8. They’ve been on the road for four years now, and whenever they land at a new campground, he says, his kids discover “the hiding places and secret places the adults will never see.”

That’s in part because the adults are busy kicking the kids outside. “When we lived in a house I could say, ‘Go to your room!’ But here they’re just six feet further away,” says Gaden. So out they go. And a child in nature tends to remain in nature.

2. Other Kids Very Close By
“The other day I was going around the campground and there were five little kids, probably 6 years old — three boys and two girls — on the dock, fishing, and there were no parents anywhere,” says Dave Schneider, owner of the Indian Trails Campgroundin Pardeeville, WI. Once there are a few kids outside, others join them. But in the ‘burbs, often the only kids in the park are part of a program, like Little League. Here, everyone’s footloose, so kids can swarm. And fish.

For reasons 3-6, click here!

Oh -- and don't forget another reason: Being closer to nature seems to make people open up.

Oh — and don’t forget another reason: Being closer to nature seems to make people open up.

, , , , , , , , , ,

33 Responses to Parents Let Kids Free-Range at Campgrounds. What Can That Teach Us?

  1. E May 27, 2014 at 3:00 pm #

    I grew up in a camping family and have done the same with mine. I also think that a campground generally attracts people with similar interests and every single campground I visit the speed limit is very low and followed (unlike my street where it’s not either of those things).

    In my neighborhood, kids go to different schools (“base assignments”, various magnets, various private) and have different schedules. At a campground, all kids are available and on vacation. There are no video games to compete with.

    Lots of reasons.

  2. E May 27, 2014 at 3:04 pm #

    BTW, do we even know the campers/RVers are “helicopter parents” at home anyway?

  3. Ann in LA May 27, 2014 at 3:34 pm #

    Our neighborhood is actually both free range and not. We live in a fairly orthodox Jewish neighborhood, and the Jewish kids are walking and running and biking and scootering all over the area. The gentile kids, who don’t have that same sort of community atmosphere around them and are more isolated, aren’t.

  4. Stacy May 27, 2014 at 3:53 pm #

    I was just thinking about this as we spent our first camping weekend of the season. It’s definitely not limited to RV parks — we are tent campers. Except when we are in very rustic campgrounds, there are always gangs of kids, without close supervision, roaming and making friends. No one thinks it’s odd that my five-year-old is filling her water bottle at the pump with no grown-up in sight. Part of it is the isolated, community feeling. Although there are cars, everyone drives slow and knows to watch out for bikes and small people. Everyone also just feels more relaxed when camping and is less anxious about everything. And people become more free range when they see other parents letting their kids be more independent. But I also think that camping just tends to attract people who are more likely to be relaxed, somewhat old-fashioned, parents who encourage their kids explore the outdoors. As I saw on one camper’s sign, “Dirty feet, bug bites, cold drinks, campfires, sunsets — the camping life.”

  5. SOA May 27, 2014 at 3:59 pm #

    I went camping a lot as a kid and I would ride my bikes all over the campgrounds and on trails. One time my friend and I found a snake that looked poisonous while going up in the woods and hightailed it out of there.

    I was always running around on my bike and in the woods even at home though. Now the mother who let me do this as a child freaks out if I mention doing anything like that with my kids. Standards change apparently.

  6. E May 27, 2014 at 4:45 pm #

    In short….there’s nothing else to do.

  7. J- May 27, 2014 at 4:47 pm #

    Lenore, I’m curious as to how you know the RV parents are helicopter parents at home? It would seem to me that the culture of the RV camper (from the people who are RV campers that I know) is more in tube to the free range ideal, or vice versa. RV campers (I’d say campers in general) are more adventurous than average, they like to explore and be more self reliant. Again, this is just my limited experience.

    My experience in scouting (camping but not RV camping) is that helicopter parents at home are helicopter parents in nature. There were always the “den mothers” who insisted on camping with their sons. In Cub Scouts thats one thing, in Boy Scouts, it’s another. They would often want to be in the same tent at their sons.

    These were the moms (and a few times dads) who would chase the boys around with sunscreen and bug spray, liberally applying both at regular intervals. They didn’t want the kids in the woods exploring, but on well organized “nature hikes” in which nobody left the marked and graded trail.

    No knives, no axes, no fire building, no fishing, etc.

    We had mothers who wanted to do the canoeing merit badge in swimming pools (not kidding) and wilderness survival in manicured back yards (seriously).

    S’mores came under assault for various reasons including too much sugar before bed, pointed sticks are dangerous, FIRE!.

    The helicopter den mothers never really seemed to enjoy the campouts, but attended to keep their sons from being carried off by bears, immolated over a camp stove, or infected with a parasite from a marshmallow stuck on the end of a stick picked up off the ground. Having seen all that, I just can’t believe that the same moms who won’t let a kid ride a bike around the block at home will suddenly let their kids out fishing, exploring, or stargazing when at the RV park.

  8. Stacy May 27, 2014 at 5:33 pm #

    I need free range opinions on how to handle something that happened on our camping trip. We were hiking in an area with lots of marked paths crisscrossing, including one that is about forty miles long. There are no bears or other especially dangerous animals anywhere near that part of the state and no drop-offs. My five-year-old loves to run ahead on paths near our home where she knows where she’s going, but this time she didn’t know. I was chatting with my older kids and realized she was out of sight and didn’t make the turn back to the parking lot. She is so fast that it took me nearly a mile to catch up. She was pretty upset by then, because she couldn’t figure out which way to go or where we were, but she kept running ahead. I don’t want her to be afraid of exploring in the woods, but she is five years old and forgot the rules to stay in sight of us when you don’t know the way and don’t move when you’re lost. There was a moment when I thought we might need a search party.

  9. Amanda Matthews May 27, 2014 at 5:45 pm #

    While of course you don’t know if these people are helicopter parents at home, I do have some anecdotal evidence: my husband’s mother was a helicopter, and she pretty much let him free-range whenever they’d go down to the campsite they own.

    While on the campground he could walk down to the creek before anyone else woke up, hook a worm, catch a fish, clean/gut it, start a fire and cook it. But back at home she cut his pizza into bit-size chunks because she didn’t want him to burn himself or hurt himself on a knife.

    Having worked at a campground I really don’t get it. There were coyotes and such that didn’t venture to the residential areas (and that an unsuspecting kid could think was a dog, and try to pet), poisonous plants, poisonous snakes, lakes, creeks and streams to down in, no sex offender registry to check, strangers everywhere (people that own sites know each other, but there’s always tons of renters) etc. Pretty much everything that helicopter parents fear is in full-force at a campground.

    The only explanation I can think of is societal pressure. When everyone is letting their kids be free-range, the 1 helicopter looks like a crazy person.

  10. Wendy W May 27, 2014 at 6:12 pm #

    @ Stacy: When my kids were little and we camped, I gave each child a whistle which they wore on a string around their neck. They were taught if you ever get separated/lost from everyone else:
    Stop- go no further
    Blow- hard and loud
    Wait- don’t move! stay where you are until someone finds you.

    We never had an incident that required its use. We did have one child who thought it fun to incessantly blow his whistle.

  11. hineata May 27, 2014 at 6:16 pm #

    @Stacy – you poor thing! That’s a situation that potentially is actually dangerous.(Certainly here it would be, due to the density of the bush). Hopefully she has learnt through this experience not to do that again (getting out of sight alone, that is)…However for next time, personally I would make her walk beside or behind me for the next full hike you do. One or the other should get her thinking about how to act more sensibly.

    BTW can you go hiking with other families? We got around that sort of thing by bushwalking with several other families, and the young kids would take off with the older kids/teens, who would NOT let them out of their sight. Furthermore, the younger kids listened to their ‘elders’ far better than they ever did to us, because it was such an honour to hang out with cool teens :-).

  12. hineata May 27, 2014 at 6:24 pm #

    About the camping, when my kids were under five, on the few occasions we camped with just our own family I was actually more worried about them at camping grounds than at home – a lot more hazards :-). But certainly once Boy was over five it was all on!

    We camped just earlier this year at what must be close to NZ’s most packed camping ground, 3000 people over Christmas/New Years. And the only time you saw parents fussing was when they’d lost their ‘damn kids’ and they wanted to go out off-ground somewhere :-).

    I did hang out around my kids more than usual this time thoug – it was by a major surf beach and I wasn’t about to miss out! Nothing like getting rolled about in the surf for minor finger breaks etc…. 🙂

  13. Mrs. H. May 27, 2014 at 8:31 pm #

    I suspect part of it is that because it’s a self-selected community with a leisure activity in common, people don’t consider the other grown-ups as “strangers” in the same way they would if the RV park were a neighborhood or other random geographical grouping.

    Sadly, a lot of our judgment of other people (we don’t know) comes down to “is he/she us, or is he/she them”? By being fellow RVers (substitute “fellow [ANYONE]”) others at the park are automatically considered “us.” It’s the way I would feel at a marathon host hotel or my husband would feel in the presence of a lot of baseball fans.

    Now… how to get the general populace to realize that, with rare exceptions, we are ALL “us”!!??!?!??

  14. Michelle May 27, 2014 at 8:32 pm #

    Stacy, would it be reasonable to have your daughter stop at every crossing and check to make sure she can see you (or wait until she can)? That way she can’t get too far off the right path. I also like the whistle idea.

  15. Stacy May 27, 2014 at 10:01 pm #

    She was supposed to keep us in sight and stop at any intersection to wait, but she clearly forgot what I said. She was sure she knew where we were going and could follow the trail markers, but she didn’t listen when I said we were heading back to the car. Her much older brother, the only one who can keep up with her, has run with her on a trail where they’re not going to get lost, and of course she thinks she can do anything he can. I think she had a pretty good scare, and I’ve learned that I can’t trust her to run just a little ahead in those situations yet. She’s my first super independent and confident kid, not to mention she can run fast without ever getting tired, so it’s challenging finding the right balance of freedom and safety. My natural instinct is to protect too much, but I don’t want to go too far the other way. I think she will be staying next to me on our next hike, until she can show she can follow my directions better.

    Re camping, I think seeing other parents let their kids be more free range is part of it, because I’ve seen the same thing happen in my middle class suburban neighborhood. I’ve become more “free range” over the years in part because of the example neighbors have set, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Often parents are overprotective because they think that’s how good parents are supposed to be and they’ll look bad if they’re not.

  16. wahoofive May 28, 2014 at 1:01 am #

    Hate to be a spoilsport but I wonder if it’s also because there aren’t any of THOSE people, know what I mean, at most campgrounds. Everybody there is the RIGHT sort of people, if you catch my drift. Like it or not, part of the fear people have of city crime is race-based.

  17. Jenny Islander May 28, 2014 at 1:05 am #

    @Stacy: I think you chose a very sensible response. If she can’t handle a particular free-range activity yet, then she needs to practice, practice, practice the correct behavior while under your eye, until she does it without being prompted.

    Re free-range being contagious, my tween’s current best buddy moved here from Colorado early last year. Our community holds a festival on Memorial Day weekend–rides, games, dances, contests, hucksters, etc.–in the big parking area by the harbor, literally within sight of our house and hers. Last year the neighbor girl’s mom wouldn’t let her go down to the fair at all because she might be kidnapped by a “hobo.” How you can even have hobos in the Subarctic, on an island very far away from anywhere else, I don’t know. Maybe she meant men with beards and holey jeans, that is, charter boat captains. Anyway, this year her mom let her go all day long as long as she was with “someone,” which meant pretty much anyone including my daughter, who is younger and smaller than she is!

  18. Bob Davis May 28, 2014 at 2:23 am #

    This discussion hits close to home, motorhome that is. My wife and I travel in a Lazy Daze RV and have stayed at many different parks. At one county beach park on the Calif. coast, the next space was occupied by an African-American family with three children. I was glad to see that the kids from other spaces and our neighbors were enjoying the park together. I was chatting with the dad, and he mentioned that “Game Boys” and similar devices had been left at home. At a park in New York, a boy of about ten came by, checked out the Lazy Daze, and said “Neat rig, Mister.” No worries about talking to strangers here. I think the element of “common interest” is indeed a factor–most RVers like to compare notes, rate campgrounds and roads, swap maintenance tips, and often invite previously total strangers to check out their motorhome and trailers.

  19. MichaelF May 28, 2014 at 5:59 am #

    Over Memorial Day weekend we had a bbq at my house, more for just my family and the neighbors across the road, which turned out to be all the families that we hang out with. Another family had a birthday party at the same time and with cars all over the street the kids just rode bikes up and down the road. It’s a quiet street, and we had parents at either end of the half mile stretch, but no one seemed to mind. Even after the birthday party broke up, the kids would bike then call out to each other “car!” and move aside. Then go back to biking.

    Meanwhile the adults, when not watching the road, stood talking and eating and chatting. A nice time and though I am sure one mom was nervous, the kids handled it all very well and got many miles completed on their bikes.

  20. brian May 28, 2014 at 9:03 am #

    wahoofive — Exactly right. Just as it is not an accident that parenting became so overprotective after schools and neighborhoods started to be desegregated.

  21. Donna May 28, 2014 at 9:36 am #

    I’m not much of a camper, but I’ve never gotten the impression that campers are particularly known for being helicopter parents outside of camping.

    That said, I do think there is a greater sense of community in campgrounds than is found at home. When camping, people spend most of their time outside rather than in their own individual houses. They use shared facilities. They are in a more relaxed headspace, rather than worried about day-to-day life, and more open to chatting with strangers. They have shared interests for an ice breakers.

  22. E May 28, 2014 at 10:02 am #

    @stacy , it’s already been mentioned, but we were given a whistle when we were pretty young and camping. I don’t ever recall having to use it (and I don’t even know how long or at what ages we had it), but it sounds like the perfect solution. And in reality, adult backpackers/hikers are encouraged to bring a whistle. Even adults can get lost or have some sort of fall off trail, etc.

  23. lollipoplover May 28, 2014 at 10:17 am #

    Helicopter Parents need vacations from parenting too! Constantly nagging your kids is exhausting. Escaping routines and letting everyone relax and smell the roses (or the charcoal bbq burning feet from your window) is what getting some vitamin n is all about.

    Besides, close proximity at campgrounds makes airing your dirty laundry and yelling at your kids constantly a big no-no. It’s more acceptable to say “Go play on your bike and come back at lunch” and give fellow vacationers some peace and quiet than to confine active, noisy children from the surrounding attractions in 400 feet of living space. Children should be heard in the distance squealing with laughter.

    We are not big campers here though I camped a part of the Appalachian Trail with my husband pre-kids and probably have PTSD from bears raiding our campsite. I prefer 4 walls between me and the bears personally.
    I still shudder at the memory.

  24. Snow May 28, 2014 at 11:34 am #

    We are free range at home and we are also Rver’s. Of course, the campgrounds we go to always seem to have WiFi and cable, so sometimes our son hides in the camper to play video games, but most often he’s out running around.

    Rver’s are a different breed. I love sitting around the fire drinking beer with people I’ll probably never see again, having a great time. You never meet a stranger while RVing.

  25. Kristan May 28, 2014 at 11:49 am #

    Stacy – I agree with other responses. We’ve taught my two boys (9 and 11) to stop, blow and wait as well. They also stop at trail intersections if we are in unfamiliar woods. I don’t remember teaching them this but must have at some point. They wait until they see us, yell a question about which way to go, and take off again.

  26. marie May 28, 2014 at 12:22 pm #

    wahoofive and Brian: I have met far more people who point out racism in others than people who actually discriminate based on skin color.

  27. Backroads May 28, 2014 at 1:31 pm #

    I know what you mean! I worked in the BSA for a number of years, 5 years of those spent working at Scout Camp. A lot of fun, but you would see those kids (and counselors) who were helicoptered. I ran the water front for two years. I received notes about not letting a kid in the water if the lake was beneath a certain degree (I believed in the philosophy “if it’s too cold for you, get out” and please be aware if you happen to have a medical condition–you’re at least 12).

    My personal favorite were notes about how swim checks had been previously done in a heated pool–thus somehow magically preparing them to handle themselves in a cold lake. My legal prerogative was to demand another swim check if I had any doubts if they could handle it.

    All in all, there was nothing like a happy Scout who was filthy at the end of the week and maybe had a couple of relatively minor visits to the First Aid building.

    Seriously, builds character.

  28. Papilio May 28, 2014 at 3:19 pm #

    “Except at RV campgrounds. (And probably regular campgrounds, too. But I haven’t been to those.)”


  29. EricS May 28, 2014 at 5:11 pm #

    What I wonder, is if these same parents who are so relaxed in RV Campgrounds, or normal campgrounds for that matter, have the same mentality at home as well? Or do they revert back to the fearing helicopter parents that run rampant in society today.

  30. EricS May 28, 2014 at 5:33 pm #

    @Stacey: I’m of the old school upbringing in the 70s. My parents let us roam free, but within reason. It was taught to us that our freedom was privilege. That with such freedom, came a great deal of responsibility. They outlined do’s and don’ts. They taught us how to deal with most situations we would probably get into those days. Which really is no different than what kids would go through today at the same age (6-10). Well, except that crime was statistically higher back then, than it is now. They gave us a certain level of trust. How we used that trust was up to us. If we deviated from what were suppose to be responsible for, we would face consequence of our actions. Whether it be a good spanking (discipline, NOT abuse), depending on the severity. Or getting grounded. We learned directly that we can’t just do whatever we wanted. We had to think first, before we acted.

    It was a life of trial and error. I’m glad there were consequences, because it helped us learn very quickly to be smarter (street smart and common sense smart). To this day, that is how I live my life, and how I teach mine. When we go camping, I sometimes do “pop drills”. Where I grill them in what they should do when certain things happen. ie. you get lost, you hurt yourself, you run into someone you don’t know, or when your near water, etc. This goes for all the kids that come camping with us. Sometimes even kids that end up playing with our group. The ones that pass, have more freedom. The ones that don’t, have less. eg. they can’t go off on their own…yet. They have to be with at least one other kid that “passed” the pop drill. And the ones that have “more freedom”, was responsible for keeping an eye on the others. Or else. lol

    This not only helps the less knowledgeable kids learn faster, because they are learning from their peers. But it also teaches them, that they have to work for our trust. I’m just glad that they are very stoked about doing that part. That they would boast in how they did this and that, and learned to deal with certain things. Especially reiterating how they did exactly what we taught them to do. In return, we show our gratitude, our pride, and encourage them to keep being like that. Then they get to be the “responsible” kids. In essence, we teach them how to navigate through life, like they would when they are adults. So that when they reach adulthood, they will be well prepared. Mentally and emotionally. They are NEVER to young to learn these things.

  31. SOA May 28, 2014 at 6:52 pm #

    I think it can also have to do with in my experience a lot of helicopter parents are not big outdoorsy types.They are the types that keep the kids indoors all day because its hot outside or there are bugs or its muddy. I cannot stand people who freak out about kids getting dirty.

  32. Carina May 29, 2014 at 4:14 pm #

    A HUGE difference when you are camping is the lack of crazy drivers. Personally, we let our kids out more than probably any of our neighbors, but I have instilled the fear of death by crazy driver into my kids. From the time they could run down the driveway, they all know there is an invisible wall where roads begin. They know that hybrid cars are silent and that folks backing out of driveways are just as blind as the driver checking his text messages driving 45 in our 25 zone. But I digress – for me in particular a big reason there is increased freedom when camping is that there are virtually no drivers zooming by hypnotized by the expectation that only cars will ever be on the road and believing that their text messages are important.

    @ Stacy – when I was a kid hiking with my family we had two solutions for the fork in the road conundrum. 1 – the easy safety whistle and 2 – mark your way!! Whenever I came to a split in the path, I was required to mark with an arrow the way I had gone, with rocks or sticks, etc. This not only gave me the continued freedom, but it also gave me responsibility, an understanding of how my actions relate to the rest of the family behind me, and, probably my mom’s secret agenda all along, it slowed me down as I looked the tools to make the arrows:)

  33. Warren May 31, 2014 at 8:17 am #

    At the park where we had a trailer, my kids would run in once in a while for food or drink rambling about their plans. My former in laws would give me grief about not having them slow down to explain clearly. I always replied, “I didn’t hear the words guns, drugs or sex, so they are good to go. ”
    That bugged the hell out of my in laws.