Kids are pretty darn sheltered these days. On Facebook I once posed the question to some parents, “At what age is it safe to let kids play alone outside?” The answers I got freaked me out. Parents posted stuff like, “14, 18 years of age” or “Never.” Very few parents said they allowed their kids outside time without a parent at all, at any age. Even fewer parents said they allowed kids under the age of 12 alone time outside.
It’s shocking. Not only do kids get almost no time outside they seem to get literally no time away from their parents. In fact, research shows that just 6% of kids ages 9-13 play outside alone. This is almost cruel in my opinion. Kids need nature. Kids need to be outside. Kids need to explore. Kids really, really need free play sans adults.
In some cases parents halt free play in favor of academics. In other cases parents halt free play because it’s easier to say yes to video games and TV. In a majority of cases though, I’ve seen parents halt free play because they’re scared to let their kids out of their sight. It’s a disservice to kids to be so scared of the world that outside play becomes a hazard. The world isn’t perfectly safe, but it’s not a big fat danger either. Not if you talk to your kids about basic safety rules.
My mom was far from perfect. However, she did give me outdoor freedom. She told me about stranger danger and advised me to look both ways before crossing a street. She liked when I was playing with friends, but also understood that sometimes I needed alone time. Because my mom was good in this respect I had a childhood full of normal healthy outdoor risks and adventures.
In fact, here are 50 things I did as a kid, before the age of 16 (WITHOUT an adult present) that didn’t get me killed, kidnapped or otherwise scarred for life…
- Planned to build a clubhouse and sort of followed through using nails and (gasp) hammers.
- Play acted movies out with my friends.
- Kissed a neighbor boy.
- Ran in the rain without a coat.
- Climbed a million trees.
- Walked 20 blocks to a corner store for soda and candy.
- Rode my bike on very busy streets all over town.
- Built stuff out of rocks, mud and other nature items.
- Swam at my neighborhood pool without parents present – before 12 with a lifeguard, after 12 no lifeguard.
- Jumped out of trees from way up high.
- Biked without a helmet – not just in my neighborhood either. I used to sneak out and ride on the rural highway.
- Tied a bunch of bikes and wagons together to make a parade.
- Climbed on my friend’s roof (second story).
- Played street football and baseball.
- Jumped on a trampoline.
- Sat in my friend’s hot tub sans adults.
- Picked up stray cats.
- Did cartwheels off a pool diving board.
- Jumped off a pool diving board while sitting in a patio chair.
- Got inside a pillowcase or old box and went stair sledding.
- Played hide and seek at night.
- Walked around a big city, shopping, looking, etc. with young friends.
- Explored my neighborhood and other places.
- Jumped in the rain and in puddles.
- Went hiking, got lost. Got found.
- Dangled into a sewer to get my Barbie doll who fell in.
- Played monster – a tag game where the “IT” kid had to hit other kids with a plastic bat.
- Rolled around in pink insulation in the outdoor playhouse my friend’s dad was building.
- Did somersaults on concrete.
- Rode tire swings with way too many friends.
- Stayed outside too long in snowy weather.
- Stayed outside too long in hot weather – didn’t drink water.
- Went downtown on the bus to go to a music concert.
- Cooked over a campfire.
- Went to visit neighbor friends, starting at the age of four, who lived houses and houses away.
- Climbed rocks.
- Threw rocks and had some thrown at me.
- Ran off alone at city parks, sometimes with friends, sometimes not.
- Ran near the ocean.
- Rode horses.
- Got in fights and roughed it up with other kids.
- Went swimming in rivers and lakes.
- Picked and ate berries off of neighborhood bushes.
- Played on splintery old playground equipment.
- Slept outside with other kids, no adults. Suburban camping!
- Slipped on a Slip & Slide.
- Rode public transportation alone, no parents. Often at night.
- Went on long night walks.
- Had snowball fights.
- Walked to and from school alone – I lived about 10 blocks away.
Do I recommend your kid jump into a pool while sitting on a patio chair, throw rocks or dangle into sewers? No, these are stupid things to do. I could have been really, seriously hurt. Yet, I wasn’t.
Keep in mind:
I didn’t always live in safe neighborhoods as a kid. Sometimes we lived in pretty sketchy areas. I never, not once in my childhood, required doctor’s care due to an accident from playing outside. I’ve never had a broken bone, or even stitches. Even so, if I had experienced accidents, I’d still be glad I had all that outdoor time. Kids need to make mistakes and sometimes fall down. That’s life.
The new depressing version of childhood
It’s incredibly depressing to me to think about all the kids in this generation who will look back on their childhood as a time when they sat and sat and sat, safe and secure in front of computers and the TV. These are kids who won’t get the chance to learn how to be alone or how to be free to explore their world. Plus, a sedentary childhood can lead to all kinds of health and mental problems. It’s very depressing.
If you’re having trouble wrapping your head around this issue, I highly suggest you read Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry). This is one of my favorite books and can really help if you’re too worried to let your child be an explorer.
What did you do as a kid that didn’t kill you? What are you allowing your kid to do now, alone, outside that also won’t likely kill him? Share in the comments.