Restoring Children’s Play: Overcoming Parental Fears

By Peter Gray, Ph.D.

Part one: irrational societal fears can paralyze parents and harm children.

Children are designed, by nature, to spend hours per day playing with other children, independently of adults.  In such play they practice all sorts of physical and mental skills; discover and pursue their passions; and learn how to create their own activities, solve their own problems, get along with peers, and control their emotions and impulses. Depriving children of independent play inflicts serious harm on them.  For documentation of such harm, see: The Decline of Play and Rise in Children’s Mental DisordersAs Children’s Freedom Has Declined, So Has Their CreativityDeclining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges; and How We Deprive Children of the Physical Activity They Need.

Last month, in a blog post (here), I asked readers to supply, in the comments section, their ideas about how to restore children’s independent outdoor play in today’s world. I focused on outdoor play because that is the kind of play that, traditionally, is most likely to involve vigorous physical activity, exciting adventures, and, most important, escape from adult interference. It is also the kind of play of which children today are most severely deprived.

Thirty-eight readers responded with comments about things they have done or could be done to enable such play. As part of an informal qualitative analysis of the ideas suggested, I organized them into three categories:  (1) Ways for parents to overcome their own misgivings and fears about their children’s independent outdoor play; (2) ways to enable children to find other children with whom to play; and (3) ways to work at the community or state level to overcome societal barriers to children’s outdoor freedom.  This post and the next two constitute a trilogy, dealing respectively with each of these three categories of ideas.  We start here, with the first.

What are the misgivings and fears that prevent parents from freeing their children for independent outdoor play?  Briefly, according to the respondents, they come in three main varieties, which I discuss under separate headings below.

The Fear that Children Will Fall Behind if Not More or Less Constantly in Adult-Directed Activities

As a society we have become obsessed with the idea that children learn and advance primarily through their interactions with adults and, by implication, have come to think of children’s own activities, including their play with other children away from adults, as wasted time. We fear that if our child does not build a résumé comparable to or better than that of other children, then ours will not be able to compete in the college admission contest and all will be lost.

This fear was touched on or implied in a number of responses to the survey.  For example, Laura wrote, “I think the biggest obstacle to getting children outdoor free play time is parental priorities. Our society is so brainwashed into thinking structured activities are the most beneficial for children. For the handful of parents who might be aware of the advantages of free play and want to give their children that opportunity, there is just no unscheduled time left. After school, homework, sports, and extracurricular activities, children have almost no downtime.”  Another reader (anonymous) wrote: “I believe the first step is to allow children free time. So many kids have their entire day scheduled. If we allow them time, they create their own opportunities for play without any help from us. If parents can embrace the idea that it is okay to NOT HAVE ANYTHING TO DO, their children will find creative ways to fill that space.”

To overcome this problem, parents need to be reminded of or need to remind themselves of, how much is learned in free play.  Sometimes, when I speak to groups of parents, I raise this question:  If you think deeply about it, what really are your hopes and dreams for your children?  Do you want them to be happy, to know how to make and keep good friends, to be generous and caring, to feel in charge of their own lives and comfortable in their own skin, and to discover and pursue their own passionate interests?  If so, then you need to allow them lots of time to play, as that is how children develop these traits.  Compared to all that, how important is it that they make it into Harvard or Stanford?  I then go on and present evidence that young people who have developed their own genuine interests and competence through play are often better fixed for college admission, and nearly always better prepared to know what they want from further education, than are children who have spent most of their time doing what adults have told them to do (for example, see here).

The Fear that Children Who Are Not Supervised Are in Physical Danger

The media and fear-mongering “experts” have, for the past several decades, been leading parents ever more to believe that children are in grave danger if not continuously watched by adults. The biggest fear, according to surveys, is that the child will be molested, abducted, or killed by some stranger.  In fact, crimes of this sort are extraordinarily rare, but parents have been led to believe that they are common.  Parents also cite traffic as a reason for not letting their children out of their sight, despite past history showing that by the age of five children can learn and abide by simple rules that keep them safe from traffic (e.g. here).  We have also become irrationally afraid of injuries from falls or other accidents in play—the bruises, scrapes, sprained ankles, and occasional broken bones that at one time were simply part and parcel of a normal childhood, the small costs of freedom.  As a society, we have forgotten that children are remarkably resilient physically. They heal quickly and, in the long run, learn from their injuries much more than they suffer from them.

Several readers commented on possible ways of overcoming such fears.  One anonymous reader wrote that observing children in other, less fearful cultures can help.  This person lived in Japan for five years and noted that she (or he) would “often see kids as young as 6 freely going to and from school or activities without adults or playing in parks without adults watching.”  Others noted that parents may need to work on their own ability to trust. Julie wrote, “I think there is a problem with trust.  We need to cultivate it.  Trusting our child; trusting other people’s children; trusting parents…. It has not been easy for me.  But I have found ways to do it.  … I’ve intentionally aimed to grow trust between myself and my children, between my family and other families, between my family and the community we live in.”

Along the same line, Sherry described her own fears when her young children joined a Forest Group that played in a small forest where they had stick fights, climbed trees, and engaged in other such adventures with little or no adult supervision.  She wrote, “I remember how nervous I was the first time my son was on his own in the forest group. … I was afraid he would get hurt and my mind went all kinds of crazy places of ‘what might happen.’  As the years went by, I learned that I had to trust him.  My kids have fallen and had cuts, bruises and even broken bones, but they have had fun! It has never stopped them, and I have learned to trust in their capacity to make (mostly) good decisions as they are alone and playing.  It’s so awesome to have such active outdoorsy kids now!

My friend and colleague Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids and president of Let Grow, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring children’s freedom, has developed a simple and effective means to help parents overcome their fears of letting their children go and grow.  She challenges children and parents to negotiate with one another in ways that lead parents gradually to ease up on restrictions.  In fact, some elementary schools working with Let Grow have adopted this exercise as a homework assignment (for a short video about it, see here).  The children draw up a list of things they would like to do but that their parents currently won’t allow them to do. The assignment is to show the list to their parents, discuss it with them, and arrive at some activity that the parents, however nervously, are willing to tolerate.  The genius of this is that parents must take it seriously because, after all, it’s a school assignment!  The child must give a report back to the classroom, and what parent would want the child to report that they weren’t allowed to do anything?

Here’s an example of how it works.  Suppose the child wants to ride her bike to a friend’s house by herself, several blocks away, but to date has never been allowed to ride out of the parent’s sight. The parent is too frightened to allow the daughter her full wish right away, so a compromise is reached: The daughter will ride to her friend’s house accompanied by the mother most of the way, but then allowed to finish the trip on her own, while the mother watches from a distance.  The result of this minor adventure, inevitably, is a sense of pride.  The daughter and mother are both proud of the daughter’s accomplishment, and now the mother may be ready for the next step toward the daughter’s ultimate goal of freedom to ride to the friend’s house all by herself.

Lenore doesn’t use this term (at least I’ve never heard her use it), but this is a version of what psychotherapists call systematic desensitization, the most tried and true way to help clients overcome phobias.  If you are afraid of snakes, for example, you might first just look at still pictures of snakes, then videos of snakes moving, then a real snake in a terrarium, then you touch the terrarium, then you touch the snake while someone else holds it, etc., until you are ready to pick up the snake yourself. All this might occur over a series of sessions orchestrated by the therapist.  At least some of the parents treated by the Let Grow procedure have, we might say, a phobia about their child’s independence.  Lenore’s Let Grow technique allows the child, essentially, to be the therapist, leading the parent gradually through increasing levels of the child’s independence. The parent gradually learns to trust the child (and the community), just as the snake phobic gradually learns to trust the snake.  It’s simple, simply brilliant.

The Fear of Being Accused of Neglect if the Child is Allowed Some Freedom


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