Kids on the loose: Confronting the risks of a free-range childhood

As a parent, witnessing a child’s adventures requires a certain level of tolerance for risk. Photo: Andrea Hubbell As a parent, witnessing a child’s adventures requires a certain level of tolerance for risk. Photo: Andrea Hubbell

“Go play outside!” is one of those phrases that pops out of parents’ mouths as though it comes from a deep well of universal wisdom. Along with eating your vegetables and not waking the baby, playing outside seems so obviously the right thing for kids to do. Once they cross the threshold into the great outdoors, though, what exactly will happen?

For my kids, playing outside can mean throwing a Frisbee in the side yard, riding scooters in the driveway, or scratching up the dirt in their little gardens with a kid-size rake. But it can also mean something more like a real adventure—fording the creek, climbing a steep mountainside, and trekking through the woods to a tipi village they constructed beside a big boulder.

We live in a rural spot with thousands of acres of forest outside the back door and a swift-moving creek along the edge of the property. Our house is 87 years old, and the generations who lived here before us dropped more than their share of glass and metal onto the land. Neighbors hunt in the fall. Poison ivy and ticks are rampant in the summer. In other words, there are plenty of dangers to worry about, and the further my kids venture from the house, the longer grows the list of things I might warn them about.

Little mishaps began early. I remember when our older daughter was just a baby, not yet walking, and we were sitting with her in the grass when we started noticing ants on her chubby legs. Quite a few ants! More and more ants! It turned out she’d been plopped down right on an anthill. She even had ants in her diaper.

Another time, she waded to the far side of the creek while I was helping her younger sister, then a toddler, on the near side. Suddenly she screamed a real scream and I looked up to see her face to face with a snake—which species, I never determined. They backed off from each other with no harm done.

I could go on—there was the time a tree fell near where she was playing, and the time a rattlesnake appeared on our deck in the midst of the kids and their friends, and all those tick bites and bruises—but the point is clear: Outside play, especially free play, is certainly more risky than a life of screens, books, and couches. It’s probably more risky than organized sports. Letting kids roam independently makes us parents confront our tolerance for that risk again and again.

My instincts tell me that the risk is well worth it. But sometimes it’s hard to listen to instincts above the roar of societal disapproval. A well-meaning woman once warned me in a park that my kids were wading in the creek, and she clearly thought I was crazy when I didn’t immediately jump up to rescue them.

At times like those, I get backup from Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, who reminds us that there are different kinds of risk: “An indoor (or backseat) childhood does reduce some dangers to children; but other risks are heightened, including risks to physical and psychological health, risk to children’s concept and perception of community, risk to self-confidence and the ability to discern true danger.”

For me, the key has been to take the risks alongside my kids during their youngest years. We walk in the creek together, we scramble up steep slopes, we hike and climb trees. I want them to know weather and topography and their own bodies, so I’ve accompanied them on the journey as their guide and safety officer.

If you could listen to my thoughts during those adventures, you’d hear the sound of continual reckoning: “Should I warn her that rock she’s climbing is slippery? She seems pretty stable. Ack—she’s getting to the slickest part. Look at her toes gripping it, though. She’s a good climber. But if she fell…oh, never mind, she’s already at the top.” And then my voice, out loud: “Watch out for stinging nettles up there!”

I always knew a time would come when they’d take off and explore on their own. And recently, that day arrived. They packed little backpacks and took off for that village on the mountainside they’d built, without us. My husband and I watched them go, feeling proud and unsettled all at once. The ongoing process of making peace with danger continues.

Also, we sent them out with walkie-talkies.

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