A few weeks ago, my older son’s elementary school took part in National Walk and Bike to School Day, which meant meeting the school’s teachers in a parking lot a mile from the school and walking there en masse — with a police escort. We live in a small New England town, surrounded mostly by farms and forests, with one busy road through the center. It is remarkable to me that we need a national holiday to encourage people to walk to school, and that the journey has to be so carefully orchestrated.
Then again, earlier this year a family in Maryland made headlines for letting their kids, ages 6 and 10, walk to a park a mile away from their home. Local police picked up the kids and delivered them to Child Protective Services.
My son’s childhood couldn’t be more different from my father's. My grandparents doubted that my dad would make it to his 18th birthday. By the time he finished high school, he had fallen from a tree two stories high and broken both arms; run through a glass door, causing a gash so deep and so near his eye that doctors weren’t sure they could safely stitch it up; raced a homemade go-cart down an impossibly steep hill, nearly killing a cow; and stuck his foot in a vat of 375-degree oil, resulting in months in the hospital.
My dad’s mishaps and adventures have become the stuff of of family lore, told and retold around holiday meals. But the drama of these stories overshadows a quieter truth about his childhood. Most days, especially in summer, he would grab a bag lunch at home and spend long hours outside exploring, playing, and getting into his fair share of less life-threatening mischief.
Since becoming a parent, I’ve been amazed by how our culture has so circumscribed children’s freedom of movement, and surprised by my own complicated feelings about kids and risk. In a 2013 essay in Orion Magazine, Jay Griffiths argues that a risk-averse society is not just a benign outcome of our overly litigious age, but also has deep personal and political implications for the kids we are raising.
“Physical freedom...models all kinds of freedom,” writes Griffiths, “for children learn with both body and mind. When they see themselves demonstrate physical courage, they also learn moral or political courage — and independent thought, which has profound political implications.”
The Maryland parents who made news by letting their kids wander the neighborhood unaccompanied ascribe to a movement called “free-range parenting,” which the Washington Post described as “a counterpoint to the hyper-vigilance of ‘helicopter’ parenting, with the idea that children learn self-reliance by being allowed to progressively test limits, make choices and venture out in the world.”
Griffiths doesn’t use the phrase “free-range,” but there are parallels in his essay. “The risk-averse society, denying hazard and what is hazardous alike, is not only annoying but conceptually malevolent,” he writes. “It works against the child’s instinct to find a working relationship with chance and risk — otherwise their adventures cannot even begin.”
I’m drawn to the values behind free-range parenting, but I’ve always had a hard time living up to those ideals. While my childhood wasn’t as wild as my dad’s, I had lots of good adventures exploring the fields and forests around my house. I walked over a mile to school from second grade on, and spent hours building elaborate contraptions in my dad’s wood shop without supervision.
But as a teenager and young adult, I worked for years as a camp counselor for a city program with strict rules about safety. All the games had rules; all the activities had limits. Glue and tongue depressors were OK. Mud and sticks, not so much. Later, I was trained as a wilderness first responder, working on backcountry conservation and trail building projects. Out there, miles from any town or cell signal, one wrong move with a chainsaw or forestry tools could endanger the entire group. We used to run worst-case-scenario drills — all-night rescue operations in which our instructors role-played medical emergencies — and the intensity of them sticks with me even today.
Now, as a parent, watching kids scramble around a playground or sword-fight with sticks, I feel those years of training like old muscle memory. I have to actively fight my reflex to keep everyone entirely safe at all times. As if that were even possible.
Sometimes, as I see my oldest son about to leap from some high peak or scramble across the outer edge of the play structure, I hear my own words as if they’re coming from someone I don’t fully recognize: “Be careful!” “Safety first!” Or, when his 3-year-old brother follows after him, teetering out to reach the monkey bars, I race over to spot him, never letting him learn from falling.
My wife can see it on my face, when I kick into camp counselor mode. She was a lifeguard at a public beach as a teen, so she understands the urge to reach for your whistle all these years later. But my wife also went to a progressive elementary school, a “lab school” housed on a college campus. She was taking wood shop class in first grade. By sixth grade, she had used table saws, drill presses, lathes, and more. She loved those days working with the power tools, and she marvels at how much freedom they were given.
That freedom was married almost invisibly with guidance and support. She can still recite the various safety songs the kids sang to learn about the tools: “Try square, try square, file card and brush! Backsaw, hacksaw, ripsaw, planer!”
Parenting is full of negotiations and contradictions. For me, no tension is greater than that between wanting to develop a spirit of wild adventure and self-reliance in my kids and the deep yearning to keep them safe, and I’ve recognized the same search for balance between risk and safety in “adventure playgrounds.” These spaces embody the kind of supervised creative freedom that so resonated with my wife in her elementary shop classes.
Erin Davis, who made a documentary about an adventure playground called “The Land” in North Wales, says they can take many shapes and sizes, from “chaotic junkyards to whimsical shantytowns.” For all their difference, Davis notes, all these playgrounds share “a necessary and positive relationship between risk and play.”
The spaces are full of raw materials — lumber, metal, tires, tunnels, and tubes — and kids have the freedom to build and reshape the landscape however they see fit. Adventure playgrounds are staffed by adults trained in “playwork,” who take a backseat role in supporting kids’ imaginative play. In the U.S. you can find adventure playgrounds in Berkeley, Philadelphia, and Ithaca, New York. And, while just gaining attention in the United States, the history of these playgrounds stretches back more than 80 years in Europe.
In her 2014 investigation into “the overprotected child” for The Atlantic, Hanna Rosin interviewed Ellen Sandseter, a scholar of early childhood education who has studied “risky play.” Sandseter identifies specific kinds of risky play — like exploring heights, handling dangerous tools, and roughhousing — and explains that they are important to childhood development because they help kids develop their own sense of limits instead of imposing them from the outside. When kids define their own limits, rooted in emotions like fear, excitement, and unease, they learn to master those emotions and negotiate their surroundings.
“Growing up is a process of managing fears and learning to arrive at sound decisions,” Rosin writes. But how do we, as parents, square this with the fierce instinct to do anything we can to protect our kids from harm? I watch my kids careening down a hill on their bikes, or wandering away to go exploring at the park, and I feel it in my gut. How do we decide when to shout out and when to shut up?
These worries persist even in the face of logic and statistics suggesting that overprotecting kids isn’t making them more safe. These fears are visceral and immediate, whereas the threat posed by removing risk and play from kids’ daily lives is one that’s much harder to see from where we’re standing.
When we take those experiences away, we’re making a trade-off: short term safety versus long-term experience. Our control versus their judgment. We think of these things in binaries. If we give up order, we will end up with disorder. If we give up control, we will end up with chaos.
But Jay Griffiths says we’ve got it all wrong. “The true opposite of order is not disorder but freedom,” he writes. “Most profoundly, the true opposite of control is not chaos but self-control.”
Even as I believe that to be true, it doesn’t make it any easier for me to let go. I understand the benefits of risky play in my head, but so much of parenting comes from my heart. What I’m slowly learning is that by listening to my head — without ignoring my heart — I can give my kids space to make up their own minds. Sometimes we have to push our own limits to let our kids find theirs.
My oldest son, who recently turned 7, has taken up cardboard engineering. No empty box in the house is safe. He has created dioramas, birdhouses, roller coasters, confetti cannons, and much more. Recently, I watched as he struggled to cut up a thick box with children’s safety scissors. The corrugated cardboard just bent and tore between the dull blades.
I dug around in my bedside table and found the Swiss Army knife I got when I was a kid. I don’t remember how old I was when my dad gave it to me, but he had carved my name into the red plastic. That was his way of giving me ownership over it. I didn’t have to ask permission to use it; I didn’t need to have supervision.
I handed the knife over to my son, telling him it was his now. I showed him how to hold it to keep his fingers clear of the blades. We practiced opening and closing each of the blades, and he delighted in all the hidden surprises the knife held. A toothpick! Tweezers!
He sliced through the cardboard with an ease that seemed to open up new worlds of possibility as I watched from a few steps away, doing all I could not to constantly remind him to be careful.