Is Outdoor Play Outdated?

I often hear “addiction to technology” cited as the reason our kids don’t play outside like we used to when we were their age. I call shenanigans on that argument. I believe the reason our kids don’t play outside anymore isn’t because they are addicted to the screen. I think it’s because outdoor play is, for the most part, unsupervised play. While kids covet unsupervised play, today’s parents really aren’t cool with it.


I assert that if you gave any kids today the option to play their Xbox at home or go into the woods unsupervised to climb trees and play tag, the overwhelming majority would run to the woods and not close the front door behind them. I don’t know many kids who will stay curled up on their couch with their DS if you give them the option to ride their bike or skateboard down the street with their friends.

The problem is us, parents.

Into the woods, headed nowhere

Into the woods, headed nowhere

In today’s society, we don’t want to allow unsupervised outdoor play. And since we don’t want to leave our own tech and go climb a tree or watch them ride bikes up and down the street, we make them stay in. At the very least, we make them stay in the fenced back yard. Well, that’s lame; so of course a kid doesn’t want to do that! Outdoor play is alive and well in our house and in the neighborhoods we have lived in. Having said that, it takes work to build trust that your kids can handle themselves and to find other families who are also open to unsupervised play. There is a broad spectrum of parental acceptance of outdoor play without adult supervision.

We just moved to a new neighborhood a few months ago. We now live in a small community comprised of 70 town homes in one big circle with a pool in the middle, a tennis court in the corner, and a small grassy area behind one building. It’s a gated community right on the water, surrounded by docks and mangroves, with a fence that goes around the entire land perimeter of the property. On our first day here, while we unpacked, we told our two kids – ages 10 and 12 – that they could go play as long as they stayed on the property within the fence. Off they went.

In the following weeks, they made multiple friends both inside and outside of this community. I’ve introduced myself to all of the parents. Some let their kiddos join the fray without batting an eye. Some simply won’t allow their children to join in, because they can’t see them from their window if the kids are at the tennis courts or playing in the trees. I feel terrible for those kids. The other kids are running amok all around the place, getting dirty and sweaty, and playing hard. One girl sits forlornly looking out the window, unable to play because the group sometimes goes where her parents don’t have a clear line of sight from inside their condo. Honestly, I want to shout at the parents that they either need to let her out to play or they need to get out of the house themselves and watch her, if that’s what they want to do. They could come supervise; but they don’t want to come out to play, so the kid can’t either. I’d rather climb a tree myself than deny my child an opportunity to do so.

Climbing trees is best when there are no parents around to tell you when to stop aiming higher!

Climbing trees is best when there are no parents around to tell you when to stop aiming higher!

Truth be told, you can find evidence of these different parenting styles even within a single family. My husband and I, for example, have a different tolerance for unsupervised life outside the home. I’m OK with two or more kids running around like monkeys unsupervised; but I won’t let either of my kids go outside alone, even to the mailbox or to get something out of the car. They really shouldn’t step outside the house alone, in my opinion. My husband, however, will send them out to get the mail, and even let them walk home from the bus stop or ride their bike home from Grandma’s house solo. It calls for extra communication and flexibility when you have such different appetites for the risk of having your kid out in the big, wide world alone. The bottom line is if you can’t get comfortable with your kid playing outside unsupervised, then you are going to have a kid who absorbs themselves in tech indoors, leading others to assert “kids today” are addicted to the screen and don’t want to play outside.

Exploration and discovery happen most easily when grown-ups aren't around.

Exploration and discovery happen most easily when grown-ups aren’t around.

We haven’t had cable since we moved to our new house in October; but that doesn’t mean my kiddos don’t have screen time. We still have plenty of Netflix and YouTube going on up in here. But I guarantee, if you made my kids choose to 1) give up screen time, or 2) give up outdoor play, they’d be out the front door in a heartbeat and wouldn’t come home until I hollered it was dinnertime. And I don’t think they’re the exception; I think most parents just aren’t giving their children the option of what’s behind door number 2.

A little down time goes a long way to clearer little minds.

A little down time goes a long way to clearer little minds.

So what’s it like in your house? In your neighborhood? Do you agree with your parenting partner on how much unsupervised outdoor play is acceptable (alone or in groups)? Here’s the biggie – are YOU the reason your kids don’t play outside like we used to?

2 Responses to Is Outdoor Play Outdated?

  1. Laura
    Laura March 14, 2016 at 10:00 am #

    I think at 10 and 12 the kids can definitely go out and play in the neighborhood. Riding bikes to designated friends houses or community parks seems fine. (By then I imagine my kids will have smartphones too and so ill be able to gps track them if needed.) My kids are younger (almost 4 and 7). They aren’t big enough yet to know right from wrong all the time and they’re definitely not big enough to have any chance of fending off a “bad guy.” We got them a big back yard, a fence and a playground. They’re allowed out there, relatively unsupervised, as much as they want. They just have to stay within the fences backyard. I think that’s a fair compromise – but I’m definitely looking forward to them being 10 and 13 so they can explore more – and I can “supervise” a little less. Xoxo

  2. Tara March 14, 2016 at 10:27 am #

    I think it very much depends on where you live. I think that most parents want their kids to play outside but live in an area where they may not feel safe. I live in a relatively safe neighborhood, on a “CT” (I tried 5 times to spell the correct word for this circle or court I live on, but apparently I didn’t get close enough for spell check to even know what I was trying to say) so we don’t have a lot of traffic, BUT I do not trust all the people on this street, even if I have met them and talked to them, Or I should say BECAUSE I have met them and talked to them. So that being said, I who love nature and encourage my kids to play in it, also fear people and don’t want to just send them running. My husband and I take turns watching from the window if just one kid is outside or going out with them but as you said, it’s not the same with a parent as it is when outdoors unsupervised. When both kids are outside together on bikes or scooters they can stay in the circle and be unsupervised as long as they check back in every fifteen minutes or so. The back yard they can be in alone for as long as they want, but it gets boring fast. When I was little, smaller than my oldest kid, I ran this neighborhood with a couple friends from after school until bedtime and sometimes way after dark… I don’t think it’s technology either, I think it’s straight up fear keeping us from letting them go. I admit sending them off where I can’t see them, in a neighborhood, not in the woods, scares the crap out of me. If I had acres of woods, I’d say go have fun.

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