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.
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.
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.
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.
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?