Stop Overprotecting Kids: Free-Range Parenting and Risk Playgrounds

What the heck is free-range parenting, and why are other countries going out of their way to make their playgrounds more dangerous?


Even though my last post was titled I’m a New Mom – Of Course I Worry About Everything, I still envision my future self as the mom who doesn’t worry about everything. I want my kids to someday walk home from school, stay out and play with other neighborhood kids until it’s time for dinner, and do a lot of other independent things.

So, when I heard a story the other week on NPR about Britain’s push to bring risk back into playgrounds, I was immediately interested in the idea. Can we teach kids how to assess risks for themselves? Can we trust them not to injure themselves – or others – if given the chance on a playground? Have our efforts to protect them from bumps and bruises actually brought about unintended consequences?

And when news started circling last week about Utah’s bill to legalize ‘free-range parenting’ (allowing parents to send their kids on public transportation and such without facing legal charges,) I realized that my 7-month baby might grow up to be part of a new generation in child-rearing mentality. 

And it all begs the question: after hundreds of years of progressively becoming more protective of our children, is the pendulum swinging the other way?


Bringing Risk Into Playgrounds

Across the pond, some playgrounds are returning to the tools and activities that had previously been deemed ‘too risky’ in a conscious effort to expose kids to more risk during playtime. Children are given access to loose bricks, log stumps, and equipment like hammers and saws (under adult supervision.) 

The thinking behind this move is that a certain amount of risk is not only safe but is a necessary part of childhood development. As playgrounds became safer over the years – exchanging concrete or grass ground for soft rubber, for example – kids lost an important opportunity to develop risk assessment behavior. 

Without opportunities to incrementally challenge themselves and understand what scenarios bring about which consequences, children lose the ability to assess risk. This could either mean that they don’t take any risks at all (which could hurt them in adulthood, when some amount of risk or invention can be rewarded) or they overstep on a risk because they couldn’t accurately gauge the consequences involved.

In its simplest form: a child who is used to the protections of a playground that specifically minimizes real-world risks isn’t prepared to assess risks and to safely play in his neighbor’s backyard where those extra precautions don’t exist. This lack of assessment ability and self-assurance manifests later in life when the now-adult is unable to adapt to a new job world that rewards varied levels of risk and innovation.


Legalizing Free-Range Parenting

In 2014, a mother was arrested and charged with child neglect after allowing her 9-year old daughter to play unaccompanied at the park while the mother – who had been unable to find reliable and affordable childcare in the summer months – worked her shift as a manager at a nearby McDonald’s. The mother was jailed until her bail was paid through online fundraisers, but her daughter remained under the custody of Child Protective Services for three weeks.

Later that same year, another mother was jailed and charged with felony child neglect when she allowed her 7-year old son to play at the neighborhood park that was less than a half a mile from their home. He was wearing a cell phone in a special case around his neck when he was picked up by police, and the police report noted that the child had just spoken to his mom with that cell phone and checked in with her moments before police approached him.

And in 2015, parents were charged with neglect and their children held by Child Protective Services when they allowed their two sons – ages 10 and 6 – to walk to the nearby park without an adult.

But now, in 2018, Utah has just become the first state in the U.S. to pass legislation that could help protect parents who want to allow their children more freedom to roam independently. 

The bill doesn’t entirely give parents the permission – or legal grounds – to completely let children wander wherever and whenever they want, but it does exclude certain circumstances from being considered in the realm of neglect (allowing children to walk to a local park unattended, for example.)

The bill garnered support across both sides of the political aisle – not an easy feat in this era of political extremes – and sparked an important debate on how much freedom a child needs, and how much authority parents do (or don’t) have to preside over those decisions towards their own children.

In an interview after the legislation passed, its sponsor, Senator Lincoln Fillmore, noted that the public response to the free-range parenting bill was likely so positive because it hearkened back to the upbringing that so many of today’s parents had enjoyed as children. 

“Free-range parenting was just called parenting,” he said. “We’d go exploring in the vacant lot near the house…with the rule of ‘be home for dinner.'”


Where Do We Go From Here?

If it’s true that we have overprotected our children – that we’ve actually created harm in our attempts to avoid it – how do we turn down the dial? How do we know where to stop, how much risk and independence is enough or how much is too much? How do we create laws that protect both a parent’s right to raise their children however they think is best while also protecting a child that might genuinely be experiencing neglect? And how do we reconcile ourselves with the notion that kids deserve a chance to test their limitations on a playground, even if that means a risk of injury?

It still remains to be seen if Utah’s new legislation will spread to other states or if free-range parenting will remain a radical notion. And while risk playgrounds are growing in popularity in England and elsewhere around the world, the extremely-litigious United States (and the ever-looming threat of an injury lawsuit) tends to scare away attempts at inviting risk back into playgrounds.

But as Joe Frost – one of the champions of the uber-safe playground revolution in the 1980s who later wondered if measures had been taken too far – wrote in a 2006 paper: “In the real world, life is filled with risks – financial, physical, emotional, social – and reasonable risks are essential for children’s healthy development.”

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2 Responses to Stop Overprotecting Kids: Free-Range Parenting and Risk Playgrounds

  1. Elaine
    Elaine April 16, 2018 at 8:52 am #

    I love this look at free-range parenting. Oddly it feels a lot like how I (and all my friends at the time) grew up. I would love to give my kids a childhood of walking to the playground to meet friends, riding bikes all summer, and boredom-induced exploration of the neighborhood.

    • Morgan
      Morgan April 16, 2018 at 9:09 am #

      I think that free-range parenting is an interesting concept because of exactly what you said – it’s how a lot of us grew up. It’s less of a ‘new’ parenting style and more of a recognition that we miss some aspects of past parenting philosophies that have been lost over the years.

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