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I Wanted Unstructured Play Time for My Kids So I Started a Gang

Overbearing parents have broken up the roving bands of kids that once ran riot all over America. Not on my watch!

fatherly logo The Experimental Family

I watched out the window as three little boys between the ages of six and eight ambled down the street towards the woods. The littlest skipped behind the older two brandishing a massive branch and soon enough they had passed from my sight. Moments later I couldn’t hear them anymore either and a wave of nervousness rolled over me. Those were my boys, out there, set free into the wilds of our quiet suburban neighborhood with a pal from two streets away. It was exactly what I wanted for them but frightening never-the-less. They could be doing anything out there. Which was, admittedly, the whole point.

We are parenting in an era of the overscheduled kid. My boy’s childhood looks nothing like my own. I grew up in a series of dusty Colorado cul-de-sacs where afternoons and evenings were spent chucking dirt clods at boys as feral as myself. We’d powerslide Big Wheels until we wore the tires flat and they kerflumped along the sidewalks. We’d bang rusty nails into scrap wood and build dubious ramps for our bikes. We’d drive Hot Wheels through the mud and take GI Joes on adventures beside irrigation ditches. Not a single adult appeared to give a shit as long as we surfaced when they bellowed from the front door.

There are many reasons that this era passed. A lot of kids were brought inside to protect them from apocryphal pedophiles with white vans full of free candy and puppies. Even more kids voluntarily came inside to play video games and watch afternoon TV. And far more kids were simply deprived of any sort of freedom as their parents pushed them into extracurriculars designed to burnish their pre-teen and teenage credentials — presumably in the interest of securing college acceptance and access to the shrinking middle class. Today, children at play signs stand sentinel near empty yards.

This isn’t wistful speculation. The average modern American kid spends 5 to 6 hours a day in front of a screen compared to three hours in 1995. And 50 percent of kids in the U.S. don’t even receive one parent-supervised outdoor play session per day. Kids who do get unstructured play time only spend an average of 4 to 7 minutes in the fresh air.

What does this loss of free time mean for kids? Losing the chance to flex their imaginations in self-directed play. Losing the opportunity to turn the woods into fantasy land. Losing the opportunity to learn crucial negotiation skills in order not to get their asses kicked by the big kids. And I want all those things — on some level at least — for my kids. So, what’s a dad to do?

Short answer: Start a gang. I don’t use the term in the frightening MS-13 type of way, but it’s not totally different. Violent gangs tend to form when young men have too few economic opportunities and too much time on their hands. My kids don’t have jobs and they do have time on their hands. I consider it natural that they should gang up. This is simply what people do when they are left alone to do it. As long as they stay out of trouble, it’s a good thing. Say what you will about gang members, they have social skills.

For me, starting a neighborhood gang felt a bit revolutionary and represented a way of allowing my kids some freedom that they weren’t going to get in organized sports. It couldn’t be captured in fun after-school programs connected to coding or STEM, either. I wanted something considerably wilder and totally untethered.

Luckily for me, my wife and I have some like-minded friends in the neighborhood. So on one fateful afternoon, we made the call. Would their kid like to meet our kids for some unsupervised adventure? We were a bit surprised to learn that they were all for it. So was their kid. He showed up at our door with a backpack.

We made sure our boys were outfitted, offered rough boundaries (in the woods and to the meadow but not as far as the lake) and told them we’d call them back in a couple of hours. Then we shoved them out the door into the early spring day.

It wasn’t the easiest thing to enjoy a quiet house. As soon as we felt relaxed we would remember the boys were out there, alone, and a cloud of butterflies would erupt in our stomachs. But soon enough, the hour was up. We called and waited. After ten minutes had passed my wife got in the car to track the boys down, both of us with growing concern. Anything might have happened to them out there.

She found them in the meadow. Out of earshot, playing a game of tackling and running. Their cheeks were red. They hadn’t heard us calling.

Once our boys were back, we quizzed them excitedly about what had happened out there without us. And despite our pleas for information we most we received was a laconic “Nuffin’” and a dismissive shoulder shrug. It appeared we would never know what went down.

I want to imagine that the trio walked beside the creek and stopped to stack some smooth flat stones. I want to believe they built a hut from pine boughs and pretended to be great explorers. But my imagination is probably wilder than reality. More likely the talked about Pokemon cards and the televisions shows they weren’t watching as they walked.

Not knowing what our kids did outdoors for over an hour is part of the whole deal. Parental oversight has a way of ruining kid fun. If I found out they were jousting each other with pointed sticks, I’d want to put a stop to it. Better I didn’t know and I don’t and I believe that they need to learn how to deal with the repercussions of their own decisions. That is, on a functional level, the purpose of play.

I know that sounds cavalier. But how much more cavalier is it to abandon my children to screens? There are horrors either way. It’s just that I understand that with the risks of wild outdoor play with friends, the benefits outstrip the potential boo boos.And on the inaugural outing of the gang, there happened to be zero boo boos. So that, at least, was a very good sign. It was a successful first outing, and one we plan on repeating on the next warm day. I’ve floated the idea to other parents and the reception has been pretty warm. The word is on the street. The Coleman boys are starting a gang. And with any luck, it will save childhood, at least for a lucky group of local kids.