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Free Range Parents Have a Different Idea of Summer Activities For Kids

Six free-range parents discuss the merits of letting their kids roam free on the playground — or the entire neighborhood — during the summer.

Julia Barnes for Fatherly

Summer is the season of freedom. But a lot of modern parents get nervous when they don’t have their children’s days scheduled by mid-April. Classes, camps, schools, and programs fill up quickly and moms and dads don’t want their kids to miss out. This is both a matter of necessity (both parents work and kids need places to go) but also not (many parents would rather their kids to be in programs). Whens the season arrives, it feels like the school year, with kids in structured environments all day under adult supervision and parents aware of their location at every minute. 

Parents put up with the stress because, for better or worse, they want to help their kids. They want their kids to have a great summer. They want their kids to get a leg up. They want their kids to be safe. But what if herding kids from camp-to-class and scurrying them away from the world was harming, not helping, them? 

“I just interviewed a bunch of suburban seventh graders, and I can’t tell you how many of them said ‘I’m really nervous’ or ‘I hate getting out of my comfort zone’ or ‘I’m scared to talk to anyone who I don’t know,’” says Lenore Skenazy, the founder of the free-range kids movement. 

Free range kids are the products of parenting style that’s guided by the belief that children need a certain measure of autonomy to grow. The idea is that setting kids loose on bikes, into the woods, and on public transportation is good for them. Despite pervasive parental anxiety about child safety, free range parents say kids are safer today than they’ve ever been. And they believe that once they’re away from authority figures and untethered from scheduled activities, kids are learn to solve problems and to overcome adversity on their own. With no one to catch them, they fall and learn that falling isn’t something to be afraid of but prepared for.

Basically, it’s what used to be considered a standard childhood before technology and fear and intensive parenting changed that. 

Of course, not every adult in the modern world is comfortable with kids roaming around by themselves or kids going solo on playground equipment. Police get called. Social service workers perform wellness checks. Why? Because it feels weird. Also, there are misconceptions.

Skenazy, for instance, was dubbed “America’s Worst Mom” by TV news following her 2009 New York Sun article about letting her 9-year-old son ride the subway by himself. She, however, capitalized on the media notoriety with her book Free Range Kids and reality television show America’s Worst Mom. Today, she’s the president of Let Grow, a nonprofit group working with schools and parents to promote childhood independence. As kids learn to do new things by themselves through Let Grow, parents often have to rethink many of their assumptions about caring for their children. 

“Parents don’t know when they’re allowed to let their kids do anything on their own anymore,” Skenazy says. 

Thanks to Skenazy and other advocates — as well as moms and dads arriving at similar conclusions on their own — free range parents across America are trading camps and classes for stretches of unstructured free time this summer —  or at least less helicoptering at the monkey bars. What does that look like? We spoke to several parents who allow their kids to have additional — or complete — freedom in the summer. Here’s what they said. 

The Anti-Helicopter Dad Who Needs to Live in the World

In 2016, the New York Times Magazine called Silicon Valley dad of three Mike Lanza the “anti-helicopter parent.” In addition to advocating free play in his blog and book Playborhood, Lanza put his beliefs into practice by opening his backyard trampoline, swing set, and clubhouse to his own and neighborhood kids for unsupervised play. 

In previous summers, he opened the yard for kids to freely use all season. But, following a lot of thought about summer camps, this summer he’s sending his boys to a half-day soccer program. The switch was, in part, because he wants them to experience a higher level of competitive play, but it’s also because he’s found that children in his neighborhood become scarce when schools close.

“Where we live, most parents have their kids schedule either with family vacation or camps all summer,” Lanza said. “There were a couple of summers where we had no camps at all. And the problem with that is that everybody else is in camps. So it’s pretty boring for the kids unless they were able to play with each other.”

So, this summer, it’s a split. Lanza’s boys will be off riding bikes and playing on their own in the afternoons after mornings at soccer camp. 

“You can take a philosophical stance, but you live in the world,” he said. “You don’t win any points for being a principled extremist while your kids are totally bored.” 

Peeling Off The Bubble Wrap

After two decades as a school administrator, Michael Hynes thought he was seeing children become more anxious, less emotionally resilient, and worse at independent problem solving. He faulted helicopter parents who he said “wrap their kids in bubble wrap”. 

During his five years as superintendent for the school district of Patchogue-Medford, NY, Hynes encouraged free form play by doubling recess from 20 minutes to 40 minutes and adopting Skenazy’s Let Grow program in the district’s elementary schools and middle schools (he became the Superintendent of Port Washington, NY this year). Hynes is also a father of five whose oldest and youngest kids are separated by a decade-plus age gap. 

I’m a much different parent with my younger ones, knowing what I know now,” he said adding that he makes sure his four and six-year-old are outside and out of his sight as much as possible. 

“I bring my kids to the park all the time,” he says. “And I mean all the time, probably four days a week. Even if it’s snowing, I don’t care. They’re going outside.” 

On nicer days, the playground grows more crowded, which means Hynes faces greater scrutiny for his laissez faire approach to parenting. 

“I almost feel like everyone’s staring at me when I bring my kids to the park because I’m not hovering over them,” he said. “I sit on the bench. I’m not flying over them, making sure if they fall they’re going to fall into my arms, like all the other parents who were there. I’m not judging them, it’s just observational. And I feel the heat from the parents. They know I’m a superintendent so it’s almost like two-fold. Like how, how can you do this? You know, I almost feel like in some ways they want to call [Child Protective Services] on me.”

Hynes found the social pressure to pay extended beyond the playground. Seeing his friends go hard into youth sports, he sensed that they thought he was a worse parent for being unwilling to spend thousands on a lacrosse travel league or bring a six year old to Delaware for a game. And while that investment of time and money isn’t likely to lead to a pro lacrosse career, the hyper-structured schedule, he says, may deprive children of coping skills. 

“They don’t know how to recalibrate when something happens because everything is done for them and they don’t have the emotional capacity to reel it back in and not let it ruin their day,” Hynes said.

A Name For Normal

When New Jersey father of one William heard about free-range kids, he was struck that there was a term for what he once took for what he once took for granted as just having a normal childhood. 

“When I grew up, my parents didn’t have cell phones,” he said. “They had no idea where I was. We used to go down to the creek, you know, a mile-and-a-half away and disappear for eight hours at a time in the woods in my friend’s backyard.”

When adults were present, he says, safety concerns would be prioritized less than independence and rugged approaches to learning. “I remember in fourth grade… my dad gave me like a bow saw and taught my friend and I how to make a basic lean-to against a tree,” he said.

In light of his childhood, William is comfortable giving his five-year-old daughter the same room to explore and make mistakes when she reaches elementary school age. That comfort, he realizes, isn’t widely shared by his fellow millennial parents.  

“I just personally don’t have the same fear that people have of going out in the woods for a little while or being away from home for a little while,” he said.  “I just don’t have that same anxiety.” 

Talking a Big Game But Playing Smaller

Aaron, a father of two from Massachusetts, read Skenazy’s book Free Range Kids when his two boys were very young. He thought it was ironic that a countercultural movement had grown up to raise kids the way he’d been raised. Still, he blanched a little when his sons turned 11 and 12 and were old enough to be given free rein over the neighborhood.  

“We talked a lot better of a game about it than we actually did for quite a while,” he said. “When it actually came to let the kids ride their bikes outside of the neighborhood, I was like, Oh no, the cars are pretty merciless.”

Aaron says he was more comfortable letting the boys loose on scooters than bikes. The boys scoot out for miles in their Massachusetts town, reaching ice cream shops, hot dog stands, libraries, and zoos. Aaron is happy with the arrangement. And of course it comes with larger conversations. A couple weeks ago, for instance, their mom spotted one misjudging traffic while riding without a helmet in a busy intersection.

“So I talked to him about it,” Aaron said. “I said you gotta be a little smarter than that. You probably had the right away and he should be looking for you. But if someone’s not paying attention or they’re looking at their phone and they turn the corner and clack you when you’re on his scooter, they might get arrested, but you might be dead.” 

Wild and Free

Bryan Anderson, a father of three from Utah, said he found that free range parenting matched well with his personal values and his faith as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

“I feel that a big part of the human experience is cultivating my capacity for being lucid and making choices,” he said. “And as a parent, I feel like the closest thing I’m to godliness is developing that capacity in others.”

He connected free range parents through a Facebook group called wild and free and formed a like-minded community. 

“There’s one person who just kind of spearheads finding the different parks and then we just rotate throughout the county and everyone meets up on a Friday afternoon,” Anderson said. “They’re typically homeschooling parents and the kids, you know, range in age from three up to about eight. They play in the park while the moms typically just hang out in one section.”

While Bryan’s comfortable letting his three and five-year-old take their chances on playground equipment, other parents on the playground often aren’t and will step in to help his kids when they perceive they’re in peril. 

Panicked adults alerting authorities at the sight of unattended children has been a longstanding source of trouble for free range parents. In an incident attracted national media attention, Child Protective Services charged Silver Spring, Maryland parents Danielle and Alexander Meitiv with neglect after police found their 10 and six-year-old kids walking home alone about a mile away from their house (the charges were ultimately dropped).  

In 2018, Utah became the first state to pass a law protecting free range parents from similar charges. But Anderson said the law doesn’t deter parents from rushing in to help kids they perceive to be in peril. 

I let my kid go down the fireman pole at the park without me holding her or try to do the monkey bars even though I know she’s going to gonna fall — I taught her how to fall and not get hurt — but then some other parents still try and kind of jump in and help them,” Anderson said.

More Kids, Freer Range

Tulsa, Oklahoma father of three and musician James Robert Webb spent his childhood on a 10-acre farm and was inclined to give his kids freedoms similar to the ones he enjoyed growing up. As he had more kids and his oldest became a teenager, he found himself more comfortable with letting his younger kids, now 11 and 8, wander the property away from his watchful eye. 

“I think with your first child, it’s always hard,” Webb said. “You know, you’re always, you know, naturally kind of like a helicopter parent to some extent, you know, ’cause it’s new to you and you don’t know if they’re going to die or something.”

Webb found that his confidence as a parent grew with practice. And with that came a new perspective on his goals as a dad. 

“When we grew up versus now it seems like parents are always hovering,” he says. “Sometimes they tend to smother a little bit more. And maybe this is selective recall or something, but it seems like our parents weren’t as involved as we are. Maybe that’s because we were kids and noticing things, but seems like now just like everybody’s so super obsessed about trying to do everything right as parents and try and be a perfectionist.”

He added: “You think you think that by being involved with it’s always the best thing, but if you don’t give them room to learn on their own, and put things together on their own and, and get out of problems, situations, and things on their own than then you’re not helping them become independent.”