Letting the kids enjoy outdoor play

As a kid growing up in Toronto, I spent a ton of time hanging upside down from the monkey bars in my backyard, skipping, playing wall ball and exploring the nearby ravine. (It was only two houses away but I always felt very adventurous when I played there.)

What I remember most about spring and summer was all the time I had for unstructured and unsupervised free play. During those hours, my brother and I figured stuff out for ourselves, whether it was practising a sport on our own, biking or playing under a favourite tree.

In retrospect I see how this was an extremely empowering, creative and important thing for us. We were able to do a lot of growing up during this “down time”.

Could we have done those things and learned the lessons we learned if our mom was watching from 20 feet away, eyeballing us and yelling “careful!” every few minutes?

We know kids need time to themselves to make mistakes without adults coaching and correcting them. Yet living in the city today, it doesn’t feel right to just send them out the door. It’s hard not to worry about their safety. Consequently, today’s kids don’t experience the freedom in play that we had.

Maybe this is why little kids are so drawn to the Max and Ruby cartoon characters. With the parents only ever seen in a photograph hanging on the wall, those little bunnies (who are 7 and 3 years old, for the record) are basically on their own.

Their independence is thrilling and a little nerve-wracking. Just when it appears they’re over their heads, in swoops Grandma, a non-judgmental but steady adult, ready to alleviate the burden of too much responsibility.

That’s great for Max and Ruby and their parents clearly save a lot of money in childcare. In real life, my husband and I struggle to strike that balance between giving our kids some autonomy and keeping them safe.

But we can see they are starting to want to spread their wings more. So my goal for this summer is to loosen the reins a little. I’m going to do my best to give them more solo time and space without compromising our concerns for their security and safety.

The plan is to start by identifying small opportunities for outdoor independence. Don’t ask me what these will be but I’ll have my eyes open and will be looking out for them.

No, they won’t be allowed to travel the same radius from home that we did in the seventies. However, I’m hoping we can give them enough space and freedom that they can develop confidence and skills without us pulling a Max and Ruby-like parental vanishing act.

How much unsupervised space and freedom do you think kids should be given in city spaces? What are the limits? The dangers? The payoffs? 

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