We’d scamper off in the morning and not come back for hours. There were forts to build, tree frogs to surveil, and bogus treasures to unearth. Eventually, we’d pedal home—sweaty, spent, and eager to share our escapades.
Even for those of us who grew up in the suburbs, it seems like today’s kids are more smothered and sheltered than ever before. Parents who do give their kids a ticket to explore—nudging them to walk home from a local park, for example—are accused of negligence, or worse. The sight of children playing by themselves stirs unease in people. Irrational fears creep like weeds.
All of this seems, well, bonkers. How is it that what we used to think of as a “normal” childhood is something that we now have to engineer for our children? Why do we have to campaign to let kids be kids?
Sadly, as much as we wish we didn’t have to do it, we have to do it. Those early childhood years—full of whimsical expeditions and wide-eyed blunders—are too important for us to take a backseat. They are the building blocks of an independent life and something that, surely, we can all get behind. In response, we’ve begrudgingly agreed to be “free-range” parents, defenders of “unstructured play,” and public champions of…nature.
We don’t know how things are going to shake out, but we’re hoping this movement will grow and grow, until one day, we won’t have to make a case for a childhood that is wild, free, and forgiving.
4 Ways to keep ’em wild:
1. Make your village.
We don’t run next door to borrow a cup of sugar, and nobody is welcomed with homemade pie anymore. Apparently, 30% of us don’t even know our own neighbors’ names. That said, it is so important to connect with the people who live around you if you want to raise kids who can explore on their own.
On your street, make it a point to introduce yourself and your kids to the neighbors. Exchange information. Tell them that they’ll probably see your kids racing around after school or on these days, these times. Emphasize that you’d appreciate if they can keep an eye out. This may seem like the most obvious thing in the world, but we were surprised by how few of us actually went through the process.
2. Send your kids on micro-adventures.
The pockets around your home offer a familiar setting where you can let your kids explore and build confidence through small, accessible challenges. Tackling this lower-hanging fruit gives them a sense of ownership and pride in their surrounds, priming them to be observant, attentive and responsible when they’re on their own.
A few of our favorites: Have them to trot down the street, recording different kinds of birds, trees, or flowers in your neighborhood. Give them a compass and ask them to collect something interesting as they walk a few blocks in each direction. Send them to a local store (if it’s in walking/biking distance) and ask them to buy a few things. It may seem trivial, but many kids don’t actually know how to interact with adults in these environments. One byproduct of this latter “adventure” is learning to ask for help, a critical skill to have when exploring, in the neighborhood or backcountry. For more on micro adventures, go here.
3. Use the campground as lab.
When your family does head into the outdoors, who does what? What we’ve found is that when time is of the essence, the main duties tend to fall on the shoulders of the most experienced and most efficient member of the group. Resist! If possible, build in extra time and let your kids try their hand at figuring out how to work the camp stove, pitch a tent, or even just locate your campsite. The campground is a safe place where you can push your kids to try out new things and build confidence.
4. Cultivate a family philosophy around the outdoors.
Your enthusiasm for the outdoors and your passion for adventure will likely rub off on your kids, but it’s important that they can talk about it, too. And this takes practice. Ask them why they like to be outside. Ask them what makes it interesting and fun, and why we should care about it. Ask them how they would handle specific scenarios: What would you do if you got hurt? Who would you ask for help? Allow them to build a story that they can own.