The simplest way to ensure children have free play is often the hardest: opening the door and shooing them out. On their own.
By the time I was eight years old, growing up in suburban New Jersey, my parents let my siblings and I roam free around the neighborhood on our bicycles. Our house sat at the top of the highest hill in town, so it was a long way down, or up, from anywhere. One day, I was flying fast down the hill on my three-speed Raleigh when suddenly I was overcome by the urge to switch my hands on the handlebars: left over right. I went down so fast and hard that I didn’t even have time to brace myself. I lost a lot of skin to the asphalt but didn’t break any bones. I dusted off, looked around to see if anyone was watching—no one was—got right back on and kept riding.
I’m not sure if this memory stands out so vividly because I got hurt or because I had the liberty to follow my own hair-brained scheme and fail spectacularly. But there’s no question that I’ve carried that misguided stunt with me ever since, both as a cautionary tale (I’ve never lost my childlike love of biking, but I never, ever tried that dumb move again) and as a point of pride.
As a parent, I’m trying hard to raise my two girls, ages six and eight, with the same freedom to explore, get into scrapes, and come out the other side smarter and more resilient. My husband and I have taken them into the backcountry on rafts and skis since they were babies. They’re gradually gaining independence (and permission) to venture farther on their own, whether in the arroyos surrounding our Santa Fe home, on neighborhood streets, or down ski slopes. So I read with great interest the story in Sunday's New York Times Magazine about Silicon Valley parent and entrepreneur Mike Lanza’s attempt to create old-school “playborhoods” where children can play freely without adult supervision.
The article, by Melanie Thernstrom, has already prompted nearly 2,000 comments on the Times website, many of which laud Lanza's efforts to cultivate a certain brand of childhood for his children and his children's friends. Since 2011, I’ve written about how independence, fresh air, adventure, and risk—even in your own backyard, maybe especially in your own backyard—are essential to children’s cognitive development, self-reliance, and resilience. Studies show the benefits last well into adulthood.
There’s little debate that most kids these days are overstimulated, over-scheduled, and over-programmed with screen time. I love Lanza’s efforts to promote free play in neighborhoods, by creating “playborhoods,” and I share his frustration that many residential areas today, including my own, lack the infrastructure—sidewalks, crosswalks, children of the same age, a community of like-minded parents willing to let their kids out—to support spontaneous, child-directed play. The operative term here is child-directed. By installing an elaborate play yard for his children and enticing the neighborhood kids to come join the fun, Lanza is curating his kids’ experiences, and those in the neighborhood, in much the same way as the organized sports and after-school activities that he laments. “He dislikes the vast expansion of parenting into every aspect of children’s lives,” Thernstrom writes. But the elaborate lengths he's gone to impress his philosophy suggest that Lanza might be succumbing to the same pressures as the parents whose approaches he criticizes.
Rather than follow the path of Silicon Valley parents bent on “optimizing” their kids, Lanza has become, in his own contrarian way, an optimized parent. This is a minor squabble, though. All parents, to some extent, have to orchestrate their children’s worlds. In planning our family raft trips and hut trips, you could argue we’re doing the same for our girls. The simplest way to ensure children have free play is often the hardest: opening the door and shooing them out. On their own.
In one of the more controversial scenes in the article, Lanza allows his boys, ages five and 12, and their friends to play on the roof of the house, 25 feet off the ground. He dismisses the threat of serious injury as statistically low and scoffs at a concern about lawsuits should an accident occur. Lanza is of the opinion that rough play and physical danger are essential components of free play. I take issue on that point, and not just because I’m a mother with a tendency to worry. Minor scrapes, like the ones I suffered in my childhood bike stunt, build grit and character, but having just recovered from a broken leg sustained in a rafting accident, I wouldn’t wish 14 weeks on crutches on anyone, least of all my two daughters.
Thernstrom returns to the roof in the closing scene of the article. She climbs up to with her daughter and contemplates the playborhood Lanza envisions but ultimately decides it's too dangerous. I’m not anti-roof, strictly speaking. Earlier this summer our girls began begging to go onto ours. It’s a flat roof, one-story above the ground, but the idea made me nervous. Eventually I relented, and ventured out onto the roof with my girls. We sat there together, talking about ways to be safe, peering over the edge, discussing consequences, natural boundaries, and responsibility. Several days later, when I felt comfortable that the girls were aware of their surroundings, I left them alone on the roof with their drawings and magic markers. As we do in our family with most outdoor activities, we were building up to bigger challenges, breaking down risk into manageable pieces, and training ourselves and our daughters to assess consequences and weigh the threats and benefits to find the right balance between growth and safety—a skill we all need throughout life. The key is not to shun fear altogether but to meet it with compassion and awareness. True bravery springs not from an absence of fear but from the willingness to move forward in the face of it.
It also bears pointing out that kids of all genders benefit from risk and freedom, not just boys, who seem to be Lanza’s primary concern. That I was allowed to bicycle around my neighborhood alone, pretending I was Harriet the Spy, made me the creative risk-taker I am today. I was raised to believe girls can do anything boys can do, and Lanza’s implication that girls somehow require less free play and are less prone to taking risks, and that mothers are more anxious than fathers (“Moms nowadays never go away,” Lanza says in the article) is a dangerous distraction from the bigger issue: all children need unstructured time outside to move their bodies through nature, sometimes on their own, sometimes with their friends, and sometimes, while they’ll still have us, with their parents.
Finally, free play doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The unspoken arrangement when I was a girl playing four-square in the middle of Fernwood Road was that other parents—mostly mothers, in the 1980s—had our backs if we got ourselves into a jam. I repeat: It was the mothers who gave us our freedom. Thirty years later, this sense of community—of caring eyes peering through the curtains from a respectful distance—is key to creating neighborhoods where kids can run free and safe.