Does Outdoor Free Play Still Exist in ANY Neighborhood in America?

It is 6 days into winter break. We’re going a little stir crazy, despite doing our best to get a good daily dose of outdoor play every day. Honestly, the kids have been on screens way too much. My 8-year-old son is a sociable kid, and longs to play with other KIDS in the neighborhood (rather than just his teenage siblings and boring parents). The problem is: the kids in our neighborhood are NOWHERE to be found.

Why? 

In an attempt to get more kids in our neighborhood playing outdoors, we’ve let our son go to neighbor’s houses to ask if other kids can play.  Rarely does the timing work out.  The replies too frequently have been:

“He has piano right now.”

“He has to finish his homework.”

“She has ballet.”

“He has to take a shower.” (Yes, this was a real reply….at 2 in the afternoon.)

“He’s got karate.”

“He has soccer practice.”

During this winter break, I actually had one mom text me after my son had stopped by and her son wasn’t available.  The text said: “Are you guys available for a playdate next week?”

Playdate?  Next week?  Are you kidding me? My reply: “Yes! We’re around. No plans. Send him over anytime to play!”

I confess: I HATE the word “playdate.”  It is a word that embodies just how much the landscape of children’s play has changed since we were kids. It implies we have to set a date to play, and that play must be meticulously arranged, managed, and controlled by parents, not the kids themselves.

How about let’s go back to the good ole days when kids just played outside together whenever it worked out?

Except there are NO kids playing outside in our neighborhood nowadays.

Is this happening everywhere in America? Or just in my neighborhood?

Kids are overscheduled, over-managed by their parents, and on screens too much. (If you’re on winter break right now, add up how much time your child TRULY spent on a screen in the past few days…you’ll be shocked.)

WHY aren’t kids outdoors playing with neighborhood kids? My guesses are:

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1.     Kids are overscheduled.  There is literally NO downtime to let them run free outdoors.  They have ballet, soccer, hockey, baseball, French lessons, violin, piano, karate, Spanish lessons…our race to get our kids to be “successful” adults starts with overscheduling them in childhood.  But research is clear that the opposite is true: kids who have lots of unstructured play in early childhood are most likely to become successful adults.  We are not doing our kids any favors by overscheduling their childhood years with lessons and classes at the expense of outdoor play time.

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2.     Parents are afraid. The news makes it seem like something awful will happen to our child if we let them out of our sight for just one minute.  In all but very few cases, NOT true.  The book Free Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy helps us consider the REAL risk, the REAL likelihood that something horrible will happen to your child if you let them take age-appropriate risks in play.  I’ll summarize here: the real risk is infinitesimally low. If you let them ride their bike a few blocks away at the age of 9? Or if you let your 7-year-old walk alone 2 doors down the block to see if a neighborhood kid can play?  Or if you let your 8-year-old scooter to the park with a friend?

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3.     Kids simply aren’t outside playing. The reality is that most kids are indoors doing sedentary activities such as video games, watching YouTube videos, or watching Netflix.  If there aren’t other kids outdoors, playing outdoors looks boring.  We need to all be committed to kicking our kids out of the house like our moms did when we were young.  We need critical mass!  Sending our kids outdoors to play is a way to help minimize adult fears (other parents are doing it, it must be OK!) AND at the same time it lures our kids outside to be with other kids who are having fun out there.

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By limiting our children’s neighborhood outdoor play, we are robbing kids of crucial outdoor play experiences that they NEED for their healthy development of play, creativity, problem-solving, and age-appropriate risk-taking.  They develop these skills primarily through free-range outdoor play with neighborhood kids!  In outdoor play with neighborhood kids, kids learn from real life, whole body experiences. They learn to deal with a variety of different personalities, to create their own games, to be independent, cooperative, brave, creative, and active. All the things we long for our kids to be when they are grown!

What would happen if we actually let our kids outdoors and let them play together and explore the neighborhood in an age-appropriate way?

Right now, my son has returned from scootering by himself around the block for an hour….cause no other kids were outside at 10am on a Friday morning of winter break when the weather is sunny and 60 degrees. Why are we not more alarmed at this reality??!

What do YOU think? Do you send your kids outside to play in your neighborhood? Why or why not? Do American neighborhoods exist where children’s free outdoor play is still a reality in this day and age? (Please tell me they do!!)

Laura Figueroa3 Comments