Go play!

Thank God for “Free-range Parenting” because otherwise I’d have to sign up for “Lazy, No-good Parenting”


I’m not saying that kid-avoidance is a high parenting value, per se. But there is something so eminently sane and satisfying about opening the back door, gesturing alfresco, and shouting, “Go play!” (Not literally though, because we’re living in a 5th floor apartment. But you get my point.)

I enjoy playing with my kids, and I do a little to a lot of that everyday. Just not all the minutes of all the days. Which is how they play: high-energy, often repetitive, mostly incoherent games, all the time. They can’t just hang out, you know? They can’t idly chat while I cook or wash up. They can’t flip through picture books while I catch up with fictional novel friends. They must hard-core, all-the-time play, because they are little kids.

So they do that. Quite often without me, because I need some built-in time to just hang out, or cook and clean, or some other low-impact (somewhat repetitive, but at least coherent) activity. Like sitting on the playground bench with a book while they learn the ropes (ladders, slides, and swings) by themselves.

As such, I’m a fan of the “free-range parenting” thing, where school-age kids venture outside, sans grown folk, to play in the yard, or maybe even ride a bike around the neighborhood. That sounds to me like normal kid stuff. Assuming, of course, they’re old enough to avoid hazards: obey traffic rules, return on time, contact their parents in case of emergency, not go anywhere with an adult they don’t know — stuff like that. Our kids, aged 2 and 4, are decidedly not yet. Til then, they can “go play” in a more contained fashion.

I need some finger-painting, dancing, and fort-making in my life. And I’m inspired by those Pinterest parents who come up with interesting new ways to play-teach. I go as far as to approvingly “pin” them to my board. But if I’m going to spend all my time organizing and supervising educational activities, I may as well launch an in-home preschool. Then at least I might get some adult company in the form of other parents. Maybe they’d even kick me down some dues. I’d accept craft supplies, cookies, free-range eggs, kombucha, or in fact anything you’ve got fermenting in your pantry, especially if it involves barley and hops.

But until I can figure out where to send the invoice, I’m not regularly going above and beyond “Go play!” anytime soon. Why? Mainly ‘cuz I don’t wanna.

“Go play!” was once a universal parent mantra. And though it may now sound to some like irresponsible, low-down slackery, you don’t have to look far to justify this approach. Educational researchers regularly publish academic versions of “go play!” Like these Canadian researchers who point to apparent health benefits for fifth- and sixth-graders who often played outside unsupervised. Or this psychology professor whose research suggests that the current lack of unstructured, self-directed play in early life is contributing significantly to a mental health crisis among older kids. Or these results consistently showing that although kindergartens in Finland don’t teach reading yet, Finnish school kids test in at higher literacy levels than us race-to-read Americans. (Know what 5-year-olds do in Finland? Go play.) Turns out, even homework might be bad for our elementary-schoolers.

Hell, maybe I should start up a home school. Not to spend more time teaching my kids, but to give them more time to teach themselves. Not by sitting still, learning set, abstract answers, but by helping me plant tomatoes and sort the laundry. And then going away to chase bugs or something until story time.

I hear you if you don’t want your kids roving free like so many kiddie desperados. That’s reasonable. They’re small. Hazards abound. And I promise not to judge you if you don’t join me on the playground bench because (like my husband), you’d rather actually play with, and yes, sometimes help, your kids there. And I understand signing them up for lots of classes, because it’s probably fun for them, develops their bodies and minds somehow, and either way, it anyway gives you a break for 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, I happen to believe in consciously not minding the kids from time to time. There are a lot of voices out there saying it: when we structure every moment of their time, help them with every ladder and slide, and start academic evaluations in pre-K, we might be hindering their confidence, their creativity, and their critical thinking skills.

And for someone like me, who would have to put an unnatural strain of effort, deep belly breaths, and coffee consumption (not to mention gripes) into hovering around, worrying about, and directing my kids — that is one huge relief.

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