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Take Our Children to the Park?

May 11, 2010

Free Range Kids author Lenore Skenazy has announced the 22nd of May as “Take Our Children to the Park… And Leave Them There Day.” She explains it’s “Just that. If our goal is to get kids back outside (it is), and playing together (it is), and for parents to relax (it is), and to start creating community again (it sure is!!!), then “Take Our Children to the Park… And Leave Them There Day” is a great first step.”

Motherlode (the New York Times “Adventures in Parenting” blog) repeated Lenore’s idea and threw out the questions “Do you allow your kids to stay at the playground by themselves? Is Skenazy onto something or out of her mind?” for comment and 102 did.

I read through the comments with great interest and there is something hidden within the debate. It’s implicit but never mentioned directly.

Geography.

Actually, Mark Klein from Oakland kicked things off by inferring to it by saying “Clearly the decision depends on the quality of the neighborhood” and despite numerous references to people’s personal histories (“sounds like something that happened in the 50s when my parents were growing up” and “in the 70s, the spheres of “adult” and “child” were very separate” and “I used to play quite a bit in the 80’s without parental supervision”…) it is geography which is silently used and simultaneously overlooked the most.

Cast your eyes over this Wordle word cloud of the comments (109 comments).

Wordle: Leave your Kids at the Playground

Other than words that refer to the kids and parents themselves the next biggest groups of words are types of places (park, neighbourhood, playground, school and home). These are followed by many words relating to position, distance, scale, connection and other geographical concepts (alone, around, go, outside, time). The cloud is littered with geographical terms and references. The only main exception being think and know.

It seams to me that much of the argument against free range kids is based on people ‘thinking they know best’ when much of there beliefs are based on fallacies that have been fertilised by sections of the media. Yes horrible things happen to children, but unreasonably restricting their freedoms actually harms and not protects them in the long run.

Many parents already have a very strong knowledge and understanding of where they live, but this needs to be better. The questions we need to be asking ourselves should not be where do we think is reasonably (un)safe, but where do we know is reasonably (un)safe. And I say (un)safe because often dealing with unsafe places can bring about the greatest benefits.

Every house, parent and child have their own geographies. What we all need to do is become better informed about those geographies (health, crime, pollution and social cohesiveness to name a few) so that we can analyse the facts and make informed choices accordingly.

For my son who is 6 that means that I am happy with him playing out on the street and down through our overgrown back alley. I understand the relative risks in terms of crime levels (I worry more about his mental health if he was stuck indoors) and we are luck enough to live on a no through road so one of the greatest dangers is virtually ruled out. He is aware enough of his own geographies to stay within his limits. Sadly the pedestrian crossing to get to the park is just far enough away from our home that until he is a little older he may just bolt (while showing off to friends) across the road as a short cut. I am aware though that the best way to keep him safe in the long term is to give him plenty of opportunities to negotiate traffic and so he is still getting a daily geography lesson on crossing roads safely.

Geographical thinking needs to be used more explicitly within conversations on risk, free ranging, access to nature and the overall wellbeing of children, parents and their wider communities.

You can buy Lenore’s book from here.

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