The science of parenting: Is it safe to play outside?


In this series, I’m examining the science of parenting. In Part One, we discussed the the importance of the quality - not quantity - of time we spend with our kids. In Part Two, we looked at the science on what types of activities can be considered quality family time. In Part Three, I look at how our children spend their time, our perception of those activities, and what the science actually says. 

Last week, I took the boys to our local park after school. I had just read an editorial making a strong case for free-range parenting. This quote in particular left me wondering if I give my own children enough opportunities to explore.

‘We are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives,’ writes Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College. He argues that this increases ‘the chance that they will suffer from anxiety, depression, and various other mental disorders,’ which have gone up dramatically in recent decades. He sees risky, outside play of children among themselves without adult supervision as a way of learning to control strong emotions like anger and fear.
— Clemens Wergin

So, I decided on that day to let Griffin cross the street from our local neighborhood park and go to the market to buy juice for him and his brother. I gave him $10 and instructed him to watch carefully for cars, be polite and respectful to the cashier, and come back to the park as soon as he was done.

I watched him cross the street with a lump in my throat and loud voices in my head screaming about all the things that could go wrong. He could get hit by a car. He could be approached by a stranger or a predator. He could break something or otherwise wreak havoc in the store. 

The two friends at the park (and even my own husband) were shocked I had let him go. They voiced the fears already marching through my head. 

However, I took a deep breath and reminded them (and myself) that he was mere yards away, that he would be fine, and - most importantly - I try not to make decisions out of fear and teach my children to do the same. 

The pride on that child's face upon his return was a sight to behold and all the confirmation I needed that I had done the right thing. Being trusted with money, helping out his little brother, and showing his mom he could do it was such a big deal to this little kindergartener. 

In fact, he did such a good job. He's also been allowed to play outside alone in our cul-de-sac with two older neighbor boys.

The debate surrounding this type of “free-range” parenting is particularly relevant to the discussions regarding the recent study concluding that quality time with our kids is more important than quantity. Yes, we need time together as a family. 

However, our kids also need time alone - away from parental influence and supervision - to explore, to problem-solve, to learn to control their own lives and emotions. 

Unfortunately, OUR emotions are getting in the way.

In fact, a recent British study found that parents often blame a lack of playgrounds and play areas for the lack of outside play. 

But what’s the real reason?

There appears to be no link between play patterns and play provision; children are no more likely to play outdoors, or play further away from home if there are adequate opportunities provided within their neighbourhood. Rather, the evidence of this paper is that the most significant influence on children’s access to independent play is not the level of public provision of play facilities but parental anxieties about children’s safety and the changing nature of childhood
— Gill Valentine & John McKendrck
Parental. Anxieties.

We are AFRAID. Plain and simple. 

What exactly are we afraid of?

Most parents cite fears about abduction, child predators, and general child safety as reasons for not letting their children play outside alone. 

Recently, I was discussing letting Griffin walk home alone from the bus stop. This is literally .1 miles from my home and that’s if he doesn’t cut through my neighbor's yard. My stepfather exclaimed I couldn’t do that because someone could stake out his schedule and snatch him. 

Y’all. That is insane.

The chances of that happening are about the same as Griffin inventing a hovercraft to fly that .1 mile home and achieving this technological marvel before the end of the school year.

The fact is that this is the safest time to be a child in all of human history.

Child victimization has been in a steady decline for forty years. Based on the crime statistics kept since the 1970s: child sexual abuse is down 53 percent; physical abuse is down 52 percent; aggravated assault is down 69 percent; robbery is down 62 percent; larceny is down 54 percent. 

Thanks to anti-bullying and public education campaigns, bullying has dropped by a third in the last five years. 

The odds of your child actually being kidnapped and murdered stand at about 1.5 million to one.

1.5 million to one.

So, the actual risk of letting your children play outside alone is incredibly low. The irony is the actual BENEFIT of letting your children play outside alone is incredibly HIGH.

Children who play outside have lower rates of obesity. Children exposed to dirt and germs have healthier immune systems. Studies have shown children learn important social skills on the playground and that outside play can reduce stress and the symptoms of ADHD.

It even improves vision!

What is actually dangerous to children?


The number one cause of death for children 1 to 24 is accidents and the number one cause of accidental death is auto accidents. 

In other words, driving your children all over town for carefully monitored and adult-directed play is MORE DANGEROUS than opening your front door and telling them to “Go outside and play!”

This is something I've written about before. The presence of any risk doesn't define a situations as dangerous for kids OR adults. 

In an article entitled "Why Parents Should Stop Overprotecting Kids and Let Then Play," editor at large for Psychology Today Hara Estroff Marano best captures the situation.

 "Risk is an inherent part of life. Success and happiness hinge not on the elimination of risk but on the reasonable management of risk."

I think this might be about more than risk.

I've recently learned through my own struggles with anxiety that the presence of anxiety often means we feel a lack of control. We want to control every aspect of our children's lives. I know I do. The less rational part of my brain tells me if I'm there controlling every aspect of their lives I can keep bad things from happening. 

But you know - and I know - that's absurd. 

Bad things happen and they will happen to our kids - despite our best efforts.  All we can hope for is that we will have prepared them as best we can. We have to TRUST that they can make good decisions and give them the opportunity to try within reasonable boundaries. We have to say, "I know it's scary but I know you can do it."

We have to open the door wide and let them go outside and play.  

Do you let your children play outside alone? Did you play outside alone as a kid?